Dr Richard Price is the chief technology officer (CTO) of PragmatIC, a provider of ultra-low-cost flexible electronics.
The UK firm’s flexible integrated circuits are thinner than a human hair, which means they can be easily embedded into everyday objects. According to PragmatIC, this technology can make it possible for “trillions” of smart objects to engage with consumers and their environments.
Price has over 20 years’ experience in the development and commercialisation of a wide range of new technologies based on novel processes, materials and, in particular, flexible electronics. He is inventor/co-inventor on more than 25 patent families and as CTO has led PragmatIC‘s technical teams to develop two of its latest products, the FlexLogIC and the FlexIC.
In this Q&A, the 26th in our weekly series, Price shares his vision for industry 4.0, explains why he’s excited about electronics for biology and reveals some early feedback that gave him a motivating wakeup call.
Tell us a bit about yourself – how did you end up in your current role?
I’ve been involved in early-stage technology for over 20 years. Going way back I was synthesising new materials in chemistry labs. My first industrial job was with a start-up working on advanced materials for organic LEDS (OLEDs), before the technology was rolled-out in screens for cell phones and TVs.
After that, I moved out of the lab and onto setting up new ventures across diverse sectors from biotech to electronics, which led to me co-founding PragmatIC with tech entrepreneur Scott White (CEO). This is the most exciting time of my career. It’s great to be working on something truly ground-breaking.
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What’s the most important thing happening in your field at the moment?
Digital manufacturing (or Industry 4.0) is set to transform our field through automating processes, driving resource efficiencies and sustainability benefits. PragmatIC’s strategy is to deploy our FlexLogIC systems, automated and digitally connected manufacturing-lines, across the globe to deliver high volumes of our flexible integrated circuits, to enable the potential for trillions of smart objects. Our vision is a production-line with embedded machine learning that can do its own process set-up and stabilisation and then recalibrate during operation.
Which emerging technology do you think holds the most promise once it matures?
I see the emergence of electronics for biology as a significant opportunity, in particular moving towards personalised healthcare and improved well-being. Big data is already being generated from wearable devices and, using machine learning, is starting to provide early indications of disease e.g. heart conditions. However, current systems are relatively expensive.
At PragmatIC we see an opportunity to democratise this kind of healthcare. Our unique flexible integrated circuits enable lower-cost solutions. This novel technology would allow many more people to access this type of data, in particular where they don’t have access to developed healthcare systems. One example is to detect VOCs (volatile organic compounds) in breath that could be analysed by smartphones.
How do you separate hype from disruptor?
To be fair most technologies are overhyped at some stage by necessity to get people excited about them. But ultimately to be a disruptor you have to offer something truly different. Quantum computing will take a while to emerge but will be truly disruptive not just for computing speed but also in providing us with better understanding complexity like biological systems.
What’s the best bit of advice you’ve been given?
I remember some feedback early in my career. I’d been in my job for about a year and my CTO said that he had high hopes for me when I joined, but that I’d not really lived up to his expectations so far. That hit home and I spent the next few years proving him wrong. I guess that the feedback worked.
Where did your interest in tech come from?
Mum was a pharmacist and sometimes I’d help out in the dispensary, counting out pills or printing labels. I remember watching her measure out coloured liquids and mix these together. Experiments at school, particularly something that looked dangerous were also exciting. I had a huge chemistry kit at home which I’d play with in my room which ruined at least one carpet.
What does a typical day look like for you?
The last few months have completely changed this concept! At the moment, I’m based at home most days with my wife and our two children. I find that I now have typical days whereas previously my days would all be completely different. Generally, I’ll start by making a cup of tea, checking emails then maybe(!) some exercise followed by breakfast.
My day then consists of various video conferences with my teams and other execs, discussions on goals that we’re working towards, checking progress and issues, planning and strategy. We also get some quality family time together which is important.
What do you do to relax?
I’ve always liked team sports, but over the past few years I have started running as it is easy to do wherever you are in the world. I try to run 3-4 times a week and, before lockdown, would regularly take part in Parkruns every Saturday morning. I also love cooking at home and entertaining with friends.
Who is your tech hero?
That’s really difficult. I’d like to have been around in the first half of the 20th century. The scientists that pioneered quantum mechanics (Planck, Bose, Schrodinger, Pauli, Fermi, Einstein, amongst others) set the platform for semiconductors and electronics. Learning about the Bohr model inspired me to study chemistry along with the prospect of blowing thing ups! I also think it would have been amazing to meet Marie Curie who won Nobel Prizes for Chemistry and Physics.
What’s the biggest technological challenge facing humanity?
Some positive side-effects of the global lockdown (due to Covid-19) have been reduced air pollution/CO2 emissions and cleaner rivers. Climate change remains the biggest challenge facing humanity and we can only hope that some of the behavioural changes forced upon us will have a lasting positive effect.
The rapid global collaboration by the scientific community has also been incredible. To me, this highlights what can be achieved if everyone converges around a common purpose. It also gives me confidence that technology can help us solve these grand challenges, but it needs the global community to focus on a longer-term objective for the benefit of all.