HRH The Princess Royal last night presented the UK’s longest running and most prestigious prize for engineering innovation to Oxfordshire-based SME Cobalt Light Systems.

Cobalt, which was up against UK engineering giant Rolls-Royce and QinetiQ spin-out OptaSense, has pioneered a technique to determine the chemical composition of materials in containers and behind a range of other barriers including skin. This breakthrough led to the introduction of an airport security scanner earlier this year that may soon enable airports to relax the existing hand-luggage liquid ban, and use of the same technique is now being for other applications including real-time diagnostic tools for cancer and bone disease.

Known for spotting the ‘next big thing’ in the technology sector, the Royal Academy of Engineering MacRobert Award identifies outstanding innovation with proven commercial promise and tangible societal benefit. As well as benefiting from the prestige of the award, the winners receive a gold medal and a £50,000 cash prize.

The judging panel, representing the cream of modern British engineers and entrepreneurs from a range of disciplines, selected Cobalt for its potential to touch the lives of millions of people. The company, which was formed in 2008 as a spin-out from the Science and Technology Facilities Councilcompany, which was formed in 2008 as selected Cobalt for excellent example of successful technology transfer from lab to market.

Cobalt’s technology was first developed conceptually by Cobalt’s Chief Scientific Officer in a true ‘Eureka’ moment at Science and Technology Facilities Council’s (STFC) Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. Using a novel variant of the technique of Raman spectroscopy combined with advanced algorithms to distinguish between the barrier and what lies behind it, the technique is able to reliably identify the chemical composition of a substance in seconds.

Having initially used this technique to develop a machine for pharmaceutical companies that verifies the contents and quality of medicines, Cobalt then applied it to a security scanner that may enable airports to remove the existing hand-luggage liquid ban through a phased implementation over the next few years, in line with pending EU regulations. The Insight100 system can analyse bottles of up to three litres, in order to determine if they contain anything considered a threat and without having to open them. The scanners have recently been deployed in eight of the top 10 EU airports including Heathrow and Gatwick, and a total of 65 airports in Europe have introduced the system since January 2014.

Now Cobalt is working with STFC and two UK universities, with funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), on research using the same technology that could lead to medical-grade systems that provide on-the-spot diagnosis of breast cancer and bone diseases such as osteoporosis.

Osteoporosis affects an estimated three million people in the UK and leads to bones becoming brittle and breaking easily, which can result in pain and disability. Cobalt’s technology is being used to develop a fast and reliable new method that could lead to earlier diagnosis in patients, enabling them to take preventative measures and seek treatment before sustaining injury. The system is currently being used in pre-clinical trials at the Institute of Orthopaedics and Musculoskeletal Science, University College London, at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital (RNOH) in Stanmore, Middlesex.

In an earlier stage of research is the development of another system using the same non-invasive technique to analyse the chemical composition of breast tissue in the ‘shadows’ identified by mammograms, which is being developed in conjunction with the University of Exeter and STFC, with funding from EPSRC. The proposed analysis technique would be performed quickly and painlessly, eliminating the agonising wait for results of a needle biopsy. In the UK alone, 75,000 patients a year have to return for additional biopsies.

John Robinson FREng, Chair of the MacRobert Award judging panel, said: “The promise of this single fundamental innovation to improve the lives of millions of people in such a variety of ways meant Cobalt stood out in what has been a particularly competitive year for the MacRobert Award.

“Beyond the outstanding technical innovation itself, Cobalt also captured the judges’ attention with its hearty ambition. A fast-growing yet humble SME, it is a shining example of the technology transfer process from UK research labs into a successful commercial enterprise. Cobalt represents the perfect marriage of innovation and entrepreneurship that the Academy is championing through its Engineering for Growth campaign.”

Ian Shott CBE FREng, who is on the judging panel and also chairs the Academy’s Enterprise Hub, said: “Cobalt’s engineers have made a substantial breakthrough of global significance, and its fast growing and very capable team is taking a considered, strategic approach to exploiting its potential in multiple markets. I believe they are on the cusp of explosive growth, with the potential for multi-million pound business offerings in at least two or three industry sectors.”

The 2014 MacRobert Award was presented to Cobalt Light Systems team members: Paul Loeffen, Chief Executive Officer; Pavel Matousek, Chief Scientific Officer and STFC Senior Fellow; Stuart Bonthron, VP Product Development; Guy Maskall, Data Scientist; and Craig Tombling, Chief Operating Officer.

Notes for Editors

  1. About the MacRobert Award. First presented in 1969, the MacRobert Award is widely regarded as the most coveted in the industry. Founded by the MacRobert Trusts, the Award is now presented by the Royal Academy of Engineering supported by the Worshipful Company of Engineers. The prize fund was originally established with donations from the MacRobert Trusts, the Academy and British industry. Previous winners include EMI Ltd, who in 1972 developed the CT Scanner, a vital medical device that can now be found in almost every hospital in the developed world. In 2002 Cambridge Display Technologies won the MacRobert Award for its light emitting polymer displays for televisions and smart phones. Last year's winner was software company RealVNC, which judges predicted could be a billion dollar company within five years.
    The MacRobert Award
  2. The judging panel for the MacRobert Award 2014 is as follows:
  • John Robinson FREng (Chair), Chairman, Abbeyfield Society; previously Chairman and Chief Executive of Smith and Nephew plc; Chairman, George Wimpey plc, Railtrack plc, Low and Bonar plc, UK Coal plc and Consort Medical plc; Operating Partner, Duke Street Capital
  • Keith Davis, Chairman, The MacRobert Trust; formerly Director, Strategy and Planning, the Royal Academy of Engineering
  • Professor Nicholas Cooper FREng, Director, JN Cooper and Partners Ltd
  • Professor Sir Richard Friend FREng FRS, Cavendish Professor of Physics, University of Cambridge; Co-founder, Cambridge Display Technology Ltd and Plastic Logic Ltd
  • Dr Andrew Herbert OBE FREng, Former Chairman of Microsoft Research
  • Dr Gordon Masterton OBE FREng FRSE, Vice President, Jacobs Engineering; Deputy Chairman Construction Industry Council; formerly President Institution of Civil Engineers
  • Peter Saraga CBE FREng, Chairman of the Advisory Board, Ambient Assisted Living Joint Programme; formerly President of the Institute of Physics
  • Ian Shott CBE FREng, Managing Partner, Shott Trinova LLP
  • Dr Martyn Thomas CBE FREng, Director, Martyn Thomas Associates Ltd
  1. About the Royal Academy of Engineering. As the UK's national academy for engineering, we bring together the most successful and talented engineers for a shared purpose: to advance and promote excellence in engineering. We provide analysis and policy support to promote the UK's role as a great place to do business. We take a lead on engineering education and we invest in the UK's world-class research base to underpin innovation. We work to improve public awareness and understanding of engineering. We are a national academy with a global outlook. We have four strategic challenges: Drive faster and more balanced economic growth; foster better education and skills; lead the profession; promote engineering at the heart of society.
  2. Engineering for Growth is a partnership campaign to promote the economic impact and societal benefits delivered by engineering and to raise debate on how engineering can make an even bigger contribution. Engineering for Growth is led by the Royal Academy of Engineering in partnership with Atkins; BAE Systems; EADS; Lucite International; Rolls-Royce; McLaren Group; National Grid; Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council; Technology Strategy Board; Institution of Chemical Engineers; Institution of Engineering and Technology; and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
    Engineering for Growth website

For further information please contact:

Jane Sutton at the Royal Academy of Engineering 
Tel: 020 7766 0636
Email: Jane Sutton