Many of us wonder when our societies and economies will return to a degree of normality. What will various sectors look like in a world where further coronavirus outbreaks are a very real threat? Will there be lasting changes to industry and business? What about healthcare, education and research? Even government itself?
These are open-ended questions to which we are still formulating answers. But one thing the crisis has shown us is that these different sectors can work together collaboratively to come up with innovative solutions to pressing problems to bring benefits across all segments of society.
For example, personal genomics company DnaNudge, based at White City and led by Imperial’s Professor Chris Toumazou, worked with frontline clinicians to develop a rapid, point-of-care COVID-19 test.
After successful patient trials in April it was approved by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). The Department of Health and Social Care has ordered 5.8 million of these high-speed DnaNudge COVID-19 test kits to be used in NHS hospitals from September.
During the crisis we’ve also seen pharmaceutical companies sharing knowledge and data with each other and with public researchers on a scale not seen before. Among firms leading this new wave of collaboration is Novartis – whose UK headquarters is at White City, amongst a growing life sciences cluster.
“The industry is truly coming together on this. We’re galvanizing our collective innovation power and global footprint to end this pandemic as quickly as possible,” says Novartis CEO Vas Narasimhan.
“Coronavirus has shown us the agility, creativity and innovative thinking of our world-leading institutions, scientists and researchers to tackle this disease and save people’s lives. We want to harness this expertise to rejuvenate science and research across the UK, building a future that is greener, safer and healthier.
The UK government’s R&D Roadmap, published in July 2020, calls on industry, research organisations and local authorities to drive collaboration to “boost productivity, improve public services, create high-quality jobs and deliver economic and societal benefits to communities across the UK”.
Carrying the momentum of collaboration
How do we ensure that the sort of collaborative innovation we’ve seen during the crisis continues to happen going forward – and crucially that all parts of our society take a stake in the process and derive benefit from the outcomes?
Part of the answer may lie in creating innovation districts that are embedded within the communities which they aim to serve – engaging members of that community in meaningful ways as well as drawing in businesses, local government, startups and SMEs; and university research groups.
For several years Imperial has served as an anchor institute in an exciting new innovation district at White City, encompassing the White City Opportunity Area and Imperial’s own White City Campus. There are also strong links with nearby Hammersmith Hospital (run by Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust) and Imperial’s Hammersmith Campus.
A place-based approach
What does being an anchor institution mean in practice when creating an innovation district? A deep, strategic relationship with local government is certainly a key foundation stone, and something Imperial has been developing with Hammersmith and Fulham over a number of years.
In pursuing a local industrial strategy – called Economic Growth for Everyone – Hammersmith and Fulham Council has worked closely with Imperial, forming a Partnership for Growth and Innovation. One outcome of the partnership has been the ‘Upstream’ initiative which delivers targeted interventions and events that connect academia, innovators, entrepreneurs and corporates, allowing them to collaborate. Ultimately, the vision is to transform the borough into a global beacon of innovation and inclusive growth.
Following the pandemic, Upstream pioneered a switch to online networking, with the ‘Deep Tech Network’ encouraging the growth of a digital innovation community amongst White City-based startups, industry and academia. The first virtual event took place in June and attracted people from further afield in Europe and Asia, demonstrating a key benefit of virtual networking.
Fundamentally, this approach is different to the numerous initiatives like Enterprise Zones, Business Improvement Districts and various forms of clusters and research parks, which have had mixed success in the UK.
As a leading research-intensive university, Imperial has extensive experience of assembling various health, industry, and government partners on collaborative projects; which it is now applying on a broader canvas at White City, taking on stewardship role to spearhead place-based innovation and convene people and networks.
It is no accident that the global hubs of innovation are located in proximity to deep scientific capabilities and the universities that underpin them. Universities provide a never-ending flow of high-quality, independent ideas, activated by their talent and facilities
Towards inclusive innovation
Historically, independent research, experimentation and innovation have been the preserve of academic staff with access to grant funding, or spinout companies with significant backing.
A number of years ago, Imperial made the decision to actively open up the innovation space – noting that this highly creative process greatly benefits from a diversity of thinking and approach.
Initially this focused on one of the most diverse groups within Imperial, the student community. An outdated view of universities is that academics teach and carry out research, while students are taught. But that is increasingly being challenged.
One initiative that has proved to be transformative is the Imperial College Advanced Hackspace (ICAHS). Now based at White City, ICAHS aims to create a diverse community of creative people and makers who are empowered to fulfil the potential of their ideas and even change society through innovation. This is done through the provision of dedicated workshop facilities, networking events, ‘hackathons and ‘maker challenge’ competitions, technique tutorials and extracurricular taught modules.
The Invention Rooms at White City contains the largest node of ICAHS, which for the first time gave all members of the hacking community access to purpose-built facilities, including a cutting-edge workshop with 3D printing and digital manufacturing, woodwork and metalwork, and a bio-lab for synthetic biology and molecular fabrication.
During the height of the pandemic, volunteers from ICAHS partnered with Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust to rapidly produce PPE for healthcare workers. An entire floor of Imperial’s I-HUB in White City was converted to assemble more than 50,000 disposable visors, which are supporting Trust staff on the front lines of the coronavirus crisis. The project was supported by Imperial’s donor-backed COVID-19 Response Fund.
This space also provided greater scope and opportunities for Imperial’s external collaborators in industry and the third sector to get involved in events and innovation activities – one example being a Hackathon which ran at White City with BP and Amazon.
Crucially, the Invention Rooms also contains a Reach Out Makerspace, where local school children in White City can get involved in making and innovating, and where local community members can attend courses and programmes to develop their science and tech skills.
The fact that the ICAHS is co-located with the Reach Out Makerspace gives Imperial students a unique perspective on how innovation can have a transformative impact on local communities. Indeed, Invention Rooms Associate Ahreum Jung acts as a bridge between the Makerspace and Hackspace, in order to identify opportunities for synergies.
We’re very keen to involve the community surrounding our new campus. The community cohesion that has been developed through engagement programmes, such as those at the Invention Rooms, has been truly magical and inspirational to watch. Imperial is adapting to the changes in our society and are creating districts to support that change.
One community initiative that has proved enormously successful is the Maker Challenge Programme. This allows 14 to 18 year-old students from schools local to White City to develop their own prototypes and gadgets at the Invention Rooms. Students take part in weekly sessions where they gain a range of skills from hands-on use of 3D printers and laser cutters, to product development, team-building, and presentation and communication skills to help turn their innovative ideas into reality. These skills are then put to the test as each project group assembles a prototype ahead of the final showcase event.
It’s not just young people either. Agents of Change is a pioneering place-based community leadership network for women who have an active interest in driving social change in the north of Hammersmith and Fulham. The aim of the network is to support, empower and connect female community leaders of all ages, sectors and backgrounds to drive positive social change.
“Agents of Change provides opportunities for personal growth, business development, and gaining new insights. It is the ideal programme to go on to do better for yourself and better for others.” - Carol Fraser, vegan nutritionist and entrepreneur.
Responding to a crisis together
In many ways Imperial has been on a journey together with the local community in recent years, engaging in the different ways described above. Having these foundations and numerous links already in place proved immensely valuable as an unprecedented crisis hit in the form of the coronavirus pandemic.
"In White City what we’ve tried to do is make sure that local people feel informed. We can help inform them, we can help interpret the sometimes complicated messages and information that’s put out there on coronavirus, and we can continue to support them as we do normally in the scientific discovery space", Professor Maggie Dallman says.
For example, Imperial’s teams have partnered with the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham’s Family Assist team to identify 241 children who would most benefit from receiving their own ‘Science Backpack’ during the lockdown. Four different backpacks were designed to engage children aged from 6 to 16 years old and contain science-inspired activities that can be easily done from home, with all equipment provided.
The Science Backpacks were made possible through financial support from Novartis (based at White City) and the Mohn Westlake Foundation. Importantly, recipients of the Science Backpacks have also been invited to The Invention Rooms for dedicated ‘making sessions’ once the UK coronavirus restrictions make it safe and feasible.
In recent years Imperial’s ‘What the Tech!?’ weekly drop-in sessions have proved particularly successful in providing free tech support and advice for elderly residents. Again, this has proved critical at a time when online activities have added importance.
Helping the elderly to stay connected through technology during COVID-19 has been a heart-warming experience and has opened my eyes to the many things we take for granted in today's society.
Feedback from participants has shown that the sessions are useful to stay connected with friends and family and accessing services online, but also show that residents have appreciated the opportunity to speak to someone and share their worries around coronavirus.
Josie, a local White City resident, was having difficulties making online payments. Thanks to Neema, she has been able to manage her finances online: “In the beginning I was not very good, I was struggling to pay my bill online and Neema helped me to sort this, that’s how it started. We talk now as friends and she is really lovely.”
Indeed, since lockdown, Imperial staff and students have continued to provide vital support to the local community, whether through delivering surplus food to local food banks and community projects, or supporting Queen’s Park Rangers Community Trust to digitise their exercise classes for older residents to keep active at home.
Responding to emerging challenges
The SME community has been particularly affected during the pandemic; but it will also prove instrumental in the recovery. These companies tend to be agile, innovative and able to pivot in response to crises and emerging challenges.
Indeed since 2010, there has been a 30% growth in the number of businesses in West London, with close to 113,000 operating in 2018 – significantly higher than the growth in businesses in England overall (22%). Of these businesses, more than nine in ten (91.7%) were micro businesses, with less than 10 people.
In Hammersmith and Fulham and Kensington and Chelsea, which the White City Innovation District straddles, the period between 2010 and 2018 saw an increase in the share of businesses taken by those in the information and communication, professional, scientific and technical sectors.
One example is MediSieve, based at the White City Incubator in the I-HUB. The company has pioneered a revolutionary new method for treating blood-borne diseases by removing pathogens directly from a patient's bloodstream using nano-scale magnets. MediSieve’s technology circulates a patient’s blood outside their body, similar to a dialysis blood loop, in order to capture and remove specific disease-causing agents. Recently, they have been exploring ways of using their technology in the treatment of coronavirus.
Companies like MediSieve will provide the bedrock for driving economic growth and jobs locally and nationally.
A recent independent report by WPI Economics on White City and Imperial highlighted how important it is that innovation districts accommodate organisations at different stages of their growth and development. This ensures that businesses born in White City, stay in White City, and draw others in, in a virtuous cycle.
A business might begin life as an idea in the Advanced Hackspace at The Invention Rooms, with the making of a prototype. Once a business plan is developed, the start-up might move to the Incubator and, with more progress, attract capital to be able to grow the idea. Once it becomes more successful, it will need more space and more staff, meaning that a move to Scale Space or the I-HUB might be appropriate.
For example in 2015, three Imperial PhD students came up with an idea for an affordable test for surface contamination with a simple colour changing spray. They were able to develop and iterate their prototypes at the Advanced Hackspace, which was pivotal in helping to secure investment and take their product to market. Their company Fresh Check is currently in bespoke lab space at the White City Incubator in the I-HUB. Originally targeted at the food industry, the FreshCheck spray is now receiving interest from a broader range of industries who are looking to ensure general hygiene during the pandemic.
Location is key for a small company like us. By their very nature startups can be agile and think on their feet but they also need the right environment and space to be able do this. Since we’ve been at the Incubator we’ve managed to get the support, flexibility and networking opportunities when and where we need it which has been very helpful
As well as supporting businesses to grow at each stage of their development, this ecosystem stimulates a steady flow of businesses through the various stages, meaning that as one business grows, they open up space for the next entrepreneur looking to develop a new idea.
The innovation district at White City will grow in an important new direction in 2020, following the opening of Scale Space – a joint venture between Imperial and digital venture builder Blenheim Chalcot - offering tailor-made space for high-growth businesses. Crucially it is the UK’s first community created specifically to help innovative businesses accelerate growth.
Early next year, Imperial College Business School will open a purpose-built facility in Scale Space dedicated to teaching and research, providing students with the opportunity to forge connections with the wider White City ecosystem.
Driving cutting edge research
Underpinning the broader innovation ecosystem described above, Imperial continues to pursue the fundamental research which it is perhaps best known for. At the White City Campus this is characterised by multidisciplinary collaboration – which is embedded in the very fabric of the buildings and lab spaces. The work that takes place here will provide the backbone of the technologies and industries of the next 50 years – whether that’s quantum computing and cryptography, synthetic biology, artificial intelligence and deep learning or regenerative medicine.
In 2018 the Molecular Sciences Research Hub (MSRH) opened at White City, providing a new home for Imperial’s Department of Chemistry. Designed to encourage collaborative scientific working, it brings together nearly 800 scientists, clinicians, engineers and business partners under one roof to work together in a way that they have never been able to before.
Based within the MSRH, the Centre for Rapid Online Analysis of Reactions (ROAR) is the first national centre for the study of reactions, focusing on data-centric chemistry. Finding the right way to synthesise new molecules with desired properties, such as potential medical drugs or novel materials, can take a long time, sometimes years. With the aim of making the synthesis of any desired molecule ‘as easy as dialling a number,’ ROAR will tackle this by automating chemical process and creating a wealth of data about the synthesis steps involved in creating a new molecule.
Right next to the MSRH, another innovative research and innovation facility opened in 2020. The Sir Michael Uren Hub brings together engineers, clinicians and scientists to develop new and affordable medical technologies. They will combine the latest medical research and engineering to improve the treatment and diagnosis of diverse medical conditions, from finding ways to cure dementia to creating bionic limbs.
The Sir Michael Uren Hub will host the UK Dementia Research Institute (UK DRI) Care Research & Technology Centre. Here scientists, engineers and doctors will investigate technologies that can be integrated into a person’s home – from artificial intelligence and robotics to sleep monitoring. The ultimate goal is to enable people with dementia to live safely and independently for longer in their own homes.
Ensuring healthy communities locally and globally
Researchers from Imperial’s School of Public Health have been at the forefront of the global response to the coronavirus pandemic. The advanced epidemiological modelling they have provided has helped to guide government policy in the UK, US and lower and middle income countries around the world. It has helped to save many thousands of lives. As part of Imperial's response to coronavirus, teams have also been exploring people’s views, experiences and behavioural responses to the outbreak in the UK and elsewhere. They have launched an online community involvement initiative to gather insight from members of the public, aiming to establish a network for ongoing community engagement.
In 2023, the School of Public Health will move to White City. The new multidisciplinary hub will provide collaborative, flexible, and interactive spaces for the College’s world-leading academics, talented students, and outstanding community engagement with the local White City community. With a focus on intervention and prevention, the School will harness the power of data and technology to understand trends in population health and bring health innovations to those who need it most.
From this base at White City, Imperial’s teams of researchers will have an even stronger footing to respond to pressing public health challenges, including new emergent infectious diseases, air pollution and antimicrobial resistance.
The future of collaborative innovation
Clearly the new reality of life and work with coronavirus presents challenges in terms of place-based innovation and discovery. But these activities must resume to secure our future and we have to make better use of the precious opportunities when we can meet, convene and collaborate to the greatest effect and be more strategic about our interactions.
The rapid adaptation to new ways of working as a consequence of the pandemic has also opened an opportunity on which we can now capitalise: the ability to work across physical and virtual environments in a seamless way.
The White City Innovation District continues to grow and evolve as all stakeholders pool their collective experiences and learnings from working together in order to forge a path forward.
But what is very clear is that innovation districts must adapt and embrace the challenges posed by coronavirus and continue to choreograph collaboration and knowledge exchange in a more pragmatic way.
Giving universities and their local partners a greater mandate to drive inclusive growth at a local level could create an extended network that will make our societies and economies more resilient to future challenges.
Indeed, the research and innovation taking place at White City strengthens the ability of Imperial to work with partners across the UK to create growth and jobs in all regions and nations.
A new interactive map highlights how our work with academia, industry and community partners drives economic growth, uplifts skills and improves health outcomes across the UK. It also demonstrates how our discoveries and inventions are solving key challenges and advancing technologies that underpin our vital public services and industries.