Meet the 1851 Fellows making a difference in the UK's pandemic response

Innovation is a tremendous tool in the face of a crisis – as well as being the key to post-crisis growth. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and as UK science and industry looks towards recovery from its recession, an adaptive and innovative approach is vital.

Since the inception of its awards programme, the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 has been supporting some of the brightest minds in science and engineering across the UK. The impact of these Fellows and alumni on the world has been indisputable – among them are 13 Nobel Laureates – and the community truly makes a difference across the broadest spectrum of science and industry’

When our Fellows started their research projects or businesses, nobody could have had any idea that such a world-changing pandemic would be on the way. However, many of the alumni have adapted their work to confront this most pressing need. In the first of a series of articles, we spoke to a few of our alumni community who are helping the UK to understand, respond to, and learn from COVID-19.

KwickScreen, developed by former Design Fellows Michael Korn and Denis Anscomb, is a world-leading creator of retractable infection control screens. Initially conceived to help reduce MRSA and other hospital-acquired infections, these can transform any space into a healthcare environment with effective infection control and improved privacy and dignity for the patient. Having spent 13 years designing and manufacturing these pioneering partitions, the company had grown to supply hospitals across the UK and internationally. At the start of 2020, the first requests came in from some forward-thinking NHS trusts for KwickScreen’s products that encourage social distancing and prevent the spread of the infection. At that point, Michael and the team jumped into action to help the UK’s hospitals in any way possible.

Conducting a rapid scale-up – by investing everything they had earned since starting out – the KwickScreen team transformed the manufacturing and supply chain process in the space of a month to produce as fast as possible. The team scaled their production 10 fold from 10 units per day to over 100. Through continuous iteration and further R&D investment over 2020, KwickScreen came to supply every single NHS trust in the UK, with products that allowed hospitals to return to full capacity at a time when it was needed most.

Supported by the Commission through both an Industrial Design Studentship and later a Design Fellowship, Michael Korn, inventor and co-founder found the financial support of the awards enabled him to get the company started while part of the programme. The trust of the Commission in his abilities, as an industrial designer, allowed for experimentation and creativity from the inception of KwickScreen. The encouragement of a design-led approach has been a core value of the company ever since, demonstrated by the rapid transformation of product, people, and process in the face of the COVID-19 challenge.

Elsewhere in the clinical environment, 2020 Industrial Fellow Tom Waddell has pivoted his work in the last year to include crucial research on the impact of COVID on patients. Working with leading MedTech provider Perspectum, and the University of Oxford, he has been developing a computational model of type 2 diabetes – looking in particular at its impact on multiple organs and patient outcomes, in order to devise personalised medical interventions. Building on the COVERSCAN study that uses magnetic resonance imaging to examine multiple-organ injury in COVID-19 patients, Tom’s machine learning approaches will soon be applied to explore the role of existing patient factors – such as ectopic fat within the liver and pancreas – in causing severe and long-term effects of COVID. At this early but crucial stage in his PhD research, Tom has already made valuable progress in the understanding of type 2 diabetes, and by turning to investigate COVID-19 outcomes will support research that unlocks better treatment of the virus by future healthcare practitioners.

Also working to expand our knowledge of COVID-19 behaviour is Research Fellow Dr Aden Forrow, who is part of a project comparing the immune responses in healthy volunteers and coronavirus patients with symptoms of varying severity. His work as part of the Research Fellowship, which he started in 2018, uses mathematical modelling to support new experimental technologies in cell sequencing, such as those that offer solutions to long-standing obstacles in cell therapy. This work is progressing some of the most exciting techniques in biological science and increasing our understanding of major medical challenges like COVID-19.

In addition to advancing our treatment capabilities, it is vital to look forward at the other impacts of COVID beyond healthcare. Built Environment Fellow David Rudlin is looking at the history and future of the High Street, from its degradation in the 1970s through to the COVID-19 recession and beyond. Honorary Professor at the University of Manchester and director of Urbanism Environment and Design, David believes that despite the ‘doom and gloom on the high street’ headlines, there had been some causes for optimism before Covid-19 as independent retailers reoccupied ‘clone town’ high streets. Unfortunately, there is danger that the pandemic has stopped these positive trends in their tracks. With the 1851 Royal Commission being created to support the influence of science and art on British industry, this investigation into how to protect independent businesses, and restore a healthy post-Covid economy, echoes the core mission of the institution.

Please check in with us again soon, as we unveil further impactful projects taken on by our Fellows.