Listen to this article
Robotic equipment fills every nook and cranny of a laboratory at Imperial College in central London. In one corner is a mock-up resembling an old-school arcade video game that uses 3D eye tracking technology to enable paralysed people to translate their thoughts into actions. Nearby, a soft robotic arm that could safely interact with humans is being developed.
Investment in technologies of the future is seen as crucial for driving innovation and economic growth around the world.
In 2014, about $1.6tn was spent globally on research and development (R&D) in a range of engineering-related disciplines from robotics to social media, according to estimates by Battelle, the US science and technology development group.
Aldo Faisal, a senior lecturer in neurotechnology at Imperial who runs the Faisal Lab, says innovation is crucial when it comes to capturing a share of a rapidly growing market such as robotics. He recently started work on a €4m project funded by the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 programme, to develop assisted robots that can interpret the needs of elderly or paralysed people from their eye movements.
“This was one of four projects funded in the field of new ways of interfacing with robots,” says Dr Faisal. “A key thing for personal robotics is that it has to be personal. So, how can you personalise a robot? How can a robot learn from you? That’s one thing we are interested in and the other thing is how can you control and guide interactions with the robot or the other way round, how can the robot read your mind to do the things you want it to.”
Over the past 40 years, global R&D has largely been dominated by Europe, the US and Japan. However, other countries — in particular China— are stepping up their game. In 2011, China surpassed Japan’s overall R&D spending.
By 2018, Battelle believes China could overtake the combined spending of Europe and, by about 2022, exceed the investments of the US in absolute terms.
In May, the Chinese government published a sweeping “Made in China 2025” strategy, that detailed plans to move from mass-market manufacturing to high-tech industries such as space, green energy and bioengineering.
“R&D funding and capacity for R&D performance are the origins of innovation and commercialisation,” says Brett Bosley, vice-president of technology commercialisation at Battelle.
The sum spent globally on R&D in engineering-related disciplines
“The advancement of technology in society has accelerated the rate of patent applications and scientific publications — leading indicators of innovation — in China, and Asia’s share of Nobel Prizes in science and medicine has been growing at the expense of the US and Europe.”
Evidence of China’s innovation push is noticeable in European patent activity for 2014. Filings from the US, Japan and China accounted for 53 per cent of the 274,000 new patents in Europe, according to the European Patent Office (EPO). China was the highest climber in the rankings, reaching fourth spot after an 18 per cent year-on-year increase in patent filings.
The telecoms company Huawei was indicative of Chinese companies’ attempt to catch up with competitors: it filed 49 per cent more patents than in 2013, making it the fifth most active applicant. Only one European country made it into the top five for patents: Germany was ranked at number three behind the US and Japan.
European business groups admit there is a challenge for the EU to catch up in the innovation race. The bloc’s competitive edge will more than ever be based on innovation, productivity and its transition into higher-tech and higher value-added activities.
“European leaders need to take action to ensure that Europe stays a top innovation location,” says Kurt Bock, chief executive of BASF, the German chemicals group, and chairman of the European Round Table Competitiveness Working Group.
The rise in biotechnology patent filings in 2014
Europe is a world leader in areas from aerospace and car manufacturing to chemicals, and its focus on high-tech niches — which are less subject to low-cost competition — remains a source of strength.
However, it faces growing competition from the US, where shale gas discoveries have helped reinvigorate the country’s manufacturing sector, and China, which, no longer satisfied with just being the workshop of the world, has stepped up its investment in high-value manufacturing.
The emerging field of biotechnology is one area where European companies dominated in 2014, largely because of the continent’s position as a world leader in biofuel technologies.
The EPO says there was a 12 per cent annual rise in the number of biotechnology patent filings to 5,905. DSM, the Dutch biotech company, filed almost three times more patents than its closest competitor as it moves forward in the development of advanced biofuels made from waste products such as husks, leaves and corn cobs.
Meanwhile, the US dominated the medical technology sector in Europe, the area recording the highest volume of patent activity in 2014 — up 3.2 per cent to 11,124 filings. The US made almost four in every 10 medical technology patent applications, from pacemakers to surgical robots.
Brussels wants to reindustrialise the EU and aims by 2020 to raise manufacturing’s share of GDP from 15.6 to 20 per cent. Businesses and policy makers agree on a need to improve the infrastructure of innovation, from nurturing ideas to financing high-tech start-ups.
Jérome Chauvin, deputy director-general at BusinessEurope, Brussels’ biggest lobby group, comments: “Innovation may begin with an idea, but it is only complete when its results reach the market. Intellectual Property is the necessary “currency” that makes this commercialisation process possible.”
Battelle’s Mr Bosley says: “The specific role of technology varies by industry, but innovation is a universal imperative.”
Professor Hendrik Jonkers: finalist, European Inventor Award, research category
Ecuador has obvious attractions for a marine microbiologist, writes Naomi Mapstone.
But Hendrik Jonkers’ field of expertise has taken him in unexpected directions, and a recent trip to the cradle of evolutionary theory was no different.
Far from the waters of the Galápagos Islands, Professor Jonkers, the inventor of self-healing concrete, oversaw the concreting of ancient Incan aqueducts in the Andes.
“With the temperature differences and earthquakes, there’s a lot of cracking along these canals, so almost every year the villagers have to block and repair them. It’s very costly and they lose time and water too, which affects their crops,” says Prof Jonkers.
It is a small example of the impact Jonkers’ work is set to have on the world of construction and infrastructure.
“Hendrik Jonkers’ bacterial concrete extends the life of bridges, streets and tunnels and opens up completely new perspectives for concrete production,” says Benoît Battistelli, president of the European Patent Office. “It’s a successful combination of microbiology and civil engineering — two sciences that are unlikely collaborators.”
Prof Jonkers’s concrete, which is infused with limestone-producing bacteria that can “awaken” and “heal” cracking as the damage occurs, was reinforced with plant fibres rather than steel — a local innovation — for the Ecuadorean project.
Prof Jonkers’ company, Basilisk, is planning to launch a version of the concrete that can also be sprayed on to existing structures for repairs.
The bacteria are typically found near volcanoes and are heat and cold resistant. They can survive for up to 200 years, significantly increasing the lifespan of concrete, and cutting carbon emissions from concrete production. When water finds its way into cracked concrete, the bacteria activate and eat the resultant calcium lactate, secreting limestone, which closes the cracks in less than a month.
Prof Jonkers, of the Netherlands, now heads a sustainability group within the University of Delft focusing on integrating biology into the built environment.
“We bring nature back into cities,” says Prof Jonkers. “Traditionally, civil engineering was always building against nature and now there’s a reversal in that thinking. Green rooves, green façades, ecosystems also have functions in cleaning air, cleaning water, storing water and stabilising temperatures in cities.”
Nature was an obvious source of inspiration for Jonkers’ self-healing concrete. As a marine biology student he studied the octopus’ ability to regrow a tentacle, for example. And then while studying at the Faculty of Civil Engineering and Geosciences at Delft University of Technology in 2006 he read an article about Italian scientists using limestone-producing bacteria to deposit a new layer on statues with erosion damage.
“At that time I had no knowledge of concrete. It took me two years to find the right kind of bacteria,” Prof Jonkers says.
Prof Jonkers was a finalist in this year’s European Inventor Award, research category.
Letter in response to this report:
Get alerts on Asia-Pacific companies when a new story is published