Cutting-edge technologies with the potential to change the world are just as likely to stem from UK-based SMEs as from the engineering giants, according to leading technology innovators.

The comments were made last week by the Royal Academy of Engineering MacRobert Award judging panel, which includes some of the UK’s most experienced engineers, at an event to open entries for the 2017 award.

Dr Dame Sue Ion DBE FREng FRS, Chair of Judges for the MacRobert Award and one of the UK’s foremost engineers, said, “The innovation landscape is changing dramatically. While the UK has long been famed for its engineering heavyweights, there are now just as many opportunities for small businesses to develop and exploit game-changing technologies capable of having global impact.

“We’ve seen this evolution over the last few years of judging the MacRobert Award, which has the most comprehensive selection process of any award in the technology sector. In the last 10 years the Award has been won by SMEs five times. It’s great to see the spirit of innovation embodied in thriving engineering businesses of all sizes, and for small organisations to be gaining in confidence.”

The trend could be set to continue, according to the findings of a new study by the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR), which suggests that the contribution of SMEs to the UK economy will grow by 11 per cent by 20201.

The MacRobert Award recognises outstanding engineering innovation combined with proven commercial success and tangible social benefit. Winners receive a £50,000 cash prize, gold medal and national acclaim. The judging panel includes some of the most renowned names in UK innovation, and is this year joined by Professor Ric Parker CBE FREng, previously Director of Research & Technology at Rolls-Royce. He was responsible for the technological direction of one of the largest engineering firms in the UK and has been highly influential in advances across the civil aviation industry as a whole.

Professor Parker commented: “The MacRobert Award is the most prestigious award for UK engineering innovation and it is an honour to serve as a judge. I am always inspired by the excellence and diversity of those nominated.

“Even the UK’s largest engineering firms rely on the agility and innovation of SMEs throughout their supply chains. To see this talent recognised is extremely important, and I hope to see applications for the 2017 MacRobert Award coming from innovators of all sizes and across all sectors of engineering.

Entries are now open for the 2017 Royal Academy of Engineering MacRobert Award and will close on 31 January 2017.

Apply for the MacRobert Award

Previous MacRobert Award-winning innovations have come from areas as diverse as medical technology, smart transport, energy and consumer software. The award has successfully predicted ‘the next big thing’ in engineering for the last four decades, from the catalytic convertor to the CT scanner, whose inventor Sir Godfrey Hounsfield received the MacRobert Award seven years before receiving the Nobel Prize in 1979. More recently, SME Artemis Intelligent Power - the 2015 winner - won for its Digital Displacement® power system, which is transforming the viability of offshore wind power through novel hydraulics.

The 2016 winner, Blatchford, was recognised for developing its Linx prosthetic leg, the world’s most intelligent prosthetic limb, which judges hailed as the first of a new generation of prosthetics.

Professor Saeed Zahedi OBE FREng, Technical Director at Blatchford, said: “Our company was also shortlisted for the MacRobert Award in 2010 for Echelon, the first commercial biomimetic hydraulic ankle. This expertise is a key part of the development of the fully integrated Linx lower limb prosthetic for which we won the award this year. Competing against very talented engineering giants such as Siemens and Jaguar-Land Rover is an acknowledgement of our team’s capability, and has given us the courage to take even greater steps with our innovations.”

Notes for editors

  • 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 Trust and supported by the Worshipful Company of Engineers, the Award is managed and presented by the Royal Academy of Engineering

    MacRobert Award - more information

    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. In 2014 the Award was given to Cobalt Light Systems, which pioneered a technique to determine the chemical composition of materials in containers and behind a range of other barriers including skin, for use in airport scanners and medical diagnostics. Last year’s winner Artemis Intelligent Power has pioneered a new Digital Displacement® power system, with digitally controlled hydraulics, that that has the potential to transform the viability of offshore wind power and low carbon transportation. As well as dramatically improving power capacity, the smart, modular system has been designed to overcome the significant reliability issues associated with existing turbines.
  • The 2017 MacRobert Award judges are:
    - Dr Dame Sue Ion DBE FREng FRS (Chair) - Consultant; Chair, Nuclear Innovation Research Advisory Board
    - John Baxter CBE FREng FRSE - Chairman ANRC, The University of Strathclyde
    - Nick Cooper FREng - Director, JN Cooper & Partners Ltd
    - Keith Davis - Chairman, The MacRobert Trust
    - Professor David Delpy CBE FREng FRS FMedSci - Chairman, Defence Scientific Advisory Council
    - David Gow CBE FREng - Founder, Touch Bionics
    - Dr Andrew Herbert OBE FREng - Formerly Chairman, Microsoft Research EMEA
    - Professor Ric Parker CBE FREng - Formerly Director of Research & Technology, Rolls Royce
    - Dr Frances Saunders CB FREng - Formerly Chief Executive, Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL)
  • 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:
    - Make the UK the leading nation for engineering innovation
    - Address the engineering skills crisis
    - Position engineering at the heart of society
    - Lead the profession

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[1] ‘SME Growth Watch 2016’, Hampshire Trust Bank and CEBR