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Financial Times May 5 2004

Pressure on Porton Down to commercialise research

The Ministry of Defence's top-secret laboratories at Porton Down are facing growing pressure to commercialise some of their most sensitive research under Gordon Brown's diktat that government funded research should benefit "UK plc wherever possible. The sprawling Defence Science Technology Laboratories compound in Wiltshire is the UK's leading biological and chemical defence research centre. Combined with other MoD centres in Portsdown and Fort Halstead, it is the largest public sector research establishment in the UK with 3,200 staff.

The DSTL was created to do the ministry's core research and development after Porton Down's les sensitive work was spun out to Qinetiq two years ago.

But Frances Saunders, DSTL's technical director, says it is not exempt from the need to become more commercial just because it does work that is considered too sensitive to be done by the private sector. Mrs Saunders says commercialising defence work more widely can make it cheaper for the Ministry. She says:" If technology remains internal and special it remains expensive."

Porton Down is spinning out technology to tackle bacteria responsible for hospital infections, food poisoning and foot and mouth disease.

Scott Robinson, the man behind the biological defence system, is working with the Veterinary Laboratory Agency on an animal health version. He thinks a 20kg "soldier-proof" gene detector, designed to test for anthrax and smallpox, could have saved thousands of cows and sheep from culling during the foot and mouth epidemic by telling vets which farms were infected and which were not.

It might also be "nurse-proof" enough to be used in rapid testing for chlamydia, the symptomless disease that can cause sterility.

But DSTL is mots proud of its commercial spin-outs funded through a partnership with Circus Capital, a Hong Kong venture fund. One spin-out company, Acolyte, is developing a hospital test for antibiotic resistant infections based on AK, an ultra-sensitive assay developed after the 1990 Gulf War that can detect fewer than 10 harmful bacteria.

Bill Mullen, the chief executive, says it could cut the waiting time for laboratory results from four days to a few hours.

Another spin-out, Alaska, is raising 5m to develop AK as a rapid test for the bugs that cause food-poisoning, a 580m a year world market. Malcolm Walpole, its chief executive, says the test will replace microbiology techniques that have remained unchanged over 130 years.

That could cut the amount of time manufacturers must hold food in ther warehouses waiting for test results from several days to a single shift.

"The top 10 global food companies could free $14.5 bn (8bn) of inventory for every day cut from quarantine time," he says. He thinks there will also be a market for testing goods for the presence of genetically modified organisms.

DSTL's latest spin-out,P2i,is commercialising plasma deposition, a technique for changing the surface property of materials so that they repel liquids.The MOD uses it to treat uniforms to repel biological and chemical agents. P2i is in talks to license it to sportswear manufacturers who could use it to make waterproof, breathable garments from traditional fabrics.