How the Pilkington Innovation Incubator is shaping the future of glass

How the Pilkington Innovation Incubator is shaping the future of glass

Blog Post
22 Jan 2019

For innovation to truly flourish, ideas need the time, space and resources to develop into new products that can add real value.

For innovation to truly flourish, ideas need the time, space and resources to develop into new products that can add real value.

That is why Pilkington has a dedicated facility at our European Technical Centre in Lathom, Lancashire, where our technicians have the freedom to test new ideas and look ahead to the next big trends that will shape the future of glass.

Known as the Pilkington Innovation Incubator, the facility is a base where we can collaborate with any partner – from new tech start-ups, to larger businesses in other industries, to universities – in the pursuit of technological breakthroughs. If an innovation makes it through the incubator, it could be selected to become a launch product within one of the Pilkington commercial businesses. 

Dr. Su Varma, Incubation Portfolio Manager R&D, has been at the forefront of building and growing the Innovation Incubator at Lathom. Here, he explains how the incubator team identifies the latest innovations – and how it turns them into reality.

Q. How would you describe the main purpose of the Innovation Incubator?

The incubator is designed to look further into the future – at what the medium and long term needs of the company may be in terms of technologies, and how these could give rise to new value-added products that take us into new markets. It’s about asking ‘Where are the opportunities in the future?’ Clearly, they tend to be outside of our normal glass world, which is why we link up with start-ups and other companies and universities through the incubator to find those early-stage innovations that we should be thinking about. 

That could be anything from new horticultural applications for glass, to glass that can be a canvas for overlaying electronics and sensors, so that the glass is transformed into a high value device in its own right. We look at a huge range of potential innovations, all with the future world in mind.

Q. How does the incubator manage its processes to discover and develop the most valuable innovations?

An important step is to speak to the senior managers across our various businesses to understand what they need, where they see things going, and to understand the types of spaces they would like to move into in terms of new products and technologies. 

We then work with industry and governmental bodies around the world – including in the UK organisations such as Innovate UK and the Department for International Trade – in order to gain access to their networks and gain an understanding of the start-ups and universities that are playing in a particular space. I give a lot of external presentations and do a lot of public speaking to make those connections and to explain to the wider technology community those areas that are of interest to us.

Once we have set up a project through the incubator we will work to short timescales whereby we run the project for three months before inviting commercial colleagues to review it. If the commercial team believes there is a new, viable product in the offing, we will move it from the incubator into our normal, rigorous product development processes. We then fill the funnel mouth of the incubator with other new things and carry on.

Q. How many partners does the Innovation Incubator work with at any given time?

We’ve already spoken to hundreds of companies globally throughout the history of the incubator, and at any one time I would say we are working with at least a few dozen. In terms of universities, we’re also working with about a dozen currently. That includes partnerships with many UK universities, such as Liverpool, Swansea, Imperial, UCL and Cambridge, but also globally we’re speaking to leading universities in places like the US, India and Singapore. 

Q. Can you name some Pilkington products or technologies that began life in the Innovation Incubator?

One example I would highlight is Pilkington Sunplus™ BIPV – which stands for Building Integrated Photovoltaics and refers to a building component that has been enhanced to perform as a renewable energy-generating material in addition to being an integrated part of the architecture. In other words, it creates power-generating windows. Another example is Pilkington AviSafe™, which features a patterned UV-enhanced coating to make the glass visible to birds while maintaining the optical transmission of the glass. This won ‘Innovative Solution’ at the Glass Focus Awards 2018.

These two examples highlight how the incubator identifies new opportunities. In the first case, it’s ‘pushing’ new technology developed externally into new glazing applications, and in the second case the development was the result of a ‘pull’ by new environment-related legislation requirements in a number of countries for bird-friendly glazing to become mandatory in specific instances within the built environment. These examples are a good demonstration of the range of work we’re doing in the incubator.