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For most academics the thrill of research comes from problem solving. But faced with serious shortcomings in his lab equipment, Professor Tuomas Knowles turned an idea for a new solution into a new business – with help from the EPSRC IAA Follow-on Fund.

In the Department of Chemistry and the Cavendish Laboratory, Knowles works on proteins, the fiendishly complex molecules whose behaviour underpins much of what goes on in our bodies. He's particularly interested in how proteins unite to form functional complexes and how, when this goes wrong, severe diseases can result. “It's protein science beyond the molecule,” he explains, “not the conventional science of protein folding, but how they fit together into the machinery that drives the cell.”

Finding out more about protein binding in real time could enable doctors to diagnose diseases much earlier than is currently possible, leading to more timely and effective treatment. But because proteins are dynamic as well as structurally complex, studying them is a major challenge.

It's typically done by electrophoresis, embedding proteins in a gel matrix and applying an electric field, and although this is a tried and tested technique used by thousands of labs every day, for Knowles it's not ideal. “Running gels is time consuming and for dynamic complexes that are forming and reforming, embedding the molecules in a gel is unhelpful,” he says.

Knowles wanted to find a better way of studying protein complexes so instead of gels, he decided that downsizing could be the answer. “It's a simple idea,” he recalls. “The gel is there to prevent mixing, but another way of doing that is simply to use very small volumes. So we decided to explore whether or not we could make this into a practical approach for characterising protein self-assembly.”

Having stumbled on a promising new technique, he talked to colleagues and Cambridge Enterprise and was met with huge enthusiasm. The major stumbling block, however, was finding an instrument manufacturer capable of making what he needed. Eventually he gave up – and decided to do it himself.

“Manufacturers said the scale we required was too small for them to make,” says Knowles, who successfully applied to the EPSRC IAA Follow-on Fund in 2013. The funding allowed him to retain a key post-doc and work with engineering consultancies to find a way of turning his lab-scale technology into an instrument.

“What was interesting about the Follow-on Fund was that it was a first stepping stone to getting significantly more support for translational research,” he say. “We've now secured that support – but it wouldn't have been possible without the work that the Follow-on Fund enabled.” Later the same year Knowles spun out Fluidic Analytics and has since won two TSB Smart Awards and raised more than £6.3m in venture capital funding.

Today, the company employs 20 staff and has sold its first instrument, but as well as a brilliant idea, Knowles knows he has others to thank for its successful commercialisation. Together with Cambridge Enterprise, the enthusiasm of his academic collaborators (including Professor Chris Dobson and Professor Michele Vendruscolo) and former Cambridge Judge Business School Entrepreneur-in-residence Andrew Lynn (now CEO of Fluidic Analytics) were hugely helpful.

And despite being poles apart from academic research, Knowles has found commercialisation both interesting and exciting. “If you do lab-scale experiments, most of the time they shouldn't work because you're exploring new ground. If they do work all the time, you're probably not pushing the boundaries enough,” he says. “Trying to develop a commercial product works the other way round – it needs to work almost all the time, so it's a very different set of technologies, mindset and mix of people.”

It's also a rich seam of new scientific questions. “Many applied problems are actually amazing sources of fundamental science,” he concludes, “so we've started doing lots of interesting fundamental science which we would never have done without our experience of commercialisation.”