Beyond the Lab - Astronomy and Particle Physics in Business

“Beyond the Lab – Astronomy and Particle Physics in Business” took place in Edinburgh on Thursday 24 January with the purpose of driving collaboration between academia and industry and promoting the talent pool of UK Academic Research. Symbolically this first event took place in the newly inaugurated Higgs Innovation Centre, which brings together world-class research in astronomy and particle physics, providing business incubation facilities and laboratories suitable for commercial use.


Prof. Luigi Del Debbio, in his introduction, invited participants to take a bottom-up approach to strengthen the links between research and industry by ‘building networks’. He urged those present to start devising a road map so that the day’s interactions between scientists, engineers, students, alumni and companies would be the starting point of further collaboration.

The CERN Office of Alumni Relations was implicated in not only the promotion of the event within the CERN Alumni Community but also in proposing panellists.  It was also on-hand throughout the day to recruit new members to the network and to capitalise on the presence of industry at the to promote the possibility for those seeking to recruit people with the skills and talents developed at CERN to post opportunities on the CERN Alumni Platform.


The event began with comprehensive presentations of the Higgs Centre for Innovation by the Director of the UK Astronomy Technology Centre, Professor Gillian Wright, who said:

“The Higgs Centre for Innovation creates a collaborative hub where business can work with and alongside specialists in the space and big-data sectors. By plugging smaller companies straight into the world-leading research and engineering available on our historic Royal Observatory site in Edinburgh, it will provide a significant stimulus to innovation across the region.”


Prof. Franz Muheim presented a whistle-stop tour of the activities and engagement with industry, in the fields of silicon detector technologies, high performance computing and fast photon detectors amongst others,  all contributing to CERN LHC experiments under the aegis of the Institute of Particle and Nuclear Physics, University of Edinburgh.  He explained how the scale and the hostility of the environment  in which particle physics research operates, leads researchers to push technology to the limit, also paving the way for the future needs of industry.


Professor Sheila Rowan, Chief Scientific Adviser for the Scottish Government questioned the universal benefit of scientific research and in particular, the benefits astronomy and particle physics can offer business, concluding that public sector needs and spending should catalyse innovation and, therefore, research.


Amy Bilton, Knowledge Transfer Officer at CERN, focused on the start-up opportunities for particle physics technology and talent and highlighted the current efforts of the organization to build a culture of entrepreneurship.   She highlighted several examples of key technologies developed at CERN on which start-ups have been created. This is the case of  MARS Bioimaging Ltd. (New Zealand) used Medipix3 technology to scan, for the first time, a human body using a breakthrough colour medical scanner. Not only is this technology used in medical applications, but it is also being used to bring about improvements in the field of art authentication and restoration.


“Students are our strongest asset as we can learn from them”. This is how L. Del Debbio further introduced two groups of students from the theoretical physics, particle physics and cosmology domains. The students from Edinburgh and Durham universities were given the opportunity to present industry projects they had worked on in collaboration with industry, including the Hyperloop; a proposed mode of high-speed transport. Their enthusiasm and energy, combined with their academic talents demonstrates the many advantages of collaboration for both industry and academia. For academics, these include better awareness of industry trends and inspiration by application driven exchanges, whilst for industry, these involve access to specialised, world-leading intellectual resources and the ability to find new talent to hire.


The event continued with a thought-provoking presentation from Professor Tony Hey, Chief Data Scientist as Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, concerning artificial intelligence (AI) and big scientific data benchmarks. After decrypting the essence of the deep learning revolution,  Prof. Hey confirmed that academia has the potential to be able to compete with industry on machine learning and AI, despite the advantages FANG (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Google) companies enjoy, namely

  • Many, very large, business related private datasets that they will never make publicly available
  • Hundreds of employed computer scientists with PhDs in Machine Learning and AI
  • Unlimited computing power at the disposal or researchers


The unique advantage that academia has in this race for the next achievements in deep learning is its ability to create scientific datasets that are sufficiently large and complex to provide a realistic testing ground for machine learning algorithms.  The US DOE ( Department of Energy), and the STFC at Harwell and the Alan Turing Institute  have embarked on ambitious Scientific Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence programmes to harness their powers for the benefit of scientific research.


Questions related to the impact of quantum computing were raised and discussed in the subsequent Big Data Panel discussion, as well issues related to ethics in technology, data ownership and the areas in which academia can have an advantage over the FANG companies.


Alison Kennedy, Director of the STFC High Performance Computing and Data Analytics Research Facility, Hartree Centre, spoke about applying HPC (High Power Computing), data analytics and AI expertise to industry-led challenges. A. Kennedy highlighted the fact that Particle Physics and Astronomy trained researchers have transferable skills that have been essential to the growth of HPC skills in the UK. However, she also put emphasis on the necessary industrial relevance of research in funding decisions.


The last panel discussion asked the question: “Industry and academia: a perfect partnership?’ CERN Alumnus Oskar Dondelewski ( now working in the UK automotive industry highlighted the strong incentives for collaboration between industry and academia: “Partnership between industry and academia is one of the best ways to develop innovations. The key thing to enable such a partnership, despite different goals that drive each side, is understanding each other’s point of view. If you are a business leader, think how research can improve your products and appreciate how complex it is to conduct. If you are an academic, consider how difficult it is to turn a scientific idea your lab developed into a commercially viable market product.”


An enriching day of knowledge sharing between industry and academia ended with a wonderful tour of the premises of the Royal Observatory and the most magnificent view of Edinburgh, significantly from the rooftop of the Higgs Innovation Centre to remind participants that science sees further and beyond!

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