Industry 4.0 and entrepreneurship: the past, present and future of the ICB


A demonstration held during the two-day ICB CDT symposium.

Past and present Directors of the Institute of Chemical Biology discussed the future for multidisciplinary research after 20 years of the ICB.

The Institute of Chemical Biology (ICB) and its Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) celebrated their 20th anniversary with a two-day event that included research talks on cutting-edge chemical biology, panel discussions, networking events, poster sessions, a technology showcase and the grand finale of the ICB CDT’s Dragons’ Den competition.

In a panel discussion, past and present ICB and CDT Directors unveiled the history, current state and future of chemical biology.

Past and present Institute of Chemical Biology (ICB) Directors discussed the history of the ICB, as well as its future strategy.

Originally founded as the Chemical Biology Centre by panellists Professors David Klug and Richard Templer, the ICB CDT has trained over 380 PhD students and brings together researchers from over 165 research groups and 20 different Centres and Departments.

Throughout its history, the ICB has tackled research both in fundamental and translational science addressing multidisciplinary challenges in the agriscience, biotechnology, healthcare, personal care and pharmaceutical sectors.

The panel discussion featured: ICB co-founders and former ICB-CDT Directors Professors Richard Templer and David Klug; former ICB and CDT Director Professor Oscar Ces; current ICB Director Professor Ramon Vilar and ICB-CDT Director Dr Laura Barter; and the first ICB-CDT student: Professor Xavier Mulet.

A history of multidisciplinarity and network science

In 2003, Professors Templer and Klug established the ICB and its CDT, and it has subsequently developed into a world-leading centre for research and training in Chemical Biology.

“There was a frustration in the sense that there were so many barriers preventing people from different disciplines working together,” said Professor Klug, “Those barriers were of the cultural-intellectual sort as well as the administrative sort. One group who saw opportunity rather than problems were the PhD students, who embraced our ideas with great energy and enthusiasm."

Based at White City, the Institute of Chemical Biology has access to cutting-edge research facilities such as the Molecular Sciences Research Hub.

Motivated by fundamental science questions that lay at the interface between physical and biological science led to the founding of a multidisciplinary research institute and doctoral training programme.

“The first five years were spent building a multidisciplinary community of scientists. The students acted as connective tissue between collaborating research teams and the events we held off campus generated a shared strategic direction for the Centre, the science it would do and how it would be done,” said Professor Templer.

Suddenly leading players in pharma and biotech, who believed in this new way of working, were embedding themselves at the heart of the ICB. Professor Oscar Ces Department of Chemistry

The centre not only sought to drive connectivity within the academic community but also between researchers and industry, breaking down traditional barriers to collaboration along the way. “Suddenly leading players in pharma and biotech, who believed in this new way of working, were embedding themselves at the heart of the ICB. They seeded it with exciting challenges that could only be tackled with multidisciplinary approaches,” said Professor Ces.

The ability to employ approaches and methodologies from multiple disciplines allowed the ICB to make impactful contributions to industry-relevant research themes like drug discovery, the personal care and agriscience sectors.

‘Lab of the Future’

“The ICB throughout its history has always engaged with end users to ensure that our training equips students with the right skills to meet roles within academia and industry,” said Dr Barter.

The panel discussed how the current scientific landscape not only requires doctoral students to be able to collaborate across traditional disciplines, but also to be equipped with a broader innovation-oriented skillset.

“The challenges the students in our CDT face require them to develop a novel molecular tool or technology from first principles because the state-of-the-art cannot address these challenges. The projects they address are not based on simply using commercially available platforms and crank handle approaches,” Professor Ces said.

Dr Barter says that the CDT will also work towards equipping students to embrace a ‘lab of the future platforms’, which includes knowledge of machine learning and data engineering as well as industry 4.0/5.0 breakthroughs in robotics and automation.

We’ve always wanted to stay ahead of the game, so that we can equip our students with the language, knowledge and skills to enable them to develop state of the art solutions... Dr Laura Barter Department of Chemistry

“We’ve always wanted to stay ahead of the game, so that we can equip our students with the language, knowledge and skills to enable them to develop state of the art solutions to tackle the big challenges faced by society today,” she said.

The ICB CDT also encourages students to pursue entrepreneurship. “Many of our students, like the ones who took part in our CDT Dragons’ Den competition, are interested in spinning out their own companies or going to work for SMEs. The training that we give our students in innovation, prototyping and business, is a skilset that is very much in demand,” says Dr Barter.

“When we ran the first CDT Den nearly 15 years ago it was an outlier in Imperial. Supporting students in early stage commercialisation and entrepreneurial activities was considered a risky venture,” said Professor Ces, who created the ICB CDT Den.

“But it proved to be big success and it’s been so exciting to see how initiatives such as the Venture Catalyst Challenge and Imperial Enterprise followed years later,” he said.

While the ICB is a virtual institute, its centre of gravity has shifted towards the White City Innovation District, which Professor Ces calls a “serendipity engine”. “The central ethos of the ICB, which is based upon networked science approaches and working closely with industry, has percolated its way through the community and its buildings,” he said.

Professor Vilar said: “This networked approach that the ICB and its CDT take, will continue to deliver cutting-edge research in the interface between the physical and life sciences, and its translation into a broad range of applications. Many of the biggest challenges our society will face in the years to come – from fighting disease to feeding the world – will need the multidisciplinary approach taken by the ICB.”


Jacklin Kwan

Jacklin Kwan
Faculty of Natural Sciences


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