Innovation flourishes with R&D programme aimed at SMEs

Business support manager Shamila Uddin, left, and Dr Riaz

Three dental technicians from Bolton have designed a reusable respirator mask made from biodegradable materials, that can be worn by all healthcare practitioners.

It is just one of a range of ground-breaking innovations being developed by a North West R&D programme.

Eco-I North West, a large-scale research and development initiative, supports small and medium-sized companies (SMEs) from any sector to develop low carbon innovations in partnership with six of the region’s universities – Lancaster, Central Lancashire, Cumbria, Liverpool, Liverpool John Moores and Manchester Metropolitan.

Launched in 2020, the three-year programme, which is part funded by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), is now working with more than 180 SMEs across the region to create new sustainable technologies, products and services to accelerate the green economic recovery.

With a year remaining, Eco-I NW is on target to help 369 businesses to develop 135 new innovative solutions and remove 3,850 tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere, supporting the Government’s target of achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

My Medical Mask, based in Bolton, is working with Lancaster University to develop a new medical grade, reusable and transparent respirator mask made from biodegradable materials.

The start-up was created by three dental clinicians in direct response to the need for PPE (personal protective equipment) during the pandemic.

Dr Usman Riaz, director, said: “We are dedicated to finding viable, sustainable and eco-friendly alternatives to single-use PPE and we firmly believe our innovation could be a real game changer for the healthcare sector.

“The development of this mask will dramatically reduce the carbon footprint of the sector, reduce waste, and significantly improve communication between patients and practitioners.”

Dr Riaz added: “The research and development work carried out in partnership with Lancaster University has been extraordinary and we would encourage other SMEs to explore the opportunities.”

Other innovations being accelerated through Eco-I NW include Typhon Treatment Systems, based in Penrith, which is working with Lancaster University to pioneer its LED ultraviolet (UV) water treatment technology.

Audrius Židonis, lead mechanical engineer for Typhon, said: “Eco-I NW has given us a fantastic opportunity to expand and validate our research. Our partnership with the university has expedited the process and has given us additional credibility as we talk to potential customers. As a young company this has been very important.”

Typhon was named the inaugural winner of the Eco-I NW Innovation Award at its recent Journeys to Net Zero: Collaboration Showcase, which brought together more than 200 stakeholders, including many organisations involved in the programme.

Among the speakers was Michael Pawlyn, designer of the Eden Project in Cornwall and an expert in regenerative design and biomimicry, who called for a reframing of sustainability into delivering net positive impacts. Meanwhile, journalist and author John Robb talked about how a sense of place was important in driving regeneration and innovation, while Camila Rock De Luigi, the architect behind Eden North, talked about how the ‘visionary’ project was expected to catalyse the regeneration of Morecambe.

The showcase also set out to inspire the next wave of business-academic collaborations through a series of focused sessions on future energy technologies, carbon saving, low carbon construction, and peer learning.

Andy Pickard, manager of Eco-I NW and the Centre for Global Eco-Innovation, said: “This first two years of the Eco-I NW programme have been extremely challenging in view of the pandemic, which highlights the incredible achievement that we have managed to support 180 businesses to lead the region’s transition towards a low carbon economy.

“The key message that came from our showcase event is that Eco-I NW is doing fantastic work to create a melting pot of disruptive innovation, driven by conversation and collaboration. However, to achieve the rapid transition to more sustainable economies and societies in the face of the climate emergency, we need to grow our network of collaborators.”

Eco-I NW offers SMEs access to fully funded interns from a pool of highly motivated and talented students across the six universities, match-funded postgraduate researchers for more long term projects, and capital grants to fund prototypes, pilots and demonstration systems.