The trajectory of Catapults

Some time ago, I set out to explain our thinking behind the Catapults. At that point we had begun the roll-out of the programme and what I described was, admittedly, mostly theoretical. We have now taken the business case for the seventh catapult to our Governing Board for approval and have learnt a lot over the 8 months since I last wrote on the subject.

Our core goal is to support economic growth. That requires that we support companies that are going to grow. They will grow because they address markets that are growing, because they offer a product or service that no-one else can provide in a market that may or may not be growing, or because they offer a product or service at a lower cost that their competition in any market! Over the last 5 years we have learned to listen to the knowledge that comes from our interaction with companies and focus our support in areas where they cannot get the support they need any other way. Several years ago, we realised that the collaborative research and development tool we were bequeathed at our birth was not enough. We are now able to fund single companies and groups of companies at various stages in the development of a new product or service, but the tool that seems to have captured the imagination is the one we have developed to answer a very specific need – that of asset efficiency and co-working across sectors. We call them Catapults.

When we first started suggesting the idea of physical centres, we had a large number of disparate role models. Some of the research councils had research institutes, many countries had development institutes but the one everybody quoted was the Fraunhofers. They had been part of the transformation of the German innovation landscape – indeed they had existed before innovation was discovered! We talked to our sponsor department and they commissioned Hermann Hauser to look at the idea. He produced a report recommending the establishment of a network of elite business-focused technology innovation centres. This report was published in March 2010 to wide acclaim, but a few months later the government changed and many assumed that the recommendation would perish – especially since the cover had Lord Mandelson’s name on it! It is to the credit of this government that they have continued and extended many of the business support activities that started under the last administration, but then economic growth driven by business activity is not a party issue. The result was that, in October 2010 at the CBI conference, David Cameron announced a £200m investment to set up the network Hermann had recommended.

The early ones were easy to define the scope of. In fact, the first one had already been assembled in parts by the Regional Development Agencies. Manufacturing has been around as an area of technological innovation for over 200 years, but the pace of change has never been so fast, and the importance of keeping near the leading edge has never been so vital. For several years, centres to support aspects of High Value Manufacturing had been set up across the UK. There were centres in Glasgow, Wilton, Sheffield, Coventry and Bristol covering many of the areas of UK manufacturing. Although Hermann (and we) are firmly of the belief that a single centre in each area is optimum, we decided to bring these 7 centres together under a single management structure to ensure the transfer of knowledge and skills was not inhibited by separate centres competing for funds. The logic for a centre was, in this area, easy. Many manufacturing processes are capital intensive and the rate of development meant that, for most of the smaller companies, the cost of keeping up with the latest production technology was prohibitive. Without that technology, they would not be able to compete on price or product characteristics. A single national centre that allowed SMEs – and even larger companies – access to the latest production technologies – and the scientific and technological know-how necessary to get the best out of them - was a prerequisite for growth in this area. Once they were at the centre, using the equipment, they would invariably mix with other companies, often from different markets, and exchange experiences and ideas. This Catapult has now been operational for just over a year and the outreach and progress has been impressive.

The next area on our notional shopping list had similar large-scale and expensive equipment challenges. Offshore Renewable Energy has emerged over the last 10 years as an area of opportunity for the United Kingdom. We have access to some of the most powerful wind and tidal power in the world and the offshore oil and gas industry has developed world leading capability to install, monitor and service equipment in the hostile environment that accompanies that power. Construction of the large-scale turbines required to optimise performance and lower costs could be taken care of within the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, but testing the components and supporting the systems requires large and expensive specialist equipment. Also, as this industry strives to lower costs and increase reliability, access to the data from existing installations, validation of the models using this data and use of standards to optimise the business environment will all play a part in ensuring we can harness a significant natural resource to address the energy needs of the nation.

The next Catapults are an unlikely pair but have similarities. Cell Therapy and Satellite Applications may not sound similar, but they are both fledgling industries with the need to build integrated supply chains and where the costs of the final step into commercial success is large – it costs about the same to get a new therapy through trials in humans to test safety and efficacy as it does to put a satellite into orbit. One cost is largely regulatory and the other a function of basic physics, but the numbers are comparable! A single physical centre in each case provides a place for young companies to access both the physical assets and the knowledge and experience necessary for them to progress to commercial success.

Next came the Connected Digital Economy Catapult. Our Digital programme had identified the opportunity to transfer experience and insight from one market to another as the inexorable progress of digitalisation, driven by the increased power and connectivity of modern computer and network technology enables the capture, analysis and use of large data sets – data sets that can cover our media choices, our retail preferences, our use of energy and transport or even our genetic make-up. Although the need for physical assets is less acute in this area, the requirement to bring suppliers and users from different markets together is perhaps more pressing.

The final pair of Catapults share yet another characteristic – they are about integration of activities we have historically thought of as separate. Future Cities had already been identified as a market by many large companies, who had set up divisions to cover the development of products and services within their own organisation, but many realised that the scale of integration required was probably beyond a single company – even a large one. Integrating the systems of a city to ensure that it presents an attractive location for people to live and companies to locate yet operates with a budget that includes both the financial and environmental costs is a pressing need for those who run cities – and it is they who are setting the pace of change. The need to integrate national and international transport systems is as economically important but seems to (so far) have less champions. In both cases, the Catapult will contain the ability to model the integration of systems that, up until now, have been treated as separate. This will be linked to data feeds from real world demonstrators and these data used to validate and extend the models so that new products and services can be de-risked before launch.

After 2 years of evaluating the arguments for physical centres, analysing the needs of users and designing centres that we believe will answer those needs, we have learned a lot. Our analysis leads us to believe that centres are not right for all areas of technological activity, but we have more ideas for the next phase in the development of this important addition to the innovation landscape of the United Kingdom.

Technology Strategy Board (remastered) Catapults
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