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Q&A: Alexei Lapkin – Director, Innovation Centre in Digital Molecular Technologies

The Innovation Centre in Digital Molecular Technologies (iDMT) held its grand opening in November last year. Our CEO Neelam Patel was excited to join the advisory board of this open innovation business support centre, supporting small- to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the transformation of chemistry into the digital domain.

Courtesy of their funders – The University of Cambridge, the EU Regional Development Fund, AstraZeneca and Shionogi – the Centre is currently able to offer free services to UK SMEs. We spoke to iDMT Director, Professor Alexei Lapkin, about how the Centre is already working with SMEs in this new field, and what the opportunities for support are.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about digital molecular technologies?

The advances in computation and access to data are transforming the way we do chemistry. With the right knowledge and hardware, we can automate chemical synthesis experiments and access huge amounts of data for algorithmic analysis. This kind of digitalisation creates opportunities for completely new business models in the development of all types of consumer products, including, in principle, any type of medicine or therapeutic.

Q: How does this apply to SMEs?

There’s a huge opportunity for small companies, which are much faster on their feet than big companies, to innovate using these methodologies. The challenge is often that older equipment – reactors, analytical equipment and so on – don’t ‘talk to each other’. They typically use very different proprietary file formats and languages, so moving data into a shared database to enable algorithmic analysis is virtually impossible. To generate the data needed, we need to do chemistry differently. We need machines, like high throughput robots, automated separations, and flow chemistry robots, which can do experiments, as well as the software that allows us to automate processes and analyse data. The capital investment to set up labs with all the necessary hardware enabled for this kind of work is a barrier for innovative SMEs looking to capitalise on this opportunity.

Q: So how is the iDMT addressing this?

We work with SMEs on both sides of the transition. Firstly, with vendors that are creating the new tools – both hardware and software – suitable for a digital lab. Secondly, we work with SMEs that are currently using traditional methods to make molecules, but who want to move towards using this new technology.

Q: In practice, what’s available to SMEs that join?

We are based in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Cambridge, and we have two newly refurbished labs (one is fully operational now, and one is due for completion later this year), plus office space. In all, this gives us the capacity to undertake and analyse between hundreds and thousands of chemical reactions per day, generating large amounts of data for many types of chemical reactions.

SMEs are able to make use of the facilities in a variety of ways. Importantly, they are able to access the knowledge and expertise of a large group of Cambridge academics working in the centre. This means we’re able to create projects which are supported by Cambridge PhD students and postdocs. Our commercial partners, AstraZeneca and Shionogi, also have staff working in the labs that can be involved in projects. This gives SMEs a unique opportunity to test out client requirements with large companies. And, of course, the lab facilities we have available allow SMEs to develop and test new products without the associated equipment costs. In some cases this might be using our resources to conduct experiments, and in the case of vendors, it might be using our facilities to test out and fine-tune their own hardware or software solutions.

Q: Can you give us a few examples of SMEs you’re working with?

We have a pipeline of companies we’re talking to about projects. A few that are up and running already include DeepMatter (a cloud-based solution to collect information from different instruments and combine it into one data set) and Vapourtec (which makes equipment for running experiments in the lab). They are now actually working together on solutions for directly connecting instruments to the cloud. Others include Accelerated Materials (who are looking at new technology for making molecular materials and scaling pharmaceutical manufacturing through automated experiments) and Chemical Data Intelligence (who look at large data sets of reaction data to create hypotheses for testing).

Q: Specifically, what type of company can join, and how should they go about it?

We are open to SMEs in England – fewer than 250 employees and annual turnover not exceeding £42M. The centre operates an Open Innovation model, which does give a specific flavour to the projects we run with SMEs, but it generates a vibrant collaborative environment for rapid innovation. Our funding allows us to provide those companies with access to our support and resources for free until June 2023. Beyond then, companies will pay a fee to join the Centre, so this really is a unique and valuable opportunity for SMEs in this field to take advantage of right now.

We’re holding a Data & Digital Networks workshop on 16-17 March. This will be an opportunity for SMEs to discuss and learn from case studies of work happening in this area, and would be a great starting point for those looking to identify their needs, make connections and potentially follow up with us to discuss their planned projects. Alternatively, SMEs are welcome to reach out directly to the Centre Manager, Dr Celeste van den Bosch, and me, via email at [email protected]

Find out more: idmt.online

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