Meet the 2021 Trinity Bradfield Prize winners
Sustainable plant-based colours for cosmetics, a low-cost portable detector of harmful airborne particles, and an AI-based rendering engine for realistic video content have scooped the 2021 Trinity Bradfield Prize.
Dr Benjamin Droguet, postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Chemistry, won the £10,000 first prize for innovating cellulose-based colours and glitter for use in an array of commercial sectors, including cosmetics, where there is significant demand for more environmentally friendly products.
Dr Molly Haugen, Senior Research Associate at the Department of Engineering, won the £5,000 second prize for the development of a mini detector of tiny particles – including viruses and pollutants – for use by consumers, researchers and in commercial settings.
Jack Davis, who is studying for an MPhil in Machine Learning and Machine Intelligence, won the Geoffrey Hellings Trinity Bradfield Prize for developing an AI-based rendering engine that creates realistic video content of real events and scenes. ‘What the video game engines are for rendering virtual scenes, Loci will be for rendering real-life in the virtual world,’ says the sole-founder.
The Trinity Bradfield Prize, established in 2018, is open to teams with at least one member of the University of Cambridge. This year 125 teams applied. The 2021 judging panel comprised the former Master of Trinity and biotech entrepreneur, Sir Gregory Winter, Kerry Baldwin of IQ Capital, Anne Dobree of Cambridge Enterprise, and serial entrepreneur Robert Swann.
In addition to the no-strings-attached prize money, the prize includes a bespoke mentoring programme and three months membership of the Bradfield Centre at Cambridge Science Park.
The three winners said the award would help them develop their respective innovations further, obtain investment and legal advice, and make more industry contacts.
Dr Droguet, who has applied for patents for Sparxell, said:
The Prize is first of all recognition that there is interest and that this technology is appealing. That’s valuable when we seek funding to help us develop further. The mentoring is really key. There are many legal and financial aspects that I need to discuss with someone who has the experience of and knowledge about these matters.
Dr Haugen said the Trinity Bradfield Prize came at the perfect time to help refine the mini condensation particle counter (CPC) she has developed with her team.
The Trinity Bradfield Prize is great for us at our stage of development. We have a few areas that need to be optimized so the majority of the funds will go towards purchasing a bunch of low-cost equipment (lasers, photo photodiode detectors, pumps, chip-based electronics, etc.) so we can get the right combination for our intended purposes AND to make our device as small as we absolutely can. This funding is great to make sure the science can continue at pace to get this sensor into consumers hands as soon as possible!
Jack Davis has made progress just a few weeks after winning the Hellings Trinity Bradfield Prize, which is open only to Cambridge undergraduate and postgraduate students.
Since winning the prize Loci has managed to close a venture-capitalist led pre-seed round to further develop the rendering engine. We are hiring talented computer vision engineers and software engineers & full stack engineers to make this a reality.
Director of the Bradfield Centre, James Parton, said:
There was an impressive set of entries this year and the winners deserve credit for their level of innovation and sound commercial instinct. With the bespoke mentoring provided at the Bradfield and the congenial environment for tech entrepreneurs the centre creates, I am sure the winners will relish this fantastic opportunity to capitalise on their creativity and make great strides in evolving and bringing their products to market.
Dr Droguet’s innovation uses wood pulp as the base product from which are extracted cellulose nanocrystals, which can be fine-tuned to create an array of colours.
Unlike most of today’s manufactured products, which are coloured by dyes, Sparxell relies on structural colour – a process commonly found in nature involving microscopic structures that interfere with light to reflect a colour.
This accounts for the bright and often iridescent colours humans see in, for example, some hummingbirds, butterflies and seashells – colour being a property of light reflected by an object and the visual system of the animal observing it.
This phenomenon was first described by the scientists Robert Hooke and Isaac Newton at the turn of the eighteenth century.
Fast forward 300 years and Dr Droguet was inspired by the research of his PhD Supervisor, Professor Silvia Vignolini, to bridge the disciplines of optics and chemistry in order to create sustainable colours and glitter for commercial use.
In 2012 Professor Vignolini showed how the spiral cell wall structure of the fruit of the rainforest plant Pollia condensata accounts for its intense blue colour – one of the most brilliant blues known in any living organism. Dr Droguet said:
Pigments are used everywhere – our life is so colourful, we don’t even think about that. It’s about learning from nature – using those design principles to make a more sustainable way of making colour. By simply altering the dimension and surface chemistry of the nanocrystals of cellulose we can tune the colour. The optical phenomenon that allows part of the light to be reflected also accounts for the glittery effect.
Top of the many commercial sectors Sparxell has in its sights is the cosmetics industry – which is sensitive to growing public concern about micro-plastics and aware of increasing regulation of its key ingredients.
‘The cosmetics industry is more ahead in terms of sustainability than some other sectors. They have been quite ahead in their thinking, about using more sustainable products and to lower emissions,’ says Dr Droguet. ‘Even big brands are really committed – also because customers want this change.’
Sparxell’s cellulose pigments are completely biodegradable, fade resistant and even edible. So not only are they much more environmentally friendly than the glitter commonly used in cosmetics and packaging, which contains micro-plastics, but they have a much smaller carbon footprint.
This is because Sparxell’s base product, cellulose, comes from plants – even agricultural waste – in contrast to minerals such as mica and titanium that are used to colour the vast majority of cosmetics currently available. These minerals are mined in India and Madagascar, where labour laws may not be that stringent or well-enforced.
We hope to be able to replace these minerals that have a very intensive process and long and complex supply chain. They are mined in countries far away, a process that uses harsh chemicals and where it is very hard for companies to know if their supply chain is child labour free. We have a lot of interest from various companies, there is a demand and need for what Sparxell offers.
Dr Haugen and her team have developed a radically smaller and cheaper condensation particle counter (CPC) than those currently available – which weigh about a kilogram and cost in the region of £10,000. By contrast Dr Haugen’s device is 9 x 5cm and will cost well under £1000.
A CPC measures nanoparticles in the air by condensing a fluid onto the particles to make them large enough to detect. Dr Haugen said:
The goal is for this device to be used for personal knowledge, industrial and research applications. It will be important to monitor the nanoparticles in a workspace, especially as we go back to the office, as viruses, air pollution, and dust dominate this particle size, yet cannot be cheaply detected. This sensor will be able to do that. Our sensor can be placed on a shelf or wall similar to a thermostat. It can also fit inside a shirt pocket, so long as the sampling inlet is exposed to the environment. It can also be clipped to a belt loop similar to other detectors that monitor construction exposure to maintain health and safety regulations.
The mini CPC could also be used on public transport to monitor particulates, for example on planes, trains and buses. ‘This will help assess when air recirculation filters need to be replaced,’ said Dr Haugen. ‘For research applications we made it lightweight and small so it can go anywhere, on drones, sides of buildings, etc. and cheap enough that multiple sensors can be used to measure particle dispersion or real-time emission monitoring.’
Dr Haugen said her research and career paths had coalesced in the mini CPC.
I am a hands-on scientist and thrive on collecting data. By being in the field and collecting data, I have learned what is needed by the community and how I would change what is available to make it a better instrument for the science that is happening now. The scientific community is evolving into a more inclusive science where general consumers are interested in what others have been studying for decades. This means that the instrumentation has to adapt as well so people who do not have PhDs can still get information they want and can take control of their health and environmental impact. We, as scientists, can then also use this data for a universal understanding of how particles evolve and travel in the air.
Jack Davis received a distinction for creating software that reconstructed in 3D a tennis match from single camera television footage. It was part of his thesis for the MPhil in Machine Learning and Machine Intelligence at Cambridge. Despite being proud of the project, he says it still looked like a video game.
So I became interested in an area of computer vision called novel-view-synthesis/neural rendering, which in the future I believe can address some of the limitations of my proof-of-concept: namely the lack of photo-realism and the lack of generalisability to any real-life scene. That’s when I decided I wanted to form a start-up with this vision in mind.
Jack’s innovation promises the opposite of what video gaming offers. Instead of enabling gamers to enter a virtual environment, Loci’s technology will allow immersion in real-life events and spaces.
He explains what a ‘photo-realistic rendering engine for real-life video content’ will require of his company, Loci.
‘photo-realistic’: We need the output video content from the ‘virtual camera’ to look indistinguishable from what the video content would look like from a physical camera.
‘rendering engine’: Like the video-game engines, but focused on rendering real-life scenes from new viewpoints – even when there is not a physical camera placed at that position.
‘real-life video content:’ Unlike video-game engines, the input to this rendering engine is images or video footage of real-life events or scenes, not 3D objects.
It may seem far-fetched but in two years’ time Jack says we won’t be able to tell whether video content on TV, social media or film has been captured from a physical camera or a ‘virtual camera.’
The merging of interactive virtual world experiences and the physical world has begun and is only going to grow. Examples include Facebook’s rebrand and focus on the ‘Metaverse’ including a $10 billion investment in the space, or Epic Games’ first virtual concert hosted live to 80 million people inside a video game. So there could not be a better time to start building the rendering infrastructure to make this happen. Simultaneously, the same underlying technology can be used to create more engaging and dynamic video footage in the more tangible viewing mediums, such as TV and smartphone, without having to wait for the ‘metaverse’ to become a reality before being profitable.
This means you will be able to watch a tennis match from the perspective of Roger Federer or be on stage with your favourite musician – all from the comfort of your living room. ‘Or you could even create your own immersive experiences of your holidays, which distant relatives could join in virtual reality,’ he says.
After studying at Warwick, Jack worked in hedge fund consultancy for five years, building statistical and machine learning models for the finance and sports industries.
I decided I wanted to pursue something more entrepreneurial, so I applied to the MPhil in Machine Learning & Machine Intelligence at Cambridge to have the freedom to develop computer vision software in this space, whilst learning about other interesting areas of machine learning and providing the foundation for launching my own company.
The Hellings Trinity Bradfield Prize started out life as the Geoffrey Hellings Prize for Innovation in Creativity in Science and Technology as a result of a donation from the family of Geoffrey Hellings, a student at Trinity in the 1920s.