Dstl: ploughing into the transferable technology market

science picThe Defence Science and Technology Laboratory is one of the principal government organisations dedicated to S&T in the defence and security field, with around 3700 staff at its three main sites at Porton Down, near Salisbury; Portsdown West, near Portsmouth; and Fort Halstead, near Sevenoaks. Here, MOD DCB interviews Pete Hotten, CEO of Dstl spin-out Ploughshare Innovations, about the vital role technology transfer can play in strengthening both national defence and economic performance.

With global defence budgets tightening, companies that supply to the sector have had to think outside the box to drive business growth. One result has been to stimulate the development of transferable technologies that can be used across both defence and civil industry.

Spearheading this development is Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) spin-out company Ploughshare Innovations. Managing the commercial licensing of Dstl technology, Ploughshare aims to give clients a competitive edge by reducing risk, cost and time to market while increasing business opportunity.

Ploughshare Chief Executive Officer Pete Hotten said: “The idea is to maximise the benefit of public expenditure in science and technology. Ploughshare is a fairly unusual vehicle in so far as we are a limited company, but we are wholly owned by the Ministry of Defence.”

Mirroring the range of work in Dstl allows Ploughshare to transfer technology from a range of scientific disciplines – from chemistry, biology and physics through to the social sciences – resulting in a great diversity of products, eg new materials, diagnostic devices and even system analysis software. To date over 75 technologies have been licensed and 11 spin-out companies created. The Ploughshare portfolio of technologies continues to grow and there are many exciting new opportunities currently being evaluated.

Dr Hotten continued: “Ploughshare continuously interacts with the various market sectors which are relevant to the technology offers we have at the present time, but it is also going to keep apace of the market by looking more deeply into certain areas where our primary source of technology, Dstl, is most likely to have something interesting in the pipeline.”

Ploughshare’s current portfolio includes trace DNA recovery technology; a new way of direct sample recovery prior to PCR, replacing the pre-PCR sampling, extraction and purification stages with a single step. This dramatically reduces the time and complexity of the recovery process and minimises loss of DNA, a major issue with other techniques. The increased sensitivity allows samples to be taken from an object area as small as 3mm2 where only very small amounts of touch DNA may be present.

Ploughshare Innovations hopes to license the technology for commercial development in sectors as diverse as law enforcement and security services, food hygiene, and safety testing. This is just one example of the transferable technology Ploughshare has researched since its launch in 2005.

Since joining the company three and a half years ago, Dr Hotten has seen the transferable technology market grow.

He said: “There is an evolution which has been going on in our industry for the last 20 years, where it has been recognised that product innovation and development is something that requires an entrepreneurial mindset, which is very difficult to grow within large corporate organisations.

“So organisations with marketing, distribution and manufacturing skills are always going to be looking to small innovative groups to provide them with new product technology to  develop their product pipelines.

“There are a whole number of things that are happening in the commercial world that are going to make technology transfer more and more important, as people look for specialist entrepreneurial technology creators to somehow be linked into the global companies that have large distribution and manufacturing capabilities.”

At present, around sixty per cent of the approximately £600 million Defence Science and Technology Programme, managed through Dstl, goes to industry and academia to deliver. Indeed, Dr Hotten argues that transferable technology could play a vital role in boosting the economy.

He said: “I think technology transfer is a very important component of the entire growth agenda, because it provides ways of capturing some of the very brilliant ideas which originate in places like Dstl or the universities and then nurtures them to the point of commercial exploitation.

“If you do this well then you have a tremendous pool for helping develop new parts of the economy, which should, with luck and hard work, underpin some really strong growth.”