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Red carpet physics

Sir Peter Knight

IOP president, Sir Peter Knight. (Courtesy: IOP/Mark Earthy)

By Tushna Commissariat

Yesterday, I was in London attending the annual awards dinner of the Institute of Physics (IOP), which publishes Physics World, as well as the first ever IOP Innovation Awards, held earlier in the afternoon. It proved to be an exciting and jam-packed day to say in the least.

The IOP Innovation Awards have been set up to recognize and celebrate businesses from the UK and Ireland that have achieved significant commercial success by finding a niche in the market and developing physics-based applications to fill it. This year, the four inaugural awards went to a wide range of products.

All afternoon long, the Innovation Awards room was full to the brim with scientists, developers, students and recruiters keen on finding out what the companies did and the products they had to offer. In fact, the room was so busy that IOP president, Sir Peter Kinght, who came along to address the ceremony, found it hard to make his way to each event desk and promised a larger space for next year’s meet. He was keen to show the world the “vibrancy of investment in the technology” the various companies had developed. “Physics is not just about cosmology or particle physics – that’s great too – but it’s about making a difference in the world,” he told visitors. Knight finished by promising that next year, the Innovation Awards would be “bigger and better”.

Attendees at the Innovation Awards

Visitors at the Innovation Awards. (Courtesy: IOP/Mark Earthy)

One winner was a small, noiseless, high-volume pump that has many applications in medical devices, developed by Technology Partnership, based at the Melbourn Science Park in Hertfordshire. The tiny pump runs at 20 kHz and is already being used for wound therapy devices and in an electronic atomizer that is used for more efficient drug delivery. The device has only been on the market for 18 months, but has already earned the company more than £1m in additional revenue.

Another award went to Canterbury-based Naneum, which has developed a portable and easy-to-operate particle monitor to detect and identify nanoparticles pollutants, with applications in environmental monitoring, occupational health and atmospheric physics. The company was keen to develop a device that was easy to transport and could be used by any engineer, rather than someone trained to specifically do so. The device – the Nano-ID NPS 500 – is forecast to earn the company more than £1.5m over the next two years.

“Personal confocal” is how the next award winner, Aurox, describes its microscope attachment that lets researchers take 3D high-resolution images without the costs of investing in a confocal laser scanning microscope. Spun out from the University of Oxford, the firm has now partnered with Andor and Carl Zeiss to develop the Viva Tome imaging system. Having developed the new technology three years ago, it has already earned the company almost £1m in additional revenue. Aurox also won a Queen’s Award for Enterprise in Innovation earlier this year.

Samples of ZBD's e-paper

Some of ZBD’s e-paper supermarket labelling. (Courtesy: Physics World/Tushna Commissariat)

The final company to be lauded was ZBD Solutions, which has spent the past 12 years perfecting a novel e-paper display that makes shelf-edge labelling easier. The Malvern-based company was spun out from the liquid-crystal research centre at DERA, formerly the UK Ministry of Defence’s research arm. The current avatar of their e-paper (pictured above) was developed four years ago and has created 62 jobs and earned the company an additional £20m. ZBD Solutions was ranked 5th on this year’s Sunday Times Hiscox Tech Track 100 league table.

The IOP Awards dinner took place later in the evening and 600 of the “who’s who” of the UK physics community were out in their finest clothes. IOP medals span the entire spectrum of physics research, physics education and outreach as well as the application of physics and physics-based technologies. They are given to “identify and honour physicists who are today making remarkable contributions and to encourage younger members of our community to greater success in the future”. A complete list of all the many awards and their winners of the 2012 medals can be found here.

In Knight’s address to the gathering he highlighted, among other issues, the lack of girls in physics, after it was noted that only 20% of girls have been taking physics A-levels over the past 20 years. His comments were made in the light of a new report published by the Institute on the same day entitled It’s Different for Girls. The report looks at changing the attitude of school teachers in all subjects, as well as parents, to encourage girls to take up A-level physics.

Professor Brian Cox, who was awarded the President’s Medal 2012 for his “achievements in promoting science to the general public and inspiring the next generation of physicists”, was the guest speaker at the dinner. In his witty and engaging speech, a video of which you can watch below, he addressed the excitement of the Higgs discovery made earlier this year as well as the sophistication of the Large Hadron Collider. But he also had some strong words to say about promoting bad science and how it was not acceptable – he highlighted homeopathy and some ill-advised comments made by Jeremy Hunt, the current health secretary, on the issue.

To much laughter, Cox followed that up with some amusing comments about “faith-based aviation” or the serious lack thereof by saying, “There is a reason why we don’t have…homeopathic aircraft that run on the memory of petrol.” He also spoke of how it was important for the government to invest in increasing the number of STEM graduates in the UK. He ended his address by thanking the physics community, saying “Without you, I would have nothing to say the next time I stand on a mountain!”

All in all, it was an entertaining and illuminating evening for the people in the UK who are involved in physics…and the raspberry and chilli ice-cream for desert was excellent too!

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