There’s a trick to the 'graceful exit.' It involves a sense of future, a belief that every exit line is an entry, that we are moving up, rather than out.
02 June 2022 by David Bott
I have found another amusing thing to do on Monday morning – try to get from home to Swindon on the train! I needed my car to be at Warwick Parkway on the Tuesday afternoon, so I tried to make the connection – it’s a 30 minute drive, 4 train rides (totalling 95 minutes) – with apparently reasonable connection times that started going wrong after the second train and required a sprint across Didcot Parkway to make the last one – and then a stroll across the Swindon Railway Station car park to get to the office just late enough to make joining the “start the week” meeting redundant!
The Catapult meeting (sans FL, it reverts to its usual format) did lead to some interesting discussions about things I thought had been agreed weeks before – obviously I don’t pay enough attention to detail!
After squeezing myself onto the “hot table” (which when as crowded as it now gets on a Monday is almost useless for working) I did a small amount of e-mail reading before my first meeting with Strategy Man – we discussed the upcoming Governing Board meeting and a few of the outstanding problems we face as an organisation. Then it was a chance to go through the recently conceived Connected Digital Economy Catapult slide set with Finger Man and his new “enforcer”. That took longer than anticipated, so I joined the “state aids” “learn without lunch” meeting at the back. This was to get more people to understand how the external drivers have changed (at the beginning of the year) and was enormously useful in terms of understanding what we could do – unfortunately, since we woke up to the options late, we are still trying to work out what the consequences are of changing and so not taking advantage in the way that we apparently could. The irony of the situation was revealed when Biomedical Catalyst Girl asked why we couldn’t use the new rules for this flagship project and was told that the EMT hadn’t decided yet – missing the point that the analysis commissioned by the EMT many weeks ago to check the impact before we implemented the new rules had not arrived!
After an attempt at a catch-up with Jools – my diary seems to be both full and at the mercy of other people’s decisions at the moment, and so any decisions we make tend to get “altered” later – it was time for a Funders Panel – Sustainable Manufacturing for the Process Industries (Feasibility Studies) to be precise. This showcased (again) the importance of the IfM analysis of the opportunities for the UK manufacturing industry as it underpins our new strategy for high value manufacturing.
The next meeting was an FL cast-off, and involved Sustainability Man and I talking to Forum for the Future about their idea for an Institute for Sustainable Innovation apparently supported by Bristol University and UWE. Once they explained what they wanted to achieve, SM and I both waded in with the “why a physical centre?” question. Admittedly, we had the experiences of the whole late stage Catapult thinking behind us, but only a couple of local universities after a new building would have bought the basic concept and not seen the opportunity for a network of activity across the whole UK – brought together by the brand of Forum for the Future – to realise the full value of UK capability in the area. It caused to me to trot out the old observation by one of my American colleagues that “The Brits have learned to circle the wagons. All they need to do now is to learn to shoot outwards!” I hope we made them think!!
Then it was off to London to meet up with a trio of design thought leaders who wanted to celebrate the change of leadership at the Design Council. As it was, one of them was stopped from coming by some family news, but Deyan (who is becoming pervasive with recent credits in the Audi magazine and Wired), Sebastian and I all explored the growing links between design and technology in what is alleged to be one of His Daveness’s favourite restaurants!
I got back to the hotel just before midnight to find FL at reception getting his key revalidated, so took the opportunity of asking for more feedback on what Mr Smith wanted the next day! He told me Mr Smiths’ observation that we teach small companies to pitch better but don’t always take our own medicine.
Next morning, made my way over to a secret location to rendezvous with Ian Shott so that he could see the proposed site for the Cell Therapy Catapult. As it was, he was delayed by tube problems, so I got a chance to catch up with more e-mails in the Starbucks next to London Bridge (whoops, that’s a clue, isn’t it?). Eventually, he turned up and we inspected the premises. He seemed generally impressed but was still worried about the cost – he has never worked in central London! We then caught another tube out to Stratford, and attempted to follow the directions to Cisco House (see – http://www.ciscolondon2012.co.uk/learn/cisco-house) but failed the initiative test and explored the Westfield Mall instead. The crimp in Ian’s timetable had propagated and so we were too late to miss the video of Stephen Fry saying how important switches were (that’s how it was characterised to me, anyway) and went straight into the Governing Board meeting. FL talked them through his report, and then we broke for lunch.
Although we had described what we had achieved under the Low Carbon Vehicles Innovation Platform at the last meeting, Mr Smith (in particular) had apparently asked for a better presentation of the case before it was formally approved. Given that Transport Man and his team were up to their necks in competitions and a Catapult, Guy had drafted a shorter version of the paper case and I put together a 4 slide presentation. Based on FL’s short feedback the evening before I added a short “offer” that if the Board gave us £16m to invest, we could promise £504m back to the economy, the continuation of the automotive sector acting as our cheerleaders and a brace of Ministers thinking we were doing a good job. The numbers come from the co-investment of £20m from the DfT alongside our £16m and the PACEC analysed 14 fold payback from the first phase projects, they had seen Jerry Hardcastle’s video at Daresbury last month and heard Tony Harper’s assertion that the CX75 (see – http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-7XOOE9LpXQw/Td7ADBuPbsI/AAAAAAAAAEA/A2h5Src1WQw/s1600/Jaguar-CX-75-concept-car-SGB-em.jpg) wouldn’t have happened without our support, and Justine Greening’s additional funding and Vince Cable’s chairing of the Automotive Council rounded out the investment case. It was approved!!
David Way then led them through our thinking on the development of the Network Strategy. Unfortunately, the drive to make a decision about the future of the KTNs always gets rolled up into this thinking and the Board members pounced on the suggestion that we might change things and opined that they didn’t want to change the KTNs. It was a bit of an own goal, because the overall strategy should inform the network strategy and that, in turn, should suggest how we use, or evolve, the physical networks we already have and no-one wanted to debate the logic with the Board when they were in “minimal factual knowledge, loads of intuition” mode. The best bit was when Strategy Man left the room, kicking the table and slamming the door on the way out. I assumed he either needed the toilet in a hurry or was in desperate need for coffee, but apparently, it could be interpreted in other ways!
David then went on to try to close the Stewart Davies inspired questions over our Catapult building process by describing our evolving thinking, but instead hooked a “weren’t you always doing it that way?” response.
The final discussion for the proles was Cyrus description of the requirements of our governance process and then we were given time off for good behaviour and Cyrus, Paul Crawford and I hot-footed it to the tube and escaped home, leaving FL and Guy to record how the Board wanted to be more effective in future.
Wednesday was always going to be a complex day. It started in Swindon with a much-trailed meeting with Phil Newton of the NERC (see – http://www.nerc.ac.uk/about/work/structure/science/) about us not paying our subsidy to the Living With Environmental Change programme. We remembered that we had agreed to pay for the Business Advisory Board in lieu of the subs because moving money around government organisations just feels pointless, but there have been a number of meetings recently with Emily and Fiona and Sustainability Man where this had been raised as major issue (pause for consideration of why people who ought to be worried about mitigating or adapting to a global catastrophe think £25k is worth worrying about…..). Instead, Phil wanted to talk about expanding our role in giving the programme more business “bite”. It appears that the new CEO of NERC is not happy with the progress and integration of LWEC and is on a crusade. All power to him!
Next up was another Funders Panel, on what is effectively the demonstrator competition of our Hydrogen and Fuel Cells programme. We have supported components and sub-systems, moved on to system integration and were now at whole systems demonstrators. It’s nice to see the community growing through our competitions, but we should always worry who isn’t involved.
Once again, my next move was to catch train to London – for a pair of meetings with Strategy Man. The first was on the interaction of our programmes with R&D Tax Credits. Although this has been rumbling away for some time, it was brought to a head a few months ago by Sir John Bell threatening to stop the Biomedical Catalyst programme because companies were caught between 2 state aids programmes and therefore it wouldn’t work. We had persuaded him that it more complicated and this meeting was to try and bring all the players (we knew) together to agree a common path forward. We therefore had 2 tax guys (one the Head of Profession who wanted a simple and easy to understand solution, one from Policy who therefore wanted complex rules to cover every possibility and avoid any kind of responsibility), 2 BIS guys (one our handler, who had been trying to help, and one the Innovation Group tax expert) Strategy Man and I and Nathan from OSHCR (to report back to Sir John on a successful resolution of the issue). We have pretty much homed in on the fact that as long as we pay more that 30-40% of the project costs, the move from SME Tax Credits to Grant plus Large Company Tax Credits isn’t financially damaging to the company. There is an issue that the SME system allows cash back – which for a company a long way pre-revenue is attractive. The only thing we are now worrying about is the definition of a project – and it turns out that HMRC use the BIS definitions – which are written to be vague. We believe that “clarifying” the definition will allow sequential, stage-gated projects to be assessed as such and remove the last “problem” some people perceive. I could have got this wrong but will bow to Strategy Man who looked like he was following the argument!
Our next meeting, with Janice Munday, gave us the quintessential “Sir Humphrey” experience. Janice is responding to a series of politicians who are looking for “sectoral” support mechanisms, and focus on the leading “sectors”. Her problem is that every one has a different definition of what a sector is and no-one can agree what the leading ones are. What we got was a rambling storyline with no consistency or insight and (I for one) got the impression that the meeting was to enable her to say that she had consulted us. Sometimes I despair of government!
This went on longer than planned and (despite Strategy Man’s offer of a beer) I made my way back to Paddington caught a train, picked up my car, and drove to Cardiff. It sounds easy, doesn’t it? The train was delayed, the Swindon traffic was horrendous and there were multiple delays on the M4 and I arrived in Cardiff as the Motorpoint Arena was discharging the audience from Mrs Browns Boys (see – http://www.mrsbrownsboys.com/Mrs_Brown/Tours.html and, no, I hadn’t heard of them either!). I did miss the LWEC dinner, but had a hotel room overlooking Hooters (see – http://www.sportscafecardiff.com/cardiff) so had all night entertainment!
The next day started with an LWEC Partners Board meeting, but one with heavily truncated agenda. It started with a few (but still too many) words from some Welsh Minister about how Wales intended to be the most sustainable country in the world. The usual run of polite, sucking-up questions followed before we got down to business. The LWEC Executive had managed to get controversy into the hour by quoting partners agreement to things they hadn’t agreed to. That set us all up nicely for the workshop to review the effectiveness of LWEC. The first thing that got debated was whether we were reviewing the overall programme or the executive. Most of the people I talked to had gained no advantage to their activities from being associated with LWEC – let alone “accredited”. We all knew that climate change was a major challenge facing humanity, but merely adding up all the uncorrelated things being funded by public money and listing them down does not constitute a “programme” and most partners are beginning to realise this. The executive were excluded from the meeting and sat outside in the hotel foyer, looking increasingly lost. I do wonder whether anything will change but there is a powerful message evolving, that multi-partner programmes require leadership, listening and connecting if they are to achieve anything additional.
I had to leave early – for another FL hospital pass which I only realised the enormity of on Monday morning when Finger Man told me the back history. It turns out that the Welsh section of the Connected Digital Economy Catapult community have decided to ignore what we are saying about “no consortia” and “no competition” and build a consortium based in Wales to compete with the rest of the country. This was giving Finger Man a distinct headache (although not the Vogonlike one he was complaining about on Twitter!). That Sir Terry Matthews had requested a meeting with FL was just another part of the campaign. I therefore left the LWEC gorefest early and met up with Finger Man to meet the “first Welsh billionaire” in his castle (well, old Manor House!). He had assembled 3 of his Orcs and a person from Digital Wales to watch his triumphant vanquishing of the English devils, but played his hand too early. After lots of proof that he was indeed an innovative and successful entrepreneur, he got carried away and asked ”what do I have to do to close this deal?” That gave us the intro we needed. We explained that it wasn’t a competition, that we were trying to build a UK wide community and that the Welsh activities were actually getting in the way. We encouraged him to separate out the building of a UK community with the location of the physical Catapult. He agreed, but then, after another 10 or so minutes of stating his credentials, asked again what he had to do to “close the deal”. Having always believed that consistency is a good way to demonstrate purpose, we responded in the same way as before. Over 2 hours, we went around the cycle at least 4 times that I counted. Eventually, Terry got bored of playing with us and/or had another meeting and we all parted as friends. If we actually got our message through, we will see with different actions from Wales, but I got a lot from the meeting about the little things that a serial entrepreneur learns over time – to make sure the key people in a new enterprise have a stake in the company (they work a lot harder for themselves than others), to build in someone with lots of experience to balance up the useful enthusiasm (but give them shares too), to start with an understanding of the market and what people will part with their money for (interestingly, I have been attacked for my stated belief that being too early to the market is as certain a route to failure as being late, but Terry is on my side!). He ought to talk to whatever Business Coaching for Growth is called this week. He knows what they need to know, but suspect he would hate an organised way of explaining it! Nice run up the A449/A40/M50 home as well.
Friday was a Swindon day – although I thought it started at 9, the first meeting actually started at 10, so I got some unplanned interaction with people into a Swindon day for the first time in months. All too soon it was time for the regular depression session that is the EMT. We started with PAFs (both of which were approved) then moved into scorecards. Operations raised some interesting issues about IT support (and the promise of a BYOD regime at some point in the future) but otherwise it was all okay. Then we got on to Finance and Cyrus explained the latest thinking on accruals and their impact on spend and budgets. After 5 years, we are still not right on the understanding of our finances and therefore our ability to predict or control them. An update on how we are getting through InterimGate followed. Many of those still “in negotiation” are holding out for more, assuming this is a normal negotiation and not accepting that we went for the best offer we could justify in every case! The discussion of the Risk Register was short because the rewriting of it is still in progress!
It was about this point that FL decided to raise the state aids allowed intervention rates discussion. David Way had raised this some time ago as he was worried that Catapults needed to get 100% funding from Collaborative R&D projects – particularly with SMEs. With our current 50% cap on overall project funding, any involvement of universities effectively takes money from the companies. I had joined in because the Biomedical Catalyst was intended to bring companies into active involvement with universities, so we were making what we wanted to happen more difficult. The Issue was that such a change in rules would inevitably put more money into joint projects and lower the overall number. Cyrus was tasked with working out what impact that would have before we enacted the draft agreement we had made that we would do it. At the state aids learn without lunch on Monday a number of 30% less projects was quoted (apparently, Cyrus had told us the draft number at the EMT 2 weeks ago, but I had missed it. Given that we put less that 30% of our money into universities, putting twice as much would presumably add 15% to our overall bill so I was expecting a 15% smaller number (okay, accurately it would be 13%). That would be in the realms of “okay so we do it”, but 30% would cause even me to reconsider. It turned out that Cyrus had assumed that we increased all the allowances to the maximum at the same time, so we weren’t comparing apples with apples – all we wanted to do was level the playing field. Anyway, I think we agreed to remove the cap for the Biomedical Catalyst, but have added a different rule that no more than 50% of the projects costs could be in academia – we are supposed to be supporting companies, after all. That led to a discussion about how we should include the logic in the toolset analysis and have different rules for competitions intended to deliver different outcomes. We run the risk of confusing the punter, and will need a better than normal communication campaign, but it does make sense.
This being a meeting sort of day, the EMT (Operations) segued seamlessly into a Governing Board Debrief. We picked at the scab that was networking strategy, where Strategy Man thought that we had confused strategy with tactics (more specifically, the networking strategy with the need to resolve the question of KTNs before next years contract renewal). He has a point, instead of engaging the Board in a discussion about how to reach out beyond the usual suspects, convince companies that although we were funded by government, we weren’t part of government and so on, we had been told in no uncertain terms that they didn’t want us to change the way we did KTNs. We mused over what had gone wrong, but without David there, we couldn’t progress very far. The Catapults discussion had similarly not gone the way we planned, with most of the Board not understanding that the question raised by Stewart (which had effectively delayed the final 3 Catapults by 6 weeks) was actually quite important and we wanted their understanding of how we were intending to do things. Stewart kept a low profile and we ended up being told that we hadn’t changed anything and that they didn’t need a paper or discussion to agree!
We also got the news that the ERG had rejected our second attempt to get permission to run Innovate this year. This leaves us with a “problem”. If we go around the permission loop again, we will be starting too late to be able to run it in the usual slot (October/November). If we decide to change the date to next year, we will (apparently) need a new case for permission. We could also take a “Glastonbury holiday” and run a “what happened to Innovate this year?” campaign to build the case for a 2013 event in the usual slot. Later in the day, Bob Driver gave me a WTF call and we discussed options – so that FL and Nick Board could talk over the weekend and decide what series of actions we needed to take. UKTI (remember, we are joint owners of the event now) are keen to get Lord Green to lobby Francis Maude, but we are worried that Willetts allegiance might be closer to Science in Society, which also allegedly got bounced, and the support might be lopsided. Whichever way you look at it, this is a significant reverse and we ought to understand how we got here so late in the day.
By far the most fun came from the discussion in the closed session, where the Executive are “excused” and the Board work out how to be more effective. The usual stuff about better written, shorter papers, presentations that were “the same” as the papers (obviously they never went to the same presentation skills courses as I did!), the balance between papers beforehand (that some don’t read) and presentations on the day (that some have been observed to sleep or do e-mails through) hasn’t been resolved. Their latest wheeze is a feedback scorecard on our papers and presentations. Strategy Man took exception to this (once again, he has a point). Happily, for a long bank holiday weekend, we had to end early, so we didn’t get the change to have a full-blown argument. Shame, one day we will resolve an issue.