Yusuf Muhammad says a 172-year-old charity “changed my life” by enabling him to learn new technical and entrepreneurial skills
Venerable charity provides vital ingredients for sweet success
More than 170 years later, profits from the 1851 Great Exhibition in London, a stellar event to showcase Britain's technical and artistic skills at the height of its global power, are still funding the country’s industrial innovators – as 38-year-old entrepreneur Yusuf Muhammad can testify.
The co-founder of Plumis, a London-based company manufacturing fire-safety devices, received funding from the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 for a two-year course in innovation design engineering. He went on to found Plumis in 2008. It now employs 40 people.
Not surprisingly, Muhammad is an enthusiastic supporter of the charity and its mission to help young people build careers in engineering and science through grants and fellowships.
"The commission's studentship gave me the ability to develop my ideas in engineering and design and then to set up the business," Muhammad says. "I don’t think there’d have been another way to do it without the commission’s help. It’s fair to say the funding – and the support and encouragement that came from this – has changed my life."
The commission stewards a fund worth more than £150m and distributes around £4m a year, mainly to young people in their 20s and 30s, to “increase the means of industrial education and extend the influence of science and art upon productive industry".
The charity's wealth grew from investing the profits from the 1851 Great Exhibition. The surplus from the exhibition of £186,000 was used mainly to purchase a plot of land in London's South Kensington, close to the exhibition’s original site in Hyde Park. The exhibition building was later moved eight miles to Crystal Palace - where it stood until it was destroyed by fire in 1936.
Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's consort and the driving force behind the 1851 exhibition, wanted to turn the area into a hub to promote "the different industrial pursuits of mankind and arts and sciences". As a result, the commission’s plot of land became home to a cluster of world-leading cultural and scientific institutions including the Royal Albert Hall, the Royal College of Music and the Natural History Museum, as well as the RCA and Imperial College.
The commission continues to own the freehold to much of this area of South Kensington and in 1891 expanded its role and started making grants to young people. Today, around 35 recipients a year, nearly all graduates, receive its support. Previous recipients have included 13 peoplewho went on to win Nobel prizes, among them the nuclear physicist Ernest Rutherford, genetics pioneer Sydney Brenner and Paul Dirac, known for devising the ideas behind quantum mechanics.
As well as having an illustrious past, the charity – which operates from a cramped office in South Kensington and is a Made Here Now sponsor - remains very well-connected. Under its articles, whoever happens to be UK prime minister becomes a trustee automatically, as does the chancellor of the exchequer.
Among the people who have a good reason to thank the organisation is Lewis Hornby, founder of Jelly Drops, a company making water-rich sweets that combat the dehydration suffered by many old people that can seriously affect their health.
Hornby gained a £50,000 grant that enabled him to embark on the same two-year course that Muhammad had taken, based at the Royal College of Art and Imperial College in London. Jelly Drops emerged from a technical project in his final year – on which his grandmother was an adviser, testing many of the prototypes.
"The course brought together creative people from all over the world," Hornby says. "You had your own studio at the RCA to try out ideas, plus access to the tools and the expertise from Imperial. I was super-grateful to the commission for its support as without this I'd have been unable to do the course."
Hornby says the original ideas for the sugar-free, vegan sweets came from his grandmother Pat, who (while suffering from dementia) was living in a care home in Yorkshire. She died aged 83 in 2020, two years after Jelly Drops started.
“I wanted to help Granny, so I started by speaking to dementia psychologists to understand why many people with dementia struggle with hydration, and realised there are many reasons," Hornby says. " People may no longer feel thirst, may not equate drinking with quenching thirst, they may not recognise cups or have the dexterity to use them. To understand this better I lived in my grandma’s care home and noticed that while many struggled to drink, most loved eating sweets and this is what gave me the idea to create Jelly Drops."
A novel collaboration - with his grandmother and other residents of her Yorkshire care home - paved the way to Lewis Hornby starting a successful business
Jelly Drops employs 16 people and sold 3m of its sweets in the past 18 months to 20,000 customers around the world.
One of the benefits that come with the commission's system of grants and fellowships is the chance to join a large group of smart and resourceful people with ideas in science, technology and business from whom a newcomer can learn. All those who receive funding are invited to meet present and past recipients through dinners and events. The commission says it has almost 900 active alumni.
Michael Korn is an engineer who gained a commission fellowship enabling him to develop ideas that led him and a colleague to set up KwickScreen, which makes hospital screens for infection control. While Korn says the funding was hugely helpful to KwickScreen's establishment, the networking linked to it led him to an "amazing" community of people. "The kudos and connections that have come from our association with the commission have been incredibly important to developing the business," he says.
Inside KwickScreen’s factory in London: the company has been assisted by an “amazing community” of people encountered through links with the 1851 royal commission, says co-founder Michael Korn
Not everyone who benefits from the commission's wealth necessarily goes on to form their own business. Many are simply keen to develop a career in industry – or to do something else altogether. Take Marta Ferran-Marqués, a materials specialist from Spain doing a commission-funded PhD in manufacturing engineering at Cranfield University, who wants to become an astronaut. "I am captivated by the idea of going into space. If there is a way to do this, I am determined to find it," says the 26-year-old.
Materials specialist Marta Ferran-Marqués says she hopes a commission fellowship will put her on the right trajectory to become an astronaut
She applied to join the astronaut training programme at the European Space Agency but was turned down as she was too young. Having a scientific background would, she thinks, help her in a future application. Ferran-Marqués is doing the PhD while also working at Sensor Coating Systems, a company in London developing specialist materials used to measure high temperatures, for instance inside prototypes of future jet or rocket engines.
Funding from the commission is through what it calls an industrial fellowship – a series of grants the charity is especially keen to promote. Industrial fellowships fund periods of study – normally a PhD – and always require the collaboration of a business employing the recipient. Up to half the recipient’s salary is paid by the commission, freeing them to spend more time on research, and making the schemes potentially attractive for companies keen to develop their employees' capabilities while also keeping the person on their payroll.
In Ferran-Marqués's case, the commission's overall costs for the fellowship – covering a salary contribution, university fees plus other payments including travel and conference expenses - is likely to amount to roughly £90,000 over three years. If it turns out she cannot get into an astronaut training programme, she has as a back-up plan to work in the space industry, perhaps in a satellite or rocket business. Any application for a job – whether in space or on the Earth – will be helped she thinks by her academic qualifications. "Without the commission’s support, I would almost certainly have been unable to do the PhD... which will I believe open up a lot of opportunities."
She is not the only holder of an industrial fellowship from the commission with ambitious plans. Daniel Pybus, a 37-year-old development engineer at the UK arm of French materials company Mersen, hopes his PhD – involving working with graphite as a basis for new products – could eventually presage a new industrial approach to making materials.
Daniel Pybus believes the technologies he is researching could eventually usher in a “step change” in the way products are made
One possibility is new techniques, based on 3D printing and other emerging technologies, to make environmentally benign substitutes for plastics. "I'm hoping what I am doing will lead eventually to a step change in the way we make products, based not just on graphite but other materials too. Materials are fundamental to everything we do."
After a degree in aerospace engineering at Teesside University, Middlesbrough, followed by a Master's in data science, Pybus has worked at Mersen, based in Stockton-on-Tees in north-east England, since 2019. He started a materials science PhD two years ago, with the fellowship covering much of the costs.
"I would not have started the course without the fellowship," he says. "Almost certainly I would have had to work for a few years to save the money to do it. Mersen was very happy I pursue the studies while working for the company."
For details of all the awards and how to apply, with details on deadlines, go to the website
Combining academia and industry promises new paths to production
Techniques to cut waste and increase efficiency in textiles plants could emerge from research being funded by the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851.
Daire O'Dubhthaigh, 25, a supply chain engineer at Interface, a US-based flooring manufacturer, is doing a PhD with commission funding at Queen's University Belfast, while continuing in his job at an Interface plant in Craigavon. His industrial fellowship could amount to around £100,000 over three years.
His PhD in manufacturing engineering is investigating new ways to increase efficiency in textile manufacturing, using computerised techniques to reduce waste and energy usage and encourage the use of more sustainable materials. The processes he is investigating may be relevant for a range of industries using "mass customisation" – making products in small runs – by helping them become more economically viable and reducing their environmental impact.
O'Dubhthaigh says: "The funding benefits everyone involved. I gain from increasing my academic qualifications and the experience of working for a big company. Interface is helped by the commission contributing to my salary costs, enabling me to spend more time on research and new ideas, which I hope will bring benefits to my employer.
Daire O'Dubhthaigh is combining work at US carpet manufacturer Interface with a PhD on reducing waste and increasing efficiency in textiles production
"It helps that Interface has a strong track record and a deep interest in green manufacturing and sustainability.
"Through the fellowship I have already been able to talk to some of the other people who have gained fellowships. They are involved in a range of areas of industry, including engineering, pharmaceuticals and AI. This adds up to a great network that I feel I should be able to link up with and learn from.
"Without the commission's support I don't think I would have been in a position to start the PhD. I think it has put me on an excellent career path that I am very happy with."
Declan Williams, also 25, is in a similar position. He works as an analytical chemist at the defence technology company Qinetiq, based in Fort Halstead, near Sevenoaks. He's also doing a PhD at the University of Birmingham investigating how flow chemistry can improve the production process for explosive materials. Flow chemistry is an emerging discipline in which chemicals are made in small quantities in machines called microreactors using continuous processes, rather than in separate batches. In explosives, the ideas he is exploring may help create high-efficiency manufacturing methods that are safer and more environmentally friendly.
Williams started his PhD in 2020, gaining a commission industrial fellowship at the same time. Over three years, the fellowship is likely to provide around £80,000 – the funds contributing to his salary and paying university fees other costs such as travel and entry to conferences.
Before joining Qinetiq, he studied chemistry at Birmingham for four years, finishing with a Master’s degree in chemistry in 2018. After this, he didn't want to do further academic work. "I wanted to get involved with problem solving in the real world." The decision led him to join the graduate entry scheme at Qinetiq which is where he learned more about flow chemistry.
"I don't think I'd have done the PhD without the support of the commission. I have also had a huge amount of support from both Qinetiq and the University of Birmingham.
“I feel that in doing this I have learned about an exciting area of chemistry and developed my own laboratory skills in a highly positive way. At the same time I hope I will be able to contribute new ideas to an important area of manufacturing technology.”
Key connections spur growth for healthcare company
While the Covid crisis has led to hard times for many businesses, for KwickScreen it has triggered a sales surge. The 13-year-old company manufactures hospital screens that prevent the spread of infection and help with privacy. Helped by its sales successes with UK hospitals before the pandemic, the company received a huge boost in early 2020 when the need to curb viral spread in health establishments suddenly became urgent.
As a result, revenues jumped from about £2m in 2019/20 to above £7m in 2020/21. While the figure is expected to fall back in the current year, it is likely to remain strong. KwickScreen says it has sold its screens to 10,000 hospitals mainly in the UK as well as European and US buyers.
Alan Murrell (pictured right) met KwickScreen’s co-founder Michael Korn (left) while a student, initially gaining an internship and then becoming chief executive
KwickScreen, which employs 60 people in a factory in London, owes a big debt to the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851, say its founders Michael Korn and Denis Anscomb. The two were able to hone their partnership and develop business skills in 2009/10 during a £60,000 "design fellowship" funded by the commission. "The fellowship was fantastic," says Anscomb, 47. "It was non-prescriptive. It gave us an open-ended brief to learn about manufacturing and marketing and find our own solutions for how to operate a company."
While Anscomb had originally studied maths and then worked in finance, the 40-year-old Korn had done a master's degree in manufacturing engineering at Cambridge University. After a year in industry, in 2005 he started a two-year commission-funded "studentship" in industrial design engineering, based at the Royal College of Art and Imperial College, London.
It was during this earlier course that Korn and Anscomb met, with the two deciding that a project the former had worked on at RCA/Imperial could form the base for what eventually became KwickScreen, helped by the design fellowship, which was also based at the RCA.
They also met Alan Murrell, KwickScreen's chief executive, thanks to connections made at RCA and Imperial while pursuing their commission-funded design fellowship. Korn recalls: "Had Denis and I not been based in the RCA's South Kensington campus we wouldn't have had so much contact with the Imperial students, and it was after tutoring a class of Mech Eng Students, one of whom was Alan, that he got in touch with us for an internship – he has since progressed to CEO."
Royal commission shifts sights to technical qualifications
A project to improve the way technical subjects are taught at further education colleges is a new addition to the funding schemes for young people organised by the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851.
The project aims to increase the supply of young people entering industry with technical qualifications from apprenticeships and college studies but who do not want a degree. Many education experts believe that the UK's main skills shortages have little to do with the supply of graduates. Instead, they are more linked to a lack of young people with so-called vocational skills, who are needed in many types of jobs in key areas of industry and technology.
Until now virtually everyone the commission has supported in science and technology studies has been a graduate. The new initiative is being organised in partnership with the Education and Training Foundation, a charity set up to improve technical education.
Under the scheme, grants of up to £15,000 are given to people working in further education who are "recognised for their high-impact teaching practice and the delivery of effective outcomes for learners". The money is intended to help them share their teaching methods by visiting other colleges, taking part in mentoring programmes and seminars.
In a pilot project running in 2021/22, three educationalists have been given funding under the new scheme. They are Rosa Wells, director of employment and skills at Solihull College and University Centre in the West Midlands; Ben Houlihan, head of quality, teaching and digital innovation at Bridgwater and Taunton College in Somerset; and Peter Jackson, learning and skills lead in automotive engineering at Lincoln College, based on three sites in Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire.
Details of how to apply for funding from future programmes are set out here. With an eye on developments further ahead, the commission is also considering the case for funding people to develop their career through an apprenticeship.