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£4.7M consortium aims to accelerate growth of Scotland’s photonics sector

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The Universities of Strathclyde and Glasgow are leading a new consortium which has won £4.7M in funding to support the tripling of the photonics sector across Scotland’s central belt.  

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), part of UKRI, announced that the consortium is one of 10 established industrial clusters across the UK which have received funding from the Place Based Impact Acceleration Accounts. 

The funding provides flexible support to research organisations, enabling them to drive impacts from their research portfolio through a wide range of activities with the aim of driving regional growth.  

Sector growth

The consortium brings together researchers from Strathclyde, Glasgow, the University of St Andrews and Heriot-Watt University, all of whom will work with local authorities and industry bodies to advance the growth of the photonics sector. 

Photonics – the science of light – is central to many modern technologies, from the fibre-optic cables which carry internet data to the lasers which treat cancers and enable the fabrication of integrated circuits. Developments in photonics help spur advances in sectors including electronics, communications, medicine and the life sciences.  

The UK’s photonics industry has a turnover of £14.5 billion and employs 77,000 people – more than twice as many as the pharmaceutical industry. More than £1 billion of this turnover is created in Scotland’s central belt, which is widely recognised as a world leader in academic and industrial expertise in photonics.  

Together, researchers at the consortium’s four partner universities account for £95M in funding in photonics and quantum technologies, a quarter of the UK’s total funding in the sector.  

Professor Jennifer Hastie, Director of Strathclyde’s Institute of Photonics, and the consortium’s deputy principal investigator, said: “Novel techniques for the generation, manipulation, and detection of light, underpin recent advances in the state-of-the-art of many disciplines, including communications, sensing, bioscience, renewable energy, manufacturing, and quantum technologies.  

“We have fantastic photonics capability in the central belt of Scotland, at universities and in industry, and an innovative, world-leading research cohort, yet in many ways it’s a ‘hidden economy’ of which we want to increase awareness, particularly among the next generation, and this new consortium will be ideally placed to achieve this.

Technology Scotland, one of the partners in the consortium, has set a target for the entire sector in the central belt to match that 25% share by 2030, up from the 7% it currently holds. 

The new consortium seeks to build on decades of successes in photonics research and development across the central belt to help achieve the area’s full potential for economic and social benefits.  

Over the next four years, the partners will work with the companies in Central Scotland to accelerate the transfer of photonics research from the laboratory to tomorrow’s photonics products – working with existing companies and encouraging the foundation of startups. 

They will also help to grow the base of skilled workers to ensure that the sector is not constrained by the limited availability of staff trained in photonics technologies, and work on outreach projects to raise awareness of the opportunities available in photonics careers and entrepreneurship. 

Photonics powerhouse

Professor Andy Harvey, of the University of Glasgow’s School of Physics & Astronomy, and the consortium’s principal investigator, said: “I’m delighted that EPSRC have chosen to support our bid for funding from the Place Based Impact Acceleration Accounts. 

“Scotland’s central belt is already a photonics powerhouse and has been identified in the Scottish Government’s National Strategy for Economic Transformation as an area of opportunity for growth. The UK Government has also announced £1 billion in new funding for quantum and photonics technologies, with £2.5 billion more to follow in the years to come. 

“This funding will help unlock further advances in the sector across central Scotland by creating new jobs, building new skills, attracting investment in new and existing companies, and inspiring people to take up careers in the sector.” 

The proximity of the Universities of Strathclyde and Glasgow has created a strong research and innovation ecosystem in the city, which is being further strengthened in partnership with Glasgow City Council to establish the Glasgow Riverside Innovation District (GRID) and the Glasgow City Innovation District (GCID). 

Professor Miles Padgett, Interim Executive Chair at EPSRC, said: “I’m pleased to announce our first ten Place Based Impact Acceleration Accounts which will play a unique role in enhancing the capabilities of innovation clusters across the UK. A key priority for UKRI is to strengthen clusters and partnerships in collaboration with civic bodies and businesses, thereby driving regional economic growth.”

Science Minister George Freeman said: “As a nation with a rich history of innovation, Scotland can be central to boosting the UK’s photonics industry, which is so vital to our economic prosperity and wellbeing – from transmitting information to developing medicine.

“Our £4.7M investment will further grow this already booming industry – worth £14.5bn – and alongside our separate £2.5M project to accelerate community healthcare in Tayside, will create new jobs that drive the Scottish and wider UK economy.”

The consortium is also supported by Glasgow City Council, Scottish Enterprise, CENSIS, City of Edinburgh Council, Fraunhofer UK Research Ltd, Fife Council, Glasgow Science Centre Ltd, National Physical Laboratory, SPIE, Technology Scotland and West Lothian Council. 

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