Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Growing your own power plant on the roof in the future

We need more clean energy in our homes. There is a trend to micro-generation that can be used to ensure that the houses of the future are carbon and even energy neutral. The problem with two of the main methods solar and wind is that these only work when – the sun shines or the wind blows.

However, reading an article by Caroline Williams in New Scientist, I was alerted to the fact that growing plants can themselves be used to generate electricity. Marjolein Helder and David Strik in the Netherlands have founded the company Plant-e, aiming to develop commercially useful plant based energy generation systems.

The principle is remarkably simple. Plants take the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and fix it into sugars and carbohydrates. These are in part secreted by the roots where they are digested by bacteria. In the process of digestion, the bacteria generate hydrogen ions and electrons (see their figure here http://www.plant-e.com/technology.html). In a wet soil, these ions can migrate.

Add two graphite electrodes and you can draw a small current of electricity. Importantly, the current is generated day and night, without detriment to the growing plants.

Currently (excuse the unintended pun) research is underway to improve the power gain. There is an EU collaboration between different research groups and companies aiming to achieve this called PlantPower. Plant-bacteria power generation is likely to be  five times more efficient than using the same area to produce biofuel.

Visiting Ecobuild last week, I saw that there is an increasing interest in using green roofs on buildings, both to retain runoff water and also act as habitats. It now looks as if in the future green roofs could also be used for power generation.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

A14 coffee morning science question on epigenetics

Forget the stuffy image of business networking being about serious suited business people selling to each other. At its best, it is about conversations and getting to know each other in a pleasant environment which,over time, often leads to unexpected business opportunities.

It also means that the most unexpected questions arise as when Rachael Orchard of Nu Skin turned to me and, hearing I had a science background, asked
“And what do you think of epigenetics?”
I was flummoxed and had to dredge my memory for some faint recollection to give an answer.

I was prompted to do a it more revision over the weekend.

So what is “epigenetics”?

Well, you may recall from news items that we have about 20,000 to 30,000 genes, which code for all the information that makes us human. The information being “written” in our DNA. Now, a cell in your big toe will have the same DNA as one of your brain cells, and yet they are obviously very different.

Soon after your parents created you as a fertilised egg cell, in their hopefully passionate encounter, you began to divide into more cells as you started to grow. As the process continued, certain genes were turned on, others turned off. The effect was different in different cell or cell lines. So gradually some of your cells became toe cells, others brain cells. And when a toe cell divided during growing up to help make a bigger toe, these too were now toe cells. This is true of cells in all the different parts of your body, heart, kidney, hair and skin.

The process of your (and any other organisms) development is called epigenesis. The study of epigenesis is – epigenetics!

OK, but why is epigenetics relevant in a business discussion?

The process of epigenesis, of you becoming you, is not just a pre-programmed inevitability. What you eat, where and how you live can also have an impact.

Rachael Orchard is part of Nu Skin, a company that produces anti-ageing nutrition and skincare. Nu Skin has been working closely with and also recently bought a company called LifeGen Technologies. LifeGen Technologies studies the epigenetics of ageing. They have a patent pending based on initial studies on mice.

LifeGen Technologies have identified genes that may be affected during ageing. This will lead to studies to understand how this happens. In turn, hopefully treatments or actions that can reduce or delay the signs of ageing will follow.

This would be gold for the Nu Skin anti-ageing company

Therefore in this business discussion, epigenetics was highly relevant!

If you need to communicate complex topics to your clients or business partners, let me help.

The science of ageing is a new and hotly debated research area. Calorific restriction (giving less food) is one treatment shown scientifically to work in extending lifespan for yeast, rodents and dogs. Studies on primates and humans are in progress.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Norwich Dentists Study Group discusses telescope attachments

A visit to an active group of East Anglian dentists who meet regularly to ensure their own continued professional development. Member Martin Sulo gave a presentation to Norwich Dentists Study Group, with case studies and a lively member discussion on the uses of telescopic crowns. German dental technician and German crown expert Ulrich Heker attended in support.

Telescopic attachments were originally invented in the late 1800s in the USA but have become known as German or double crowns, due to the expertise developed and routinely applied in the latter country. They are still relatively unknown and underutilised in the UK. One of the reasons being the need for a good partnership between dentist and dental technician.

Telescopic attachments provide dental replacement solutions where implants are contra-indicated. This can not only be due to the patients physical and health situation, the patients preferences and the current economic climate are equally important. Telescopic attachments fall midway between conventional prostheses and implants in cost whilst providing good aesthetics, and functionality. Telescopic attachments are prostheses that attach to a few existing teeth that are capped with a primary crown. The secure attachment is achieved via secondary crowns in the prosthesis.

Dentist Martin Sulo, Botesdale Dental Practice in Diss, had been collaborating with my business colleague, Ulrich Heker, owner manager of the dental technical laboratory Teeth'R'Us from Essen, Germany. Martin gave a seminar on his experience of using telescopic attachments as part of the continuing CPD of fellow members of the Norwich Dentists Study Group. Ulrich came over from Germany to be there and support Martin with any questions relating to the dental technician half of the work. Ulrich is very modest about his English skills, so I tagged along as facilitator if needed. The meeting was held in the impressive Georgian Assembly Rooms in Norwich.

The teamwork worked well. Martin Sulo was a calm and measured presenter, apparently unfazed by questions with which he was peppered during the talk; Ulrich Helker was able to jump in with technical detail. The Norwich Dentists Study Group came across as a relaxed yet highly informed affair. Martin had initially expressed concern that his well illustrated talk would only last half an hour at the most, he needn't have worried. The active questions and discussions of both dental and technical aspects of the case studies and the science behind the use of telescopic attachments, filled two hours that appeared to pass in a flash.

The new aspects that I really picked up from Martin's talk and the discussions were first, the importance of friction. Precise control of friction is required so that on the one had the prosthesis is retained firmly in the mouth whilst still being able to be removed by the patient. The second point was the balance between using precious alloys or non precious alloys. This was a matter that bounced around the discussion as the respective pros and cons in different situations were considered.

Two hours of technical discussion, no matter how interesting, generates a need for liquid refreshment. We gladly accepted the invitation to visit the group's post-meeting pub and spent the remainder of the evening in pleasant company before Ulrich and I took the late night drive back to Cambridge along now empty roads.

The relaxed teamwork between dentist Martin Sulo and dental technician Ulrich Heker was a winning combination and I thoroughly recommend them to other dental groups. If you are based within a couple of hours of Norwich, take a look at the Norwich Dentists Study Group program for the coming year.

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Monday, 12 March 2012

Five tips on how to start business networking, generally and in Cambridgeshire UK

This article is in answer to a friend who asked about starting business networking and what tips that I might have. The advice is both generic and includes comments relevant for Cambridgeshire.

In the UK, business networking is primarily a social activity which leads to business, as opposed to being subjected to someone’s sales pitch, or subjecting others to yours. This means finding a business network that suits your personality as well as your business.

Tip 1: Try out lots of different networks

The easiest ways to find your first network to visit are to ask a friend and or to Google for ‘business network {your region}’. Check out the websites and see if guests are welcome (they generally are), if there is a free event or a low cost pay at the door type event. If you can accompany a friend already in a network – even better.

Any good networking event will have a host or set of members looking out for attendees. There is generally some structure where people might initially mingle informally while registering, there can be an introduction round and some have presentations and buffets etc.

The important thing is to go to a first one and see what it is like and whether you feel comfortable there.

Do not join a network with an annual membership fee until you have been at least two or three times to events or meetings. Avoid being rail-roaded into joining. Some memberships come with a hefty fee and deliver little, whilst others can be very economical and be really useful to you.

Cambridgeshire has a plethora of business networks catering from microbusinesses to hi tech, here are some: The Huntingdonshire Business Network; A14 Coffee Morning (St Ives); Business Owners Breakfast (Cambridge); The Inspired Group (Cambridge), Toastmaster International (if you want to practise public speaking) Cambridge Network, Connected Cambridge, BNI, Business Club, Cambridgeshire Chambers, 4 Networking, Cambridge Businesswomen's Network and many, many more.

It is perfectly OK to be a member of several different business networks.

Tip 2: Ask new contacts you meet about where they network and why

One of the great things about business networking is that you can ask others for advice and often find it freely given!

You get to hear about events or organisations you might otherwise have missed that again could be to your advantage.

Tip 3: Using your mouth and ears in proportion

Once you are at a networking event, try to listen more to the people you meet than speaking to them. Listening is a key skill in networking. You learn more about the people you meet, personally and about their business, their needs and interests.

If you do this for a little while, you will find that you can naturally link the needs of a previous person met with a current speaker – this is a referral. Your conversation partners will also learn about you and in turn hopefully remember you and refer you to others. This is the real benefit of networking.

If you do hit the self-selling bore, excuse yourself after a little while (if someone else hasn't rescued you) to get a fresh coffee or meet another group - at least you have learnt who to avoid in future!

Tip 4: Networking as a long term marketing tool

Once you have become familiar with a set of networks that fit both you and your business, attend them regularly at a frequency that suits you. You get to know other businesses and get to be known. This not only generates business in the long term, it also gives you a great social environment to share experiences, learn from other people’s expertise and impart your own.

Whilst I have had business within a short term of one or two meetings, realistically allow for longer time-scales. The longest period between me talking to someone at a networking event and them following me up was 6 years! But when the moment was right, they remembered me.

Tip 5: Use social networking tools

Most good business networks now have a social network dimension, be it a LinkedIn group, Facebook page or Twitter feed. These are fantastic additions to the process of physical networking. You can exchange information or simply socialise online with other members you may have met or who you wish to meet in the future.

A whole different chapter can be devoted to social network. Again, the simplest first advice is to dip your toe in one or two different networks with the help of people you already know.


The five tips in this article will get you started in business networking, which is often the major hurdle. Once you have been to two or more events you will become familiar with the networking process. You will able to establish your preferences in the types of people and businesses you enjoy meeting – and doing business with.

I look forward to meeting you at a networking event in the future :-)

Do clicks and pops on internet Radio reveal BBC attitude to local radio?

Imagine being given a camera that persistently gives you blotches on your pictures, how long would you put up with this? Listeners to local BBC radio stations on the internet, such as BBC Radio Cambridgeshire have been putting up with the equivalent for over three months now. Is this due to an insurmountable problem or complacency on the BBC’s behalf? As I small business, I could not afford to let such a fault run for such a period of time – I suggest this is big organisation complacency and it does not bode well for the future of local BBC radio stations.

Irritating clicks and pops have been disrupting local BBC radio station broadcasts, occurring at a frequency of several times a minute. This phenomenon disappears when the night time broadcasts go over to a shared national broadcast.

When I first heard them back in December 2011 on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire, I put this down to having a new PC and that there was an error there. That is, until I tried accessing listen again and finding that the clicks and pops were also present on the recordings of daytime BBC Radio Cambridgeshire programs. Using different PCs at different locations, the error was still there.

In fact, doing a further search revealed that this was occurring with local radio broadcasts across England, with irritated local listeners initially thinking this is just their local phenomenon http://catchupsupport.co.uk/viewtopic.php?f=14&t=275&start=10.
Today I checked BBC Radio Newcastle, BBC Radio Manchester, BBC Radio Cambridgeshire, BBC Radio Devon, BBC Radio Hereford and Worcester and BBC Radio Jersey – All were bedevilled by the horrendous clicks and pops.

Finally I heard on a BBC Radio 4 Feedback broadcast in February (no clicks and pops on that) that this was due to a faulty unit through which all local stations were routed. It was a bespoke item and a replacement had to be made. The fault would be resolved early March. Well, it is coming up to mid-March and the latest round about news is that the fault is unlikely to be repaired till April at the earliest (01/03/2012 http://www.radiofeeds.co.uk/).

If a small business like mine was providing a service with the same persistency, irritation and length of a fault to its customers, it would very rapidly find itself losing business. It would be a matter of finding a more immediate solution, even if this meant a stop-gap until a major repair was effected.

Now I’ve established, with a couple of phone calls, that there are internet radio streaming providers in the UK and that they are perfectly capable of taking an FM stream and converting it into an internet radio broadcast. A good place to start would be UK & Irish Radio Stations broadcasting on the Internet at http://www.radiofeeds.co.uk/streamproviders.html. Whilst the companies contacted did not want to be quoted, they all felt that it would be straightforward to provide a quick solution if approached.

I find the fact that the BBC has not seen fit to quickly address a serious and persistent technical issue with local radio broadcasts on the internet surprising. Even if the proportion of local BBC Radio listeners on the internet is small, the impact on the perceived professionalism of the organisation could be disproportionate.

Most worrying of all, as a local BBC Radio Cambridgeshire listener, is the feeling that if the BBC as an organisation does not treat its local internet radio listeners seriously, is it really serious about local radio as a whole?