You need translation when you speak a different language
05 September 2016 by David Bott
Long ago, I was taught that science is about understanding the world around me, and being able to predict behaviour in a set of circumstances not yet observed. The ability to clearly communicate that understanding to another human being is an extra, and very important, skill, but is not given to everyone who does science. When I took the route into industrial research, I learnt that science is the start of another process. But whether you call it development, applied research, or innovation, the process of using the understanding to develop new products and services is separate and distinct from science on which it is based.
But this distinction is not shared by everybody and all sorts of things confuse the issue. For example, the Technology Strategy Board (a.k.a. Innovate UK) was set up using the same legislation as was used for the research councils because there was no time for new legislation, and it was located in Swindon so that it could share some office services, but its whole goal and methodology was necessarily different from the research councils. Although, from a government point of view, “merging” Innovate UK into Research UK looks attractive, it is missing these points about their different roles, different constituencies and different outcomes.
That is not to say that the process of matching scientific capability with commercial outcomes does not require collaboration between those who “do science” and those who use it for business needs.
This means it is important that the Research Councils and Innovate UK work closely together, but recognise and understand these differences. When it was first set up, the TSB inherited a programme of funding largely focused on the physical sciences and engineering – and so the main working relationship was with the EPSRC. But it was a relationship that had been going for years and no-one thought much about its goals and processes – they were more concerned about hitting DTI/DIUS imposed KPIs, which were unproven proxies for commercial success.
It was the move into medical applications that caused us to look at again at what we were trying to achieve and redesign the interaction. Although we had been running competitions for medical technologies and working loosely with the MRC from our inception in 2007, it was the injection of £90m over 3 years in 2011 that really caused change. The MRC, along with many Research Councils, already had a mechanism for supporting early stage development rather than fundamental science, but it often suffered from being based on technology push rather than commercial needs. In the Technology Strategy Board, although we had been set up with a single support mechanism (the Collaborative Research and Development Grant), in 2009 we recognised the need for a smaller, faster and lower value grants to give companies the opportunity to test out an idea at an early stage. We called these the Feasibility Studies – they were designed to be a feed to the larger grants in our areas of focus. A few years later, with the demise of the Regional Development Agencies, we were given the remnants of the Smart Awards which occupied the same space as Feasibility Studies but were not tied to our focus programmes.
After a fair amount of discussion with the MRC, what we jointly designed was a three-stage programme.
The first stage was designed to validate the underlying science and test the business case. The main emphasis was on the science, but everyone understood that developing a product or service no-one wanted to buy would not be a good way to showcase the impact of biomedical research. Funding for this stage was usually small and the project fast. We took elements of the MRC mechanism and the way we ran the Feasibility Studies, but the process was as new as we could get without confusing people who might apply.
The second stage was where the technology was developed and tested against basic models. The projects were collaborative between one or more companies and one or more universities. Initially, the funding allocated was medium, but we soon recognised that this stage was important and so the timescales could be up to 3-5 years and more money was invariably needed. We also realised that some projects were best served by breaking this stage into a couple of steps, with suitable milestones. The mechanism of this stage was adapted from the Collaborative Research and Development Grant model.
The third stage was where the technology was validated as commercial. This usually meant being tested in human beings and therefore needed significant financial support – often in the region of millions of pounds. Given that this is where other forms of investment started to come into play, we realised decisions made here would be important and needed to reflect all aspects of the project. We assembled an assessment committee with 2 academics, 2 clinicians, 2 business people and 2 investment experts, jointly chaired by an industrialist and an academic. We also recognised that the strength of the management team of the lead company was important so asked for “pitches” to this committee. Having attended several of their meetings, I can attest both to the power of the ideas they saw, the robustness of the interrogation companies received and the strength of the successful management teams.
Since the money was given to us in the typically unthought-through way beloved of political initiatives, we started all three types of competition at the same time, and many of the applications looked to be mildly adapted from other proposals (we used to call this effect the “bring out your dead” approach). After a few cycles, it all settled down and we noticed something important. Companies were coming to the third stage competition with conditional venture capital investment. The rigour of the process was being recognised as de-risking and prioritising proposals.
Although the Biomedical Catalyst looked like it almost got lost a year or so ago, it has been resurrected. What was important for me, was that it was born of genuine collaboration with the MRC, and reflected the transition from doing science to making money. You can argue about how many steps lie between and idea and a product, but we wanted to keep it small and follow the types of work needed to go from concept to commercialisation. What we saw over and over again was the difference in approach, language and measurement of success as the projects progressed through the process. Sometimes, the people went with the idea on its journey, but often the leadership of the project moved from academic to businessperson. There are many different ways of describing the process. When I was young, it was called development. It then became applied research. At some point it was renamed innovation. The one thing that has become clear to me over 30 or so years is that it is not the same as what has consistently been called scientific research. To lump them together (as many who ought to know better often do) is to build barriers to success. What was nice about the Biomedical Catalyst was that it tried to understand the differences along the path and provide the right sort of support to make the whole journey. It’s a shame when we don't learn from that kind of achievement.