Giving everyone the means of research, invention and innovation at university

Posted by Professor Oscar Ces, Dr Nick Jones and Dr Billy Wu on 13 November 2018

Using innovation as a mechanism for stakeholder engagement at a university seems like a no-brainer. Isn't it what we all aspire to?

The answer to that question is both complex and in some ways disappointing. If you are a tenured member of staff with an idea and budget, you recruit someone, perhaps a post-doc or a PhD student and your idea may sprout wings. Yet what happens if you are a member of staff without budget? Or you happen to be in a department without equipment and workshops? Or you are a PDRA, PhD or undergraduate student who has a moment of inspiration tangential to your contract or area of study? The process of idea development in those cases can be quite frustrating. Add to that administrative hurdles of all types associated with working between disciplines and departments and things only get worse. It's all too easy to find yourself walking round Willy Wonka's Factory of Invention only to realise you don't have a golden ticket.

A few years ago we asked ourselves what would happen to a university like Imperial College London if we truly gave everyone an equal means of research and activated this dormant population of inventors. Given the staff:non-staff ratios in Imperial it could mean an order-of-magnitude increase in the number of people free to develop their ideas. Could this transform our R&D pipelines? Might it create new ways of interacting within our community and with our external partners? Could we spearhead a new generation of entrepreneurs, create new SMEs, or trigger new avenues of research?

In response to this scenario we established the Imperial College Advanced Hackspace (ICAH) just over four years ago using Impact Acceleration Account and Centres for Doctoral Training funding from the EPSRC. ICAH set out as a community-operated venture that aimed to provide free access, seven days a week to a network of workshops, laboratories, co-location spaces, world-class prototyping equipment (much of which is not commercially available), training classes and professional experts at Imperial.

Turning ideas into reality

Across its spaces ICAH would support 'making' in its broadest sense, from synthetic biology to molecular fabrication, microfluidics, additive manufacturing, robotics and automation, electronics, metal work, woodwork and textiles; and pure experimentation without an aspect of fabrication. All users had to do was to bring their ideas and pay for their consumables. We would take care of the rest.

That was the idea. But when the doors opened, we were not quite sure what the level of buy-in would be. It's easy enough for Kevin Costner to say things like If you build it they will come but for every Field of Dreams there is a Waterworld lurking round the corner. But we needn't have worried. In the last four years, ICAH has grown into a unique community of over 2,000 like-minded hackers, experimentalists, inventors, designers and entrepreneurs from across the college. That's as big as any Imperial faculty, and ICAH still continues to grow.

Democratic multidisciplinarity

The ICAH community has grown organically to become a multi-disciplinary serendipity machine, bringing together engineers, medics, life scientists, mathematicians and physical scientists all under one roof. It's a place where people with common interests in exploration, device prototyping, med-tech, computers, machining, automated synthesis, synthetic biology, digital art, robotic and diagnostics can meet, socialise and collaborate.

Crucially it has democratised research, invention and innovation at the university. All members of ICAH are equal stakeholders: UGs, PhDs, PDRAs, technicians, lecturers, professors, and administrative staff. Your status is irrelevant. All ICAH cares about is your desire to make things happen and help others in their endeavours.

How people use ICAH is up to them. That's been the key to its success. Some members use it to enhance the pace of their day-to-day research whilst others exploit its capabilities to validate an idea or generate minimal viable products that underpin the creation of an SME.

New ways of working with industry

Corporate partners and SMEs have also been keen to get in on the action as they move towards increasingly collaborative, lean innovation models. ICAH is tailor-made for Imperial staff, students, alumni and commercial partners from different disciplines to work together to rapidly convert research ideas into breakthrough prototype products and solutions. It has also become a place where companies come to recruit the brightest minds. If you want to meet global thinkers, change makers, value creators, you will find them at ICAH.

Hackathons, for example, are a great way for companies to find both ideas and people, by harnessing the ICAH community to develop solutions for defined industrial challenges via a scale-fast, fail-fast framework. At ICAH we ensure that the best hackers for the brief are at the event and organise them into skill-complementing teams. They come along for the opening night, the company pitches a challenge, and then boom, they get cracking.

Hackathons represent a step change in the pace at which innovation can take place, fusing idea generation and creativity with intense prototyping sessions. Ideas generated during these events are validated and transformed into working prototypes in a matter of days, typically with 50-100 researchers working together.

When we first established ICAH in 2014 it was an experiment that consisted of just two ideation and hackspaces on the South Kensington Campus. In 2017 ICAH extended its capabilities with a new bespoke facility at the £5 million The Invention Rooms at Imperial College White City and this network of spaces will continue to grow in 2018 with a new bio and molecular hackspace (FABRICA) opening in the Molecular Sciences Research Hub just across the road from the Invention Rooms.

Supporting early stage commercialisation

ICAH now also works closely alongside the wider innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystem at Imperial, including the Enterprise Lab and White City Incubator, to offer the best journey for anyone in our networks to go from idea to commercialisation. Idea development through research, invention and innovation has become everybody's game, and that can only be a good thing.

Moving forwards

It's a really exciting time with hackspaces popping up with ever increasing frequency in universities and local communities alike. Each has a different flavour and we are all learning from each other (having 2,000 people free-styling in their scientific endeavours has its challenges!) but the one thing we all agree on is that idea development (whether it is research, invention or innovation) is now everybody's game and that can only be a good thing.


In the following table, contact information relevant to the page. The first column is for visual reference only. Data is in the right column.

Photo of Oscar Ces
Name: Professor Oscar Ces
Job title: Professor in Chemical Biology
Department: Department of Chemistry
Organisation: Imperial College London

Professor Oscar Ces is a Professor in Chemical Biology at the Department of Chemistry with interests in soft condensed matter, chemical biology, microfluidics, artificial cells, single cell analysis and lipid membrane mechanics.

In the following table, contact information relevant to the page. The first column is for visual reference only. Data is in the right column.

Photo of Nick Jones
Name: Dr Nick Jones
Job title: Reader
Department: Applied Mathematics and Mathematical Physics
Organisation: Imperial College London

Dr Nick Jones is a Reader in Applied Mathematics and Mathematical Physics with interests in the Mathematics of Precision Healthcare; specifically, mitochondrial genetics and vaccine sentiments.

In the following table, contact information relevant to the page. The first column is for visual reference only. Data is in the right column.

Photo of Billy Wu
Name: Dr Billy Wu
Job title: Senior Lecturer
Department: Dyson School of Design Engineering
Organisation: Imperial College London

Dr Billy Wu is a Senior Lecturer in the Dyson School of Design Engineering. His research activities include electrochemical energy storage/conversion devices (batteries, supercapacitors and fuel cells) and additive manufacturing.