A group of three academics at the University have recently come in the top three of over one hundred entries for Scotland’s largest business and entrepreneurial training competitions, the Converge Challenge. They are aiming to market their winning entry on an international scale.
Postdoctoral researcher Dr Clifford Hicks, working alongside PhD students Alexander Ward and Jack Barraclough, invented a nano-positioning device which can move with an accuracy of less than a thousandth of the width of a human hair.
Speaking to The Saint about how the invention came about, Mr Ward explained: “Dr Hicks came up with the technology to solve nano-positioning problems he was having in the lab. He was finding that the commercially available devices for bringing about very precise movement often got stuck during particular experiments, and in some cases even slipped in the wrong direction.
“[Dr Hicks] then came up with a new mechanism for doing the same thing, a mechanism that has the potential to be reliable, robust and deliver high forces – something many nano-technologies desperately need.”
Dr Hicks then approached Mr Ward, who was a physics PhD student and a friend, about managing the project. “Although I am not a technical expert on nano-positioning, he felt I was the right person to help with the administrative and logistical aspects of the project. Since then I have been applying for grants, business competitions and seeking to attract investment.”
“Early on in the project we realised we needed a skilled engineer. We approached another finishing PhD student, Jack Barraclough, in a meeting in Aikman’s and asked him to join the team. Jack had a reputation as an excellent engineer and had had a very successful stint building high precision instrumentation over the course of his PhD.”
“[Dr Hicks] formulated the device into a design that could be converted into a patent, did the calculations to demonstrate it would work and built a proof-of-concept prototype. My contribution was to write grant applications, which also took up a large chunk of my time, but much of the work has paid off – we will have funding from Scottish Enterprise, the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) and Converge Challenge.”
The prize for reaching the top three of the Converge Challenge was a cash sum alongside access to support from legal, accounting and marketing firms. Looking to the future, Mr Ward outlined how this assistance could result in the device soon being used globally: “Over the next year [Mr Barraclough] and I will convert our rough and ready prototype into a product that academics around the world will use (predominantly in the US, Europe and East Asia). This will involve trying numerous iterations of the design and rigorous testing both in the lab and by our customers. We are a start-up, not a spin-out, though our patent will be owned by the University of St Andrews, who will then licence the patent back to us for a royalty.”

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