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Taking an idea from lab to market is more marathon than sprint. Dr Damian Gardiner reflects on the 8 years he invested in developing liquid crystal inks to help fight fraud, and how the EPSRC IAA Follow-on Fund helped him cross the finishing line.

From fake pharmaceuticals and bank notes to clothes and electronics, counterfeiting is big business. And as fast as banks and businesses develop ways to protect their goods, counterfeiters find ways to outwit them. “It’s an arms race,” says Dr Damian Gardiner. “Criminals can now buy the same machines that brands use to make authentication holograms.”

Eight years ago, as a post-doc in the Centre of Molecular Materials for Photonics and Electronics (CMMPE) in the Department of Engineering, he worked on liquid crystals and together with colleagues came up with a promising idea to make printable lasers using liquid crystals and inkjet printing.

“Liquid crystals are interesting materials because they are self-organising, so instead of making devices using expensive equipment, you can use liquid crystals to build themselves into something useful,” he explains. After looking at lots of new applications for liquid crystals, CMMPE began a five-year interdisciplinary project funded by the EPRSC – COSMOS – focussed on using them to make new laser sources.

He developed the idea with the Institute for Manufacturing's Inkjet Research Centre (IRC). “We brought our material and they had the inkjet printing expertise. Together we realised that we could print these liquid crystal lasers,” Gardiner says. What transformed some cool science into a promising commercial proposition, however, was the realisation that it offered a more robust defence against counterfeiting.

“Businesses need a technology that offers multiple levels of protection or authentication, from the forensic to something the public can see. We can do that, which is what makes our technology so interesting,” he explains. “Inkjet printing is a variable information process – every time you print it's unique – so combining the two is our unique selling point.”

While thinking about where this technology could best be used, Gardiner was awarded a Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE) Enterprise Fellowship in 2013. The fellowship provided the funding, training and – most importantly the mentoring and networking – that enabled him to work on commercialising his research. “It's fine as academics to be led by blue-sky thinking but if you're interested in commercialisation, you must take your idea out of the lab and talk to as many people as possible if you want to find a market,” he says.

The fellowship also gave him time and space to form a spin-out, ilumink, and in 2014 he successfully applied to the EPSRC IAA Follow-on Fund. Gardiner used the funding to employ a six-month full-time research assistant in the IRC. “It took the pressure off technically, which allowed me to get out and ensure that what we were doing was useful. That's essential, because I can't think of a technology that's not been changed en route from the lab to market. It's combining good technology with addressing a real need,” he says.

As well at the Follow-on Fund, Gardiner found Cambridge's start-up culture particularly helpful. “The Research Office was great and so was the IfM's i-Teams programme. Professor Tim Wilkinson and Professor Harry Coles in Engineering and the IRC's Professor Ian Hutchings and Dr Wen-Kai Hsiao were very supportive. And Dr Dick Whittington, my RAE mentor, was fantastic,” he says. “In fact the whole Cambridge ecosystem is wonderful; it's the best place in the UK – if not Europe – to start a company.”

Six months later, ilumink won its first customer and Gardiner began talking to Tracerco, a world leader in developing specialised detection, diagnostic and measurement solutions, which acquired Ilumink in 2015. “At that point the technology wasn't market ready, so the extra resource that a larger company could provide was the best way to make it a reality,” he says.

It's taken several years and much hard work but for Gardiner, the challenges have been worth it. “Being part of a start up is and something new is really exciting. But you cannot underestimate the challenge of taking a product to market,” he says. “In the lab, you can have an idea and test it relatively quickly; turning that into a commercial reality is really tough.”

It also allowed him to apply his research in a way that had a tangible impact. “As an academic I was always thinking about how my ideas could be useful to people,” he concludes. “It's important to do the science, and publish your research, but making it a reality – making a difference – that's what matters most to me.”

Gardiner is now looking to his next venture – building on the skills and experience gained through ilumink. The Enterprise Fellowship and the IAA Follow-on-Fund have allowed him to take his career in a completely different direction – technology entrepreneurship – to the original academic route.