'Some couldn't see the practical applications, but I was interested'

May 5, 2006

Phil Harper's technical and business acumen helped him win a £40,000 award for entrepreneurial researchers

Life on the farm has helped Phil Harper, a research assistant at Sheffield University, win a £40,000 award from the Royal Academy of Engineering to commercialise his work.

He is the first winner of the ERA Foundation award, which was set up to support entrepreneurial researchers in electrotechnology. The judges were particularly impressed by his all-round skills, combining technical and business expertise.

Mr Harper ascribes this to growing up on the family farm in Ireland. "I was interested in the mechanical aspects of machinery. And I was exposed to thinking about (business) opportunities: I'd be given a sheep and then there were choices about whether you sold it or bought another sheep."

After taking a masters degree at Sheffield, Mr Harper was encouraged to do a PhD. "A lot of the guys couldn't see the practical applications of technology, but that's what interested me," he said.

He has developed pioneering sensor technology that can monitor and predict the failure of mechanical seals used in, for example, water pumps, turbines and oil rigs. Mr Harper has already founded a company, Tribosonics Ltd. The award includes £30,000 to develop the commercial potential of the technology and a personal cash sum of £10,000. He will also be assigned a mentor for two years.

His three-year research assistantship, supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, ends in June, and he hopes to complete his PhD by then. "I'm desperately trying to get it written. I'm not sure where I'm going to be based, but I want to keep close links with the university," he said. "My experience here has told me you need to keep investing in research and keep close to developments."

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