Joint problem solving

Professor Oscar Ces and Drs Nick Jones and Billy Wu – some of the brains behind the – explore how a space for invention has a message for everyone.

Using innovation as a route for engaging stakeholders seems like a no-brainer if you work at a university. But if you have no budget, no access to equipment, or your business idea is tangential to your day job, then the process of developing your idea can be quite frustrating.

A few years ago, we asked ourselves what would happen if a university like Imperial gave an equal means of developing ideas to everyone: students, researchers, administrative staff, corporate partners, local businesses and members of the community. Could we activate a dormant population of inventors, and offer new ways of interacting with the College? Could we even inspire a new generation of entrepreneurs, create new companies, or trigger new avenues of research?

Turning ideas into reality

So it was that in 2014 we established the Imperial College Advanced Hackspace (ICAH). With funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), we set out to provide a community-operated venture with free access to a network of workshops, laboratories, co-location spaces, world-class prototyping equipment, training and experts.

Across its spaces ICAH would support “making” in its broadest sense, from synthetic biology to molecular fabrication, microfluidics, additive manufacturing, robotics and automation, electronics, metal work, woodwork and textiles. All users had to do was to bring their ideas and pay for their consumables. We would take care of the rest.

Democratic multidisciplinarity

In just over four years, the ICAH community has become a multi-disciplinary serendipity machine, convening a community of like-minded hackers, experimentalists, inventors, designers and entrepreneurs from across Imperial.

It’s a place where people with common interests in exploration, device prototyping, med tech, computers, machining, automated synthesis, synthetic biology, digital art, robotic and diagnostics can meet, socialise and collaborate.

It has become a home for democratised research, invention and innovation, where status is irrelevant, and the only thing that counts is your desire to make things happen and help others in their endeavours. Some people use ICAH to enhance the pace of their research, whilst others want to validate an idea, help solve a business challenge, or generate minimal viable products.

ICAH originals

  • The Polyfloss Factory: a new recycling process based on the principle of candy-floss machines, to transform thermoplastics into wool for insulation, packaging, garments or product design.
  • Supersilk: feeding graphene to silk worms creates a new, strong, conductive, sustainable material that could be woven into maternity clothing to incorporate sensors for monitoring blood pressure and baby movements.
  • Bladebug: a multi-legged, walking robot for maintaining wind turbine blades, maximising their lifespan and reducing the need for humans to undertake risky abseiling inspections.
  • 3D printed ceramics: a new ceramic printer creates intricate 3D internal structures and surface patterns that can be used to alter the mechanical properties of materials.
  • Gyrogear: an Imperial startup company developing a device to stabilise the hands of people with tremors developed its first prototypes in ICAH

New ways of working with industry

ICAH also has lots to offer new and established businesses that are moving towards more collaborative, leaner innovation models. It is tailor-made for commercial partners to collaborate with College staff, students and alumni to rapidly convert research ideas into breakthrough prototype solutions. It has also become a place where companies come to recruit the brightest minds. If you want to meet global thinkers, change makers, value creators, you will find them at ICAH.

Hackathons provide companies with a specific way to find both ideas and people, by harnessing the ICAH community to develop solutions for defined industrial challenges via a scale-fast, fail-fast framework. At ICAH we convene the best hackers for a brief and organise them into skill-complementing teams. They come along for the opening night, the company pitches a challenge, and then everyone gets cracking, with ideas being validated and transformed into working prototypes in just days.

Moving forwards

When we established ICAH in 2014, it was an experiment with just two ideation and hackspaces on the South Kensington Campus. In 2017, ICAH extended its capabilities with a new bespoke facility in the Invention Rooms at White City. It is now more closely aligned to Imperial’s wider entrepreneurial ecosystem, with stronger links to the Enterprise Lab and White City Incubator. The ICAH network of spaces is set to grow, as we continue to offer anyone in our networks their ticket to travel from idea to commercialisation.

A version of this article was first published on the EPSRC blog, November 2018.

Imperial College Advanced Hackspace