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Explorer Forums encourage collaboration to solve global challenges

21 February 2024

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A new initiative being run by Anglia Innovation Partnership, the science park management organisation at Norwich Research Park, is looking to bring together researchers and industry representatives for inter-disciplinary collaborations that could result in significant breakthroughs for some of the world’s major challenges in food, health and climate change.

Nowadays, there are much closer ties between academic research and industry as we try to address some of the major global challenges we face in food security, agriculture, crop resistance, climate change and human health. And now, to make this easier, an initiative run by Dr Kirsty Culley of Anglia Innovation Partnership is aiming to match up businesses with researchers at Norwich Research Park so that solutions to some of these issues can be developed.

The Explorer Forum programme, part of the wider Anglia Innovation Partnership Enterprise Strategy, brings together people from both academia and business on shared interest topics to explore collaborative solutions and opportunities. Depending on the topic, this can range from all-day facilitated workshops, visits to other sites of interest and bespoke visits to the Park from industry.

The programme can provide funds of up to £5,000 to enable exploratory meetings and activities to be organised between the research and business communities to identify new innovations that have the potential to address some of the key global challenges we face.

A good example of this approach having an immediate, positive impact is in the area of gene editing for the sugar beet industry. Last year, the government passed the Precision Breeding Bill, which allows plants to be gene edited to improve traits such as yields, disease resistance or ripening time.

Gene editing only removes or duplicates genes that already exist in a crop, it does not introduce any foreign genes. It means that outcomes that are usually achieved through natural cross-breeding over many years can be done pretty much immediately – a real advantage when dealing with the speed at which some of the global challenges we face are developing.

Sugar beet is a very important crop to the East of England, which is home to some of British Sugar’s main processing plants in Bury St Edmunds and Cantley. The industry, as a whole, supports around 9,000 jobs across the UK and supplies over 50pc of the country’s demand for sugar.

An Explorer Forum all-day workshop, facilitated by innovation specialists from Downstream Innovation, was set up to explore new options that gene editing could offer the sugar beet industry covering disease resistance, improving crop yields and developing new strains.

Representatives from the British Beet Research Organisation (BBRO), Tropic, a ground-breaking agricultural biotech company (both based at Norwich Research Park), British Sugar, the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA), an international seed breeding company, sugar beet growers and scientists from Park institutes the John Innes Centre and the Earlham Institute attended the workshop to exchange ideas and explore these new opportunities to help the sugar beet industry.

One project to develop further thinking on was the threat to sugar beet from a disease called Virus Yellows, which can have catastrophic impacts on the crop. Growers have reported yield losses of up to 80pc in recent years. Current measures to counteract this disease include the use of chemical-based pesticides to neutralise the aphid carrier that transmits the disease. The use of these pesticides must be authorised by DEFRA, but it is now accepted that this is not a sustainable long-term solution as chemicals like these are controversial and perceived by some to be harmful.

It was agreed that participants from the John Innes Centre, British Beet Research Organisation (BBRO), Tropic (all based at Norwich Research Park) and British Sugar would run a project to investigate opportunities to safeguard sugar beet from the threat of Virus Yellows, by employing a gene editing technology platform developed by Tropic to enable the crop to have a natural resistance to the disease.

The project identified that a budget of £1m was required to create the gene editing programme. It has been successful in securing a grant of just over £660,000 from Innovate UK’s Farming Futures R&D Fund with the balance funded by British Sugar, Tropic and the John Innes Centre.

The gene editing route should be able to safeguard the sugar beet crop much quicker than cross-breeding, radically reduce the amount of chemical-based pesticides used, cut costs for farmers and, ultimately consumers, and make sugar beet a more profitable and thus more attractive crop for farmers to grow. Yields will be better and the sugar beet industry will be more sustainable, keeping people employed in it.

Dr Kirsty Culley, science collaboration manager at Anglia Innovation Partnership, said: “We have so much ground-breaking research being undertaken at Norwich Research Park that can be harnessed to solve key challenges found in industry.

“Bringing together all the expertise in one room for a day to explore gene editing in sugar beet proved to be a highly valuable exercise with real outputs. Now that we have proved that this approach can have a positive impact, we are expanding our forums into other fields and we would welcome interest from those in industry who would like to chat about using this method to find solutions to their challenges.”

Another Explorer Forum visited Silverstone Technology Cluster in Northamptonshire. It focused on unearthing opportunities for scientists at Norwich Research Park to work together with Silverstone’s advanced engineering companies.

Representatives from Norwich Research Park visited several Silverstone companies to establish new connections and collaborations, particularly in the fields of additive manufacturing, new carbon-neutral materials, automated and vertical farming and battery technology.

The team behind UEA spin-out company Cellexcel also attended the visit to showcase their work to the companies at Silverstone. Cellexcel is developing water-resistant, plant-based bio-composites that can ultimately replace plastic-based materials like carbon fibre and fibreglass in the making of cars, aircraft and bicycles.

Carbon fibre and fibreglass create high CO2 emissions during their manufacture. A change to bio-based composites made from materials like flax or hemp would make a measurable difference. Not only will they use less energy in the manufacturing process, but growing a field of hemp or flax in the first place will absorb a significant amount of CO2.

Another Explorer Forum workshop was one held in collaboration with Space East. Companies working in space-related industries, who are a part of the Space East cluster, as well as the Satellite Applications Catapult, attended to help the researchers from Norwich Research Park understand the current status, solutions and challenges of the satellite sector.

Researchers then helped the company representatives to understand the capabilities of their science and spent time exploring synergies in areas such as positioning East Anglia as a testbed for new technologies, developing next generation crops, precision farming, soil quality, water management and pesticide use.

Roz Bird, CEO of Anglia Innovation Partnership, said: “One of the key things I have learned in my time managing science parks and business parks is the huge benefit of bringing together people with a common interest and encouraging them to exchange views, share data and work together.

“In the science park management world, we call this ‘engineered serendipity’. We are planning many more Explorer Forums in 2024 as it is a great way to forge new collaborations and helps solve real industry problems. Explorer Forums is one of the many ways we can ensure that we maximise the societal impact of the amazing publicly-funded research taking place on the campus.”

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