Silicon Fen

But perhaps the biggest threat to innovation comes, ironically, from the university itself and the December 2005 vote in favour of a new Intellectual Property Rights policy. This upheld the right of academics to place their inventions in the public domain, but at the same time asserted the university’s ownership when inventions were patented. Critically, it also set out the share of revenues from any invention where Cambridge Enterprise (a university body that helps innovators to commercialise their projects) is involved. This means that for the first £100,000, the inventor(s) earn 90% of the net royalties, 60% of the next £100,000 and 34% of anything above £200,000. This is in stark contrast to the likes of MIT or Stanford in the US, both of which operate highly liberal regimes in respect of who owns ideas that are developed as projects at university.

Silicon Fen

The fear is that the new IP rights erode the difference between the universities and commercial R&D companies, where inventions belong to the company not the inventors. If that stymies the development of stunning concepts such as those you’ll read about over the next three pages, it will be a huge shame.

Plastic electronics

Back in the late 1980s, Richard Friend (now professor of physics at Cambridge) was among a group who discovered certain polymers could be used to emit light, and upon this foundation a new generation of flat panels was built. Friend went on to co-found Cambridge Display Technology, a pioneer in the development of polymer light-emitting diode (P-OLED) technology in 1992, and now sits on the board of Plastic Logic alongside Hermann Hauser. Plastics that exhibit electrical properties (similar to silicon semiconductors) are driving the development of next-generation mobile devices that are thinner, smarter and cheaper than traditionally manufactured devices, and more environmentally friendly.

Plastic electronics is a new manufacturing process combining electronics with printing, and Plastic Logic is at the forefront of the organic technology revolution. Founded in 2000, as a spin-off from Cambridge University’s Cavendish Laboratory, Plastic Logic now has the ability to print electronic circuits on thin and flexible plastic substrates. The process is highly scalable for large areas too. This is typified by the 150ppi SVGA flexible active-matrix display technology that was revealed at the Plastic Electronics 2006 conference in Frankfurt last October.

John Mills, COO of Plastic Logic, told us that its “plastic electronics technology is scalable in both screen size and resolution, and this achievement is another important step along our path to 10in 150ppi flexible displays in mass production in 2008”. Earlier in the year, the company showcased a “life is flexible” range of concepts incorporating this flexible display technology, ranging from smart books and digital music scores to intelligent patient wristbands. Perhaps most interesting was the “turnover” e-reader that uses a page-turning concept, with the screen rotated to the back refreshing the next page while turning, and so simulating a complete book in just two flexible pages.

And flexibility is the key: Plastic Logic reckons its displays can bend to a radius of curvature of 5mm without impairing functionality. Cambridge Display Technology, meanwhile, has just announced a major new development in OLED display technology: Total Matrix Addressing. Before TMA, large OLED displays have only been feasible by using active matrix technology incorporating an expensive TFT layer. TMA can be incorporated into driver chips to bring active-matrix capabilities to passive-matrix displays. Bigger screens, lower power consumption and increased panel life makes for an all-round win-win.

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