University of Bath researchers, Dr Susanne Gebhard, Department of Biology and Biochemistry, and Professor Kevin Paine, Department of Architecture & Civil Engineering, worked with Adaptavate, a start-up creating low carbon construction products, to assess the feasibility of using bacteria for self-healing wall plaster. Dr Gebhard reflects on how a small feasibility study has lead to a larger funded project.
How the project began
Professor Kevin Paine presented our work on bacteria in self-healing concrete at a showcase event highlighting University of Bath research, organised by the Sustainable Technologies Business Acceleration Hub (STBAH), which is an organisation that aims to broker research collaborations between University of Bath academics and external companies in the West of England.
The Technical Director of Adaptavate was there, and afterwards he contacted STBAH to ask if they could broker a collaboration with us. STBAH facilitated a meeting between the two parties, and we could see quite quickly that there was a project we would be able to develop together.
We applied for a small amount of funding (£8,000) from the University of Bath's EPSRC Impact Acceleration Account (IAA) for a three-month project to assess the feasibility of using bacteria to create wall plaster that would heal its own cracks.
How it worked
The funding paid for a Post-Doctoral Researcher to work solely on this project for three months. It was a collaborative research project with Adaptavate and so we had frequent meetings and conversations; we talked about everything. If something unexpected came up we would email them, and we discussed all the little incremental advances. It was almost like we were one research team.
What was exchanged
Adaptavate had the expertise on their material - the plaster - and we had expertise on our bacteria-based technology. There was a genuine aim from both parties to understand our respective technologies and try to make something new.
A lot of information and data was exchanged. We didn’t shy away from any of the microbiology details, and we felt that that was important, that they needed to understand our technology so that they could see the implications of what it might do to their material.
Barriers we had to overcome
It was an extra workload, and the amount of funding it brought in was very small. But we made good use of existing resources and shared out the workload.
I look at these small-scale funding opportunities as an investment in the future; there’s the possibility that something bigger might come out of them, like a product or a technology that you can IP protect. If you look at them in isolation it is hard to justify the value for money. But the reward isn’t the money, it’s the potential to make something that counts from your research.
STBAH supported us throughout the project, they read funding applications for us, and advised us about other people we could talk to, including how to get advice about intellectual property.
The follow-on activities we have developed
Through this project we discovered that there was a better way to create self-healing plaster, using a technology that Adaptavate were already working on, rather than our technology using bacteria. But we both thought that our technology was compatible with their work in general, and so we decided to stay in touch.
Nothing happened for quite a while because the pandemic hit. Then STBAH got in touch with us again to see how our project had gone and to explore with us whether we would like to take our work further.
We applied together with Adaptavate for a larger amount of funding (£80,000) from the National Biofilms Innovation Centre (NBIC), to work together on a different product they are currently developing, and have just heard we were successful. It will be a six-month proof-of-concept project and the funding will mostly pay for staff time.
Tips for knowledge exchange projects
- Find a partner that you really want to work with - someone who is as interested in your work as you are in theirs. It is extra workload, so it needs to be fun, you need to enjoy having conversations and trying new things with them.
- It is a good idea to engage with showcase and dissemination events, like the one we presented at organised by STBAH. You never know who will be listening or what kind of collaborations may come from it.