Revolutionary Measures

Million pound dropped

English: Harrison's chronometer on display at ...

On the face of it, David Cameron’s announcement of a £1m prize for solving a ‘grand innovation challenge’ is good news for UK science and industry. The competition will look at the biggest issue of our time (as selected by the public) and then be judged by an illustrious panel, chaired by Lord Rees, the English Astronomer Royal. The Prime Minister likened the competition to the 1714 Longitude Prize which was created to solve the problem of navigation at sea, and which spurred unknown Yorkshire clockmaker John Harrison to develop much more accurate marine timepieces.

All well and good – anything that stimulates debate on pressing problems for mankind and supports scientists and engineers is obviously welcome. Even Cameron’s idea of a ‘Britain’s got talent’-style show to identify the key issue that scientists have to solve is an attempt to put engineering and research back into the mainstream.

But there’s three main problems I can see – and unfortunately they run through a lot of the coalition’s thinking on science, engineering, technology and entrepreneurship.

Firstly, £1m is a pitifully small amount of money for an idea that will solve ‘the biggest problem of our time’. The annual Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences (bankrolled by Mark Zuckerberg, Google co-founder Sergey Brin and tech investor Yuri Milner) has distributed $33m to 11 winners. And that’s just in one year. The new Longitude Prize is being funded by the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) and it appears (from what I’ve read) that the £1m is not new money, but is from the TSB’s existing budget. Hardly an expansion of government investment in science and engineering.

Secondly, like all politicians Cameron is driven by short timescales. Solving the problems the world faces can’t be accomplished in a single term in office. Research simply does not move that fast. If the Prime Minister checked his historical facts (perhaps he needs to speak to Michael Gove), this has always been the case. The original Longitude competition began in 1714 but Harrison’s clock was not successfully operational until the 1760s. And even then he was judged not to have won the official prize itself (though he was awarded multiple grants during his lifetime to recognise his achievements).

Thirdly, modern research is a global undertaking. Scientists work with their peers across the world, collaborating to solve problems across disciplines and countries. Look at the Human Genome Project – while the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridge made an enormous contribution to sequence human DNA, it was a truly global effort, involving scientists from across the world. So if Cameron expects his prize to be won by a 100% British entry, he’s likely to be proved mistaken.

I really hope that the new Longitude Prize takes off and increases interest in science, engineering and technology. But, like investment in championing Tech City, it smacks of a short term, PR-led approach by the Prime Minister – aiming for headlines, not the lasting breakthroughs that take decades to unlock.

June 26, 2013 Posted by | Cambridge, PR, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Catapulting the UK into the future

Ariane 5

The UK has always been full of people with bright ideas, but in many cases we’ve been let down by an inability to commercialise them. While it is wonderful to be known as a nation of inventors, it would be even better for the economy to translate this potential into strong companies, exporting around the world and employing skilled staff at home.

Turning this innovation into viable businesses requires focus, bringing together universities, companies and engineers to work together around certain areas and specialisms. Cambridge is the perfect example of a series of clusters (embedded, biotech, computer games, natural language processing), where participants feed off each other to move a particular industry forward. It is essentially an unofficial version of Germany’s Fraunhofer centres, which have played a large part in driving German innovation.

The good news is that the UK government has seen the potential of clusters and, thanks to a report from Hermann Hauser, set up the Catapult programme. This has established seven centres across the UK focused on high value manufacturing, cell therapies, offshore renewable energy, satellite applications, the connected digital economy, future cities and transport systems. The Satellite Applications Catapult has just been launched at Harwell, outside Oxford, on the same campus as a new technical centre for the European Space Agency. All seven centres will be operational in 2013, as part of the £440m the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) is investing in innovation this year.

This is great news, as is a recognition of the growth of unofficial clusters (such as security in Worcestershire) and support for them. But there are two areas that need to be addressed if clusters are to achieve their potential. Firstly, as a report from the Big Innovation Centre at the Work Foundation pointed out in January, the programme must be scaled up. Seven centres is a start point, but more are needed and those that exist require greater resources if they are to match other countries. Simply relying on British ingenuity to sidestep budgetary concerns is not going to work.

Secondly, Catapults have never been designed to launch commercial products – they are simply a stepping stone on the journey, providing the early stage support and specialist facilities to get an idea moving. My fear is that this innovation won’t necessarily produce another generation of ARMs or CSRs, but fledgling companies that are snapped up by international players. A huge number of small and midsize businesses find themselves unable to make the leap to the big league and opt for acquisition rather than pushing on to the next level. There needs to be a focus on why these UK innovators aren’t achieving their potential independently and help provided to ensure they make the jump to stable, quoted companies. That’s going to take greater investment and access to a wider pool of skills (such as marketing, sales and business development) to accelerate growth. We need a Rocket programme alongside our Catapults if UK ideas are going to achieve their full potential.

May 15, 2013 Posted by | Cambridge, Marketing, Startup | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments