A new future with concrete and chips: Tech entrepreneurs honoured by the Royal Academy of Engineering are showing the way

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The Independent Online

The collapse of the banking sector in 2008 showed just how reliant the British economy had become on the City of London for growth, jobs and general prosperity. The recession that followed those dark days exposed the need to rebuild the non-financial side of the economy, but after years of neglect can our manufacturing ever recapture the success it once enjoyed?

One ray of hope for the UK is the growing number of tech entrepreneurs springing up across the country. This has been recognised by the Royal Academy of Engineering, with Silver Medals handed to some of UK's sharpest minds for their contribution to society.

Winners of the award, which are in their 20th year, include Chris Young, the director and former chief engineer at Rolls-Royce; Professor Maire O'Neill from Queen's University Belfast: and Peter Brewin and Will Crawford of Concrete Canvas. Dervilla Mitchell, chair of the academy's awards committee, said: "The Silver Medals recognise individual excellence, not only technically, but also in the ability to turn knowledge and ideas into useful, wealth-creating products and services.

"This is essential to UK prosperity, and this year's winners are excellent examples of the kind of world-class entrepreneurs that the academy is championing through its Engineering for Growth campaign and supporting through its Enterprise Hub.

"The UK boasts world-leading expertise in digital security, computer programming, aerospace, and manufacturing, and our 2014 medalists demonstrate the strength of knowledge and skill in these areas that will enable us to maintain this position for years to come. They are outstanding role models for the next generation."

Chris Young (top) of Rolls-Royce Trent XWB engines at Rolls-Royce

Having joined the engineering giant Rolls-Royce as a school leaver in 1987, Chris Young now stands at the helm of a multibillion-pound project that could have revenues equivalent to a FTSE 100 company in 10 years' time.

Mr Young is the driving force behind the Rolls-Royce Trent XWB aircraft engine, which will power the new Airbus A350 XWB aircraft that comes into service this year. More than 1,600 of the Trent XWB engines are already on order to drive civil airliners for 40 customers, making it the fastest-selling civil large engine ever.

Before this, his work focused on the energy sector, where he worked closely with the Government on public policy.

He believes talented school leavers and students should consider a career in engineering, rather than heading for the City as many do.

"This kind of career is mentally exciting, intellectually challenging and stimulating. Just look at my current project as an example. We work on the kind of things many of us use in our everyday lives," he said.

Peter Brewin (middle) and Will Crawford, founders, Concrete Canvas

"A lot of the development work comes up in the bar," admits Peter Brewin.

The idea of "inflatable concrete buildings" certainly sounds like the result of a jar too many. But Mr Brewin and Will Crawford, both 35, were deadly serious about the concept and the "elegant physics" involved when they were studying for an Imperial College and Royal Academy of Arts course 10 years ago.

What was spun out of this initial thinking has turned out to be a wholly more successful innovation: a fabric filled with concrete that rapidly sets when filled with water. This creates a thin, uniform layer with no cracks in it.

The first order for their South Wales-based factory was from the British military for use in Afghanistan.

However, the duo's big break came with an order from a rail contractor that wanted a quick and cheaper way to line ditches by the track.

As the material can set overnight, the lining is in place 10 times faster than the traditional method of pouring concrete. The lightness of the product means that no expensive roads have to be built to transport concrete to the site.

It is also versatile, with Concrete Canvas being used to create outdoor furniture at Rome's Maxxi museum and as a secondary container around oil tanks. It will soon also be used for more technical purposes, such as stabilising slopes.

Professor Maire O'Neill (bottom), inventor of security chips used in over 100 million television set-top boxes

Any student who reckons that internships are a waste of time should think again: as an undergraduate, Máire O'Neill worked for Amphion Semiconductor in Belfast.

"I was their first ever intern," says Ms O'Neill. "They decided to get me to look at this new area of data protection."

She impressed Amphion so much that the directors agreed to fund her PhD, where she developed an encryption chip that the company commercialised for television set-top boxes.

Does that mean she's the reason why basic package subscribers can't see the odd Premier League match on Sky Sports or a James bond flick on Sky Movies? "Yep, that's me," says Ms O'Neill, who went on to become one of Queen's University's youngest-ever professors aged just 32.

Three years on and she's looking what she claims is the "exciting area of post-quantum cryptography".

The British government has invited Ms O'Neill to a workshop next month to discuss the impact of this leap in technology that would see millions of parallel computations take place at any one time. Nearly everything computer based would be almightily speeded up, a development that is maybe less than a decade away.

Ms O'Neill warns that this would mean technology is far more vulnerable to cyber-attack.