Shining a light on how industry can tackle R&D challenges

27 Sep 2022

Dr Liam Lewis. Image: CAPPA

From pharma to medical devices, Dr Liam Lewis and his team are tapping into light-based tech to help companies with different research projects.

Dr Liam Lewis is gateway manager at the Centre for Advanced Photonics and Process Analysis (CAPPA). Based at Munster Technological University in Cork, this centre conducts applied and fundamental research based around the science of light.

Lewis completed a PhD in 2008 on novel materials for LEDs at University College Cork. After a postdoc, he moved to what was then Cork Institute of Technology to work with CAPPA as a researcher.

Over the last number of years, he has moved into a business development and project management role, primarily engaging with industrial clients and developing research projects to meet their R&D challenges. He oversees approximately €6m worth of active research projects, with a significant number of these having an industrial focus.

‘Many industrial partners do not have the ability to carry out in-house R&D’

Tell us about the research you’re currently working on.

We currently are working with over 20 companies on a variety of different research projects, using light and light-based technologies to assist in solving their R&D challenges.

The breadth of engagements includes companies in the pharmaceutical, food and beverage, and medical device thematic areas, covering a diverse range of topics such as process monitoring, product development, theoretical design and simulation and quality control. Each new challenge has allowed us to broaden and develop the skillset within the centre and in turn leads to new application spaces.

Significant emphasis on impact-based research has also assisted in forging stronger links between industry and academic partners. It has become more impactful and efficient now for companies to have collaborating partners and the variety of supports available to assist this has brought us to a new level of industrial engagement.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

Many industrial partners do not have the ability to carry out in-house R&D. They strongly recognise the need to innovate in order to be more competitive and to reach broader markets, but the scale of their operations mean there is no time or experience for improvements.

By partnering with an academic research partner, the companies get access to a high level of expertise and know-how, which can help them to understand their R&D needs more completely and also develop a roadmap for innovation within the company.

Many of our engagements also allow for an education of the industrial workforce, which builds internal capability and allows ultimately for a certain level of autonomy in the internal R&D process. As a result, companies become more resilient, more informed and also more engaged in their own research capabilities.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I recall my very first day in a college lecture, which happened to be physics. The introduction the lecturer gave about science and research in general was very appealing to me.

It seemed to completely align with my own curiosities about how things work and I knew that the variation of topics and research questions that were being studied meant that this career would never be boring.

I can safely say that has held true right to this day. I hope also to instil this enthusiasm in new potential researchers. There is also a wonderful sense of satisfaction in this career. Solving problems is highly rewarding and the achievement felt when a challenge is overcome is second to none. You don’t win every challenge – but certainly more than you lose.

What are some of the biggest challenges or misconceptions you face as a researcher in your field?

Being a researcher in general can be very tough. Certainly when you struggle to solve a problem it can be a tricky time, and engaging with industrial people can be difficult if they think that you are not fully appreciating their needs and pressures. This has improved as more and more collaborations are built, but it’s still a challenge.

It’s also sometimes difficult to explain to lay people that not all research questions can be solved. Everyone may push themselves to their limits but sometimes the answers are not achievable. Overall though, these aspects are far outweighed by the other aspects of conducting research.

Do you think public engagement with science has changed in recent years?

Personally I think it has improved. The vast majority of researchers are very happy to talk about their research – it helps them to understand it in simple terms and highlights the value to the general public when they can speak about the research they do.

We continually encourage our own students and staff to talk about their research in both academic and public settings. We have a very strong outreach programme aimed at schools as we want to encourage the next generation of scientists to become involved.

Research can also be a long road and I think it’s important to highlight to the non-scientific community where we are heading and what we hope to achieve. Ultimately, the vast majority of research has resulted in a positive impact on humanity. We can never say enough about that.

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