Sir James Dyson: It's Time to Nurture British Engineers

By Humans Invent on at

Sir James Dyson is on a mission to reignite British design and engineering after opening the Royal College of Art Dyson building. The central feature of this space will be a set of 40 incubators for young designers and engineers to cultivate British invention, where the chosen start-ups will be given working space, industry mentors and access to angel investors to help commercialise their ideas. Once each start-up has made their business viable they will fly the nest making room for new designers and engineers to replace them.


Encouraging new talent

Dyson told Humans Invent, “I think it is important that we help bright young engineers and designers bridge the gap from having a great idea to making it a commercial success. Developing a product is a slow, frustrating process, so they need all the support they can get. There are some ingenious new inventions in the building and the idea is that they become self-sufficient, ultimately exporting across the world.”

At the moment postgraduate research scientists can earn as little as £7,000 a year -- not surprisingly many would-be scientists change tack and go into the city or law where they can earn a decent wage. Dyson is currently trying to persuade David Cameron to get the government to pay research scientists at least £30,000 a year.


Britain falling behind

He has donated £5m to the building which also houses new fine art and print-making facilities, in the hope of encouraging young innovators to follow through with their ideas. It may also serve to show schoolchildren who are considering a career in design and engineering but are put off by the tough economic realities of following such a career.

He says, “Sustainable wealth is created from the creation of tangible patentable goods – real technology that can be made and exported, but the bright designers and engineers capable of developing such technology are simply not around.”

Dyson continues, “Britain only creates around 12,000 engineering graduates a year. India graduates 1.2 million engineers a year. China’s engineering graduates will grow from 2.6 million in 2010 to 3.6 million in 2015. Iran and the Philippines both produce more engineers than the UK. The problem is serious. Britain will simply be left behind.”

Dyson believes the hubs will help incubate young talent, making it easier for young innovators to succeed as entrepreneurs. He says, “By clustering new design and engineering led ventures in the building, ideas, resources and thinking can be quickly shared. It spurs ideas and gives them access to expertise. Hubs are about bridging the gap between academia, business and inventors.”


The start-ups

We spoke to two of the start-ups currently developing their businesses at the hub. The first, called Loowat, is creating toilets that can produce biogas for use in generating heat and electricity as well as creating fertilizer which can be sold by the owner of the loo. Virginia Gardiner of Loowat says, “The toilet seals waste in biopolymer film, using a patented sealing mechanism that creates an odourless, continuous seal and separates liquids from solids in the process. The waste is then transferred into an anaerobic digester which produces natural gas and digestate, a nutrient-rich liquid that can be further treated to make fertilizer.”

Gardiner believes they have gained a lot from the collaborative atmosphere at RCA Dyson. She says, “The hub has been a rich resource of feedback, tips, experiences and ideas. Most of all, it’s fun to be working in a place where you can watch others progressing their projects and encourage one another.”

The second start-up, Kwikscreen, has created portable, retractable room dividers. The product was used at the 2012 Olympics for the athletes’ clinics and has been bought by over 60 NHS trusts. Michael Korn of KwikScreen says, “It allows space to be re-conceptualised, shifting according to need and creating privacy where previously there was none. Printed screens can transform the look and feel of a space too. As such, they are perfect for hospitals where space is at a premium. RolaTube technology allows it to be stretched and manipulated to form flexible walls.”

Korn believes Kwikscreen has benefited from the entrepreneurial environment at RCA Dyson, which he says, ‘has given us a real advantage with recruitment – people feel excited and want to help us grow. The RCA Dyson Building encourages expansion and is creating the conditions for KwickScreen to become even more of a commercial success.”

Hopefully this model for promoting British innovation will be taken up by other institutions in an effort to halt the decline in British industry and encourage entrepreneurialism in the minds of our emerging bright young things. After all, we don’t want to be a nation that gets left behind.

Humans Invent is an online space dedicated to celebrating innovation, craftsmanship and design fueled by our most natural instinct – the pursuit of invention to help solve a human need. You can read their original article here.