Interview by Marija Butkovic @MarijaButkovic
Dr. Beverley Brown is an award-winning scientist and the Chief Technology Officer at SmartKem, a UK-based business with technology that is literally re-shaping the world of wearable devices. SmartKem’s organic semiconductors mean electronic displays can be created on plastic, rather than glass; meaning the screens on wearables can be ultra-thin, lightweight and unbreakable. Today, the company is in the final stages of commercial adoption and scale-up of material production with the first display products anticipated to enter the market in 2018. SmartKem was awarded a ‘Best Advanced Material’ at Printed Electronics Asia, ‘Innovative Product of the Year’ for Wales and was a finalist in the prestigious R&D100 Awards in the USA.
We spoke to Beverley about how she always knew life in the laboratory was for her, the SmartKem ‘molecule to market’ strategy and how her team’s work is making the displays on wearable devices thinner, lightweight, low power and bendable.
Beverley, tell us a little about your career!
From childhood I always knew I wanted to be a scientist. I was drawn to the idea of working in a laboratory, as part of a large team with many different skills. I studied Chemistry at Glasgow University and completed a PhD in synthetic organic chemistry. Since then I’ve worked for a variety of chemical companies, both large and small, finding commercial solutions through the application of science.
What sort of projects have you worked on?
When I finished university, I worked in ICI’s New Science Research Group. This corporate activity was very well-funded and there was a real culture of supporting a longer term approach to very novel science; it was a fantastic first job. After that I worked in the high volume, cost-competitive end of chemistry for ICI in electrochemical technology. I’ve also worked on Ministry of Defence projects and was involved in designing optical fibre coatings; our team invented technology that enabled fibre bundles to be blown over a mile in length – key to enabling buildings to be installed with fibre for internet-readiness.
How did you come to work at SmartKem?
I’d spent many years working in the field of organic semiconductors in Zeneca, including work at the National Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) before I joined SmartKem. Semiconductors are hugely important for electronic displays and SmartKem’s organic semiconductors enable the manufacture of thin-film transistor backplanes that can be used to create displays on plastic rather than glass.
Tell us a bit more about SmartKem!
It’s real ground-breaking technology. Using our semiconductor materials, display-makers can open up a whole new range of possibilities. Wearable devices at the moment are often heavy, prone to damage and need to be recharged all the time. And with our technology, wearable designers can create more comfortable, more fashionable and more convenient devices.
How far along is the technology?
I joined SmartKem almost four years ago and in that time we’ve developed a substantial Intellectual Property (IP) portfolio. We have 14 patent families, 32 patents granted and 180 pending patents. SmartKem technology is also on Asian display production lines as we speak. We’re investor-backed and have swiftly moved from technology to commercialisation via a ‘molecule to market’ business strategy. Expect to see some SmartKem-enabled wearable devices very soon!
Do you use wearable devices yourself?
I have a Fitbit which I absolutely love, but I have to charge it very often and it’s bulky on my wrist. It’s slightly uncomfortable to wear; particularly for women as we tend to have smaller wrists. If there was a similar device that I had to charge less often and which was more comfortable and lighter to wear I’d happily pay more for it. That’s the idea behind SmartKem technology – we’ll enable those things.
Can you tell us a little more about SmartKem’s power value proposition?
Smartphones, wearables and other portable devices are supposed to make our lives more convenient. But how often do you have to take off your smartwatch to re-charge it? Wearables currently spend too much time attached to plug sockets rather than on our bodies.
What does your day-to-day job involve?
I manage a team of scientists but a large part of my time is spent managing our IP portfolio. The remainder of my time is spent managing the company’s challenging technical projects, working with the scientists to agree what experiments we are going to do and analysing results. I’m lucky if I get to spend half a day a week in the laboratory doing my own experiments, but it’s a very fulfilling job.
What do you think of the #womenintech campaign?
I think it’s an excellent initiative, I’d like to see more women in senior technology roles but I’m not convinced it’s happening in the chemical or in the high-tech industry yet. I believe it’s happening more in biological and medical science sectors which is encouraging. I’ve found that the chemistry laboratory is typically a pretty male-dominated environment, but I’ve never experienced any discrimination.
Above all, I’d like to see us encourage more women to think about technology jobs when they study. I’d always encourage young women to study all three sciences and maths, as this opens so many options.
Where else do you think the wearables industry is going?
It's evolving all the time. We’ve had the early adopters, but now we need to grow the market by improving the devices out there. They need to be more convenient, more comfortable and less prone to damage because they are typically a relatively costly purchase. With SmartKem’s semiconductors we can see a merging of fashion and function. At the moment, a lot of wearables are based simply on function and aren't aesthetically pleasing or ergonomic. We need to change that if the wearables industry is going to evolve as it should do.
LinkedIn: SmartKem Limited
This interview was conducted by Marija Butkovic, Digital Marketing and PR strategist, founder and CEO of Women of Wearables and Kisha Smart Umbrella. She regularly writes and speaks on topics of wearable tech, fashion tech, IoT, entrepreneurship and diversity. Visit marijabutkovic.co.uk or follow Marija on Twitter @MarijaButkovic @Women_Wearables @GetKisha.