Prof Peter Dobson OBE
Former Director of Begbroke Science Park, University of Oxford
After careers at Imperial College London and Philips Research laboratories Prof Peter Dobson was appointed to a University Lectureship and College Fellowship at the Queen’s College Oxford in 1988 and a Professorship in 1996. There he conducted research on nanoparticles, nanostructures, optoelectronics and biosensors.
In 1999 he spun-off a company, now called Oxonica, which specialised in making nanoparticles for a wide range of applications, ranging from sunscreens to fuel additive catalysts and bio-labels. In 2000, with colleagues in Chemistry and Engineering, he spun-off Oxford Biosensors Ltd., which made a hand-held device based on enzyme-functionalised microelectrode arrays. His latest company, Oxford NanoSystems was formed in 2012.
Between 2002 and 2013 he built up the Begbroke Science Park to accommodate 24 start-up companies and created new laboratories for University research groups. He has published over 180 papers and 30 patents covering a wide range of subjects. From 2009-2013, Prof Dobson was the Strategic Advisor on Nanotechnology to the Research Councils in the UK and sits on several other panels and committees.
Prof Dobson was awarded the OBE in 2013 in recognition of his contributions to science and engineering. He holds visiting professorial or equivalent positions in several Universities, including UCL.
You’ve had an interesting career in academia and industry; can you tell us why a mix in experience was beneficial for you?
I always enjoy the teaching and training aspects because it is one way of repaying the debt I feel I have to society for having access to the supportive facilities at Universities. Working in industry, either large or small, is fun because it also helps to create wealth and jobs and provides an outlet for some of the results from research. Again, this helps me to put something back into the community.
You’ve also had experience with filing many patents throughout your career. Do you have any key learnings you can share from this process?
There are many lessons I have learned and continue to learn:
- Before publishing your work or presenting it at conferences, check if there is anything patentable that you risk divulging. If there is, file a patent first and be very careful about any disclosures prior to the granting of the patent.
- Having acquired a patent decide on a strategy about using it. Patents cost money to file and retain, so it is important to have a plan to either licence them to companies who can exploit them in return for fees and royalties or to use them as the basis for a spin-off company. If you are in a company, it is important to think through a strategy for revenue generation.
- Treat the information in patents as a resource for your own research. Inventors are obliged to give full details of the exemplification of the idea and this can be useful, as long as you are not going to use it for any commercial purposes.
- Don’t be put off if a similar prior patent comes up. It is worth checking out to see how this has been exploited, or if the inventors had weakened their patent by prior disclosure. It is also worth figuring out how to work around it, or have a discussion with the assignee about licensing or trading. Patents also help to identify competitors or collaborators.
- Sometimes it is advantageous to keep information out of the public domain and retain it as a ‘trade secret’ rather than as a patent.
Yes, the most important thing is to ensure that everyone concerned buys into the ‘vision’. It is also important to ensure that the local community and regional agencies are all supportive.
Another important point is to try build a supportive management team. In the early days there may be unforeseen problems, so it is important to have the whole team trying to address and solve these issues. Regular, friendly contact with the whole team is really crucial.
And what about nanotechnologies for diagnostics in particular; how do you see the future for nanotechnology?
Nanotechnologies are beginning to have a big impact on many diagnostic methods and make use of digital technology and hence remote operation. In the case of diagnostic point-of-care sensors that are used to examine body fluids for indicators of disease conditions, there is huge scope for reducing the times and logistics for analysis. A doctor, nurse or untrained individual could apply a sample of saliva, urine or blood to a simple sensor that incorporates nanoparticle biomarker detectors, and the results could be sent directly by mobile phone technology to an expert for diagnosis or, increasingly, some initial interpretation could be performed with artificial intelligence techniques. This could have a big impact on the wellbeing of the patient and reduce the time to begin effective treatment, as well as reduce the work load on doctors and other healthcare professionals.
The use of nanoparticles for enhancing the images and sensitivity of many of the body scanning techniques will also have a big impact, although this might take longer because of the issues surrounding the introduction of such agents into the body. Overall, the application of nanotechnology to medicine is one of the most exciting and high value applications of nanotechnology.
How do you see i-sense tools and technologies supporting healthcare in the future?
The i-sense tools and technologies are going to introduce a paradigm shift in the way we detect and support infectious disease control. This is one of the timeliest projects I have been associated with and many of the tools will be translated to other healthcare activities. I think we are at the beginning of a very exciting journey in the improvement of healthcare provision for both the developing world and the advanced economies.
What are some of the key considerations when producing a healthcare tool or technology?
I suppose the two obvious ones are that we do not do any harm to the patient and that if it is a diagnostic methodology we are able to act in a therapeutic way as a result of the diagnosis.
For the first consideration we have to be aware of any of the risks and limitations of the technology. So, for sensors outside of the body we have to establish if there are shelf life issues, possible interference effects with other substances and also establish the dynamic range over which the sensor operates. If any nanoparticles are put into the body, in any way, we need to be aware of where they go after they have targeted the particular organ or disease. This will mean a rigorous design of any trials and a careful investigation of human safety.
What has been the highlight of your career?
Apart from getting married to a very understanding and supportive wife, it was the honour of receiving an OBE in 2013.