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Funding Breakthrough Technology

Commercialising breakthrough technologies is a complex and time consuming process. It is also an essential part of creating value from our science base and contributing to continued economic development. This project investigates the evolution of seven case study technologies from science discovery to commercialisation. The research uses a historical methodology to examine past commercialisation processes to see what themes and lessons can be learned for current technology commercialisation and uses the lens of funding to analyse the commercialisation process.

We define breakthrough technologies as novel and discontinuous innovations that result in significant and irreversible changes. These innovations are based on new, under or unexploited physical, chemical and biological phenomena, that allow order of magnitude improvement in the performance of existing products and/or the creation of entirely new ones. These novel innovations may entail the development of new 'technology platforms' with applications across a range of products and markets. Many of the resultant applications are not envisaged at the time of the initial innovation. 

Results & dissemination

Download the full Funding Breakthrough Technology report (pdf, 1.2MB)

The research identified two transition periods in the commercialisation of science-based technology; the transition from the science-base to the pre-commercial environment; and the transition from the pre-commercial to the commercial environment. This is pictured in the above diagram. Factors the research identified as driving this first transition include inter-disciplinary interaction, time (often decades), space for curiosity driven research safe from the business cycle, technology champions and luck.

Factors that drive science-based technology from the pre-commercial to the commercial environment include niche applications, non-price sensitive customers and decisions made by large corporates; such as decision to enter a market and position of that market entry, internal or external knowledge and technology sourcing, and vehicle of commercialisation (start-up, spin-out, corporate unit).


The research highlights a number of policy implications including:

  • The importance of interdisciplinary teams working in close proximity
  • The role of 'mission-driven' environments that support both pre- and commercial technology development
  • Importance of government R&D contracts for funding of early development (i.e. US SBIR)
  • Role of public procurement as a 'deep pocketed' first customer
  • Limits of current VC model in supporting new technology development - chance for new Strategic Investment Fund to offer an alternative
  • Role of government policy in areas such as space, energy and defence on innovation activity

Selected technologies

A brief outline of the seven technology case studies are detailed below. Please click on the "Output" tab at the top of the page to download the full case study reports. 

The technologies were identified through survey of scientists and industrialists involved in the CIKC and in Cambridge. Participants were asked to nominate technologies that have evolved over the past 50 years which they considered to be breakthroughs; technologies were nominated in two time periods; pre-1990 and post-1990. 15 technologies were identified through this process. This list was refined down to the current seven cases. 

If you would like to comment on any of this material or the Funding Breakthrough Technology project please contact Samantha Sharpe.

Technology Brief outline Case study materials
Liquid Crystal Displays Liquid crystals were discovered in 1888 but not connected with display applications until the early 1960s. Early applications include pocket calculator and digital watch displays. Later applications including televisions and laptops had to wait for complementary innovations in thin film transistors and LC materials to become viable. LCD outsold CRT televisions for the first time only in 2007. LCD case report
Optical Fibres Using transparent fibres to transmit light goes back to the Victorian era. A key issue was light loss and this was not resolved until cladded fibres were developed in the 1950s and 1960s. Fibre optics as a communications medium was first seriously suggested in 1966 with a paper by Kao and Hockman from STL that determined light loss needed to decline to 20dB per km for communications applications. Successive waves of innovation in optical fibres, and complementary technologies such as the laser saw optical communication emerge in twenty years (1960s-1980s). The development of erbium doped fibre amplifiers in 1989 by University of Southampton and Bell Labs allowed greater and greater amounts of data to be transmitted and accelerated the expansion of the internet age. Optical Fibres case report
LEDs The case study covers the development of traditional LEDs, Organic LEDs and GaN LEDs. LEDs are semiconductor devices that emit light when a diode is switched on. The various generations of LEDs can be differentiated by the different materials used in the active layer of the diode. Traditional LEDs trace their history back the early 1900s, but again the 1950s saw acceleration in the technology that led to applications. Further developments using different materials continued over the next few decades. OLEDs developed out of work in the 1970s on conductive polymers, with two types of OLED adapted to applications, the small molecule LED (SMOLED) and polymer LED (P-OLED). Emerging research on GaN LEDs can trace back to the 1960s, but the 1993 development of a viable blue GaN-based LED has focused the recent years of research. GaN LEDs and many applications of OLEDs are still emerging. LED case report
Giant Magnetoresistance (GMR) Giant magnetoresistance was discovered in 1988 by two independent groups of European researchers. They found unexpectedly large changes in the electrical resistance of thin layered metal materials in response to a small magnetic field. The discovery represented a new physics phenomenon and led to applications in hard disk memory storage (IBM), progress towards MRAM (Magnetic Random Access Memory) and a new field of electronics, Spintronics (electrical devices that rely on electron spin for their power source). These latter two fields of applications are still in development. GMR case report
Micro Electronic Mechanical Systems (MEMS) The basis for microelectronic mechanical systems is the ability to create controllable, mechanical, moveable structures using IC (Integrated Circuit) processing technology. MEMS can trace their development back to the discovery of piezoresistivity at Bell Labs in 1954. Early applications for MEMS were very expensive and used initially only in space and aerospace with pressure sensors the primary application. The 1990s marked a period of acceleration in MEMS development. MEMS sensors for airbag systems in vehicles were launched n 1991. Micromachined components for ink jet printing cartridge nozzles were also released in the same time period. Intense investment in R&D in MEMS for optical, biomedical and consumer electronics followed. We are now seeing the beginning of mass integration of MEMS devices in consumer electronics. MEMS case report
Continuous Inkjet Printing Technology Digital inkjet printing is a binary, non-impact dot-matrix printing technology. In its purest form inkjet printing is the jetting of individual ink droplets from a small aperture directly into a specified position on any manner of substrate. The concept of a printer that controls the flow of ink through tiny tubes dates back to the nineteenth century, but again the period of the 1950s saw the transformation of this concept into printing applications, first through a drive to automate biological analysis and then other demands of industrial printing. Inkjet printing divided into two field in the 1970s, the drop-on-demand method (which is exhibited in all modern desktop inkjet printers) and Continuous Inkjet (CIJ) (where the market is focused on industrial applications and more fragmented that the DoD market).Continuous Inkjet printing is a central focus for a number of firms in Cambridge who can all trace their lineage in technology and human resources back to Cambridge Consultants and R&D contract work completed by CCL for ICI in the 1970s. Continuous Inkjet Printing case report
Photovoltaics A photovoltaic cell is a device that converts sunlight directly into electricity via the photovoltaic effect, where photons of sunlight knock loose electrons and induce current flow in the cell. Photovoltaic cells are generally classified into three generations. The first generation used single and poly-crystalline wafer based silicon cells and development was spurred on by the space age and the need for a reliable power supply for satellites. Second generation cells were thin film cells using materials such as cadmium telluride, cooper indium gallium selenide, amorphous silicon and micromorphous silicon. These cells were aimed at the terrestrial market, but cost reductions in material came at the price of cell conversion efficiency. Third generation thin film cells which are still in development attempt to keep costs savings of thin-film cells but increase conversion efficiency through new mechanisms such as up-conversion and tandem conversion, and utilizing nanocrystal and organic materials. PV case report


Sharpe, S., A. Cosh and D. Connell, (2009) Funding Breakthrough Technology: Final Report to the CIKC, Funding Breakthrough Technology Project, CBR.

Working papers

Sharpe, S. (2009) 'Risk capital and innovation: venture capital' FINNOV Working paper 3.1a.

Conference/Workshop papers

Cosh, A. (2010) Hauser Review Workshop, 'The Current and Future Role of Technology and Innovation Centres in the UK', organized at NESTA by BIS, 26 January.

Case study materials

Sharpe, S. (2009) Giant Magnetoresistance case report, Funding Breakthrough Technology Project, CBR.

Khanam, R. (2009) Light Emitting Displays case report, Funding Breakthrough Technology Project, CBR.

Sharpe, S. (2009) Liquid Crystal Displays case report, Funding Breakthrough Technology Project, CBR.

Sharpe, S. (2009) Optical Fibres case report, Funding Breakthrough Technology Project, CBR.

Shu, S. (2009) Photovoltaics case report, Funding Breakthrough Technology Project, CBR.

Thompson, J. (2009) Inkjet Printing case report, Funding Breakthrough Technology Project, CBR.

Project dates



Cambridge Integrated Knowledge Centre (CIKC) - Commercialisation Stream