The Nobel Chemistry Prize is well deserved, but it is also a cautionary tale, writes Robin Pagnamenta.

It's hard to dispute that to build a dynamic, 21st-century economy, UK firms will need to rely on their wits.

Michael Stanley Whittingham may not be a household name but the chances are the technology he developed is sitting in the smartphone in your pocket and a dozen other devices you own around the home.

If you have an electric car, you can thank him every time you power it up and glide out of your driveway.

It may be late in his career but as the 77-year-old professor from Lincolnshire prepares to pick up his Nobel Prize for chemistry, which he was awarded last week, Whittingham is enjoying a rare moment in the limelight.


Outside the rarefied academic world of materials science, the Oxford graduate who built the first rechargeable lithium-ion battery is virtually unknown, but the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said he, his American collaborator John Goodenough and Japan's Akira Yoshino "laid the foundations for a carbon-free society".

While the Nobel Prize for all three men was well deserved, it is telling that decades after the creation of the first lithium-ion batteries, billions of which are now lodged inside the devices on which our modern lives depend, Britain has so little to show for its central role in the discovery.

Like many UK innovations — take computers, the internet or civil nuclear energy to name but a few — British companies these days remain bit players in a global industry that is dominated by giant Japanese, US and Korean companies like Sony, Tesla and Samsung.

While China and East Asia are racing ahead of the rest of the world in building a lithium-ion battery supply chain for electric vehicles (EVs) — the Europeans pushing to catch up include Sweden, Germany, France and Finland — but not the UK, or at least not yet.

In this, as in other areas, the British have failed to fully capitalise on its pivotal role developing the raw technologies on which they rely.Why?

Plenty of explanations have been served up over the years.

Some blame a UK business culture where companies tend to invest less in research — on average about 1.7 per cent of GDP — than rivals in Korea (4.2 per cent), Japan (3.6 per cent) or Finland (3.2 per cent).

That means many British academics vanish overseas in search of better opportunities.


Others point to a failure of successive Governments to take a more strategic, long-term view and the ease with which overseas companies can snaffle up British research and development, often at relatively low cost.

Still others point to a natural British conservatism when it comes to entrepreneurship compared with go-getting America; and a willingness of founders to sell out at an earlier stage, perhaps to live out a comfortable retirement playing golf, instead of trying to build world-beating firms.

Either way, the story of Whittingham's invention tells a story in itself.

Much of his original research was done at Oxford University, but in the 70s he was lured to the US to take up a fellowship at Stanford University and was later hired by Exxon Research. At the time, the oil crisis was fuelling intense interest in alternatives to fossil fuels, which waned during the 80s oil glut.

Having laid the scientific foundations for lithium-ion batteries, his collaborator John Goodenough figured out how to double the battery's potential and make them less volatile by tinkering with different cathode materials.

In the end, it was Japan that benefited the most from those innovations when their work was taken up in the 80s by Yoshino at Asahi Kasei, a Japanese chemical company.

By stripping pure lithium from the battery, he made the technology safer and more suitable for commercial applications. Its potential was later spotted and refined by Sony, which launched its rechargeable lithium-ion batteries on the market in 1991, initially for video cameras and later for everything from laptops to mobile phones and power tools. The rest is history.

For Britain, this debate over how we commercialise science and technology could not be more relevant today.

Whatever one's view of Brexit, it's hard to dispute that to build a dynamic, 21st-century economy, UK firms will need to rely on their wits — and their skill crafting successful businesses out of scientific expertise and academic research done in Britain.

In recent decades the UK has had a patchy record on this front — but it may be getting better at it.

Britain's universities are becoming more adept at identifying and commercialising research at an earlier stage and maintaining a stake in it as companies grow.

Many are becoming vibrant hotbeds for young start-ups, sucking up cash from venture capital firms and helping drive a virtuous circle of economic activity. Long may that process continue. After all, it's the same economic model that helped Silicon Valley emerge from a cluster of start-ups around Stanford and represents one of Britain's brightest hopes for a prosperous future.

Amid all of the uncertainty surrounding Britain's future relationship with the EU, it's one area its Government must keep focusing on to power up the future UK economy.