Ups and downs in knowledge transfer - and a chance to be on Parliamentary TV!!
22 November 2018 by David Bott
Yet another no-show at the “start the week” meeting, but instead I drove up to Sheffield to chair the first Board meeting of the Northern Way funded Molecular Engineering Translational Research Centre (METRC) - see. This was born out of an N8 initiative to bring together virtual centres within the North of England to be capable of challenging at a global level. The Board is composed of representatives (usually at the PVC level) for the main universities and a series of friendly industrialists. The meeting was interesting in that it (for me) exposed fault lines between the RDAs and the constituent universities. Manchester already had OMIC, but it hadn’t achieved much, when METRC was conceived, but then banged in a bid for the Knowledge Centre for Materials Chemistry (which we, the Technology Strategy Board, apparently backed through the CIKTN) and precipitated a re-run of the War of the Roses. There is an uneasy truce but we now have 2.5 organisations in the North of England doing the same thing and acting blissfully unaware of the larger (and more globally competitive) resource in the South of England.
Tuesday started with some preparation for our appearance in front of the BERR Select Committee but the bulk of the day was taken up with the Executive Management Team meeting. Within this the discussion of the Samulet proposal was a significant part – not only agreeing our path forward but also how best to communicate this to the whole stakeholder community. Fearless Leader is treading carefully on this (Aerospace) issue but has the best explanation of its strategic significance for both the Aerospace industry but also the wider manufacturing community.
Fresh from all of this, we held out first real meeting of the Head of Innovation Programmes and started the process of getting our act together.
Wednesday was down to London for a series of meetings. First up was the Network Security Innovation Platform Steering Group. The development of the Steering Group into something useful made another step this time – when those with commercial awareness outnumbered the “spooks” for the first time. They supported the upcoming “interdependency” call wholeheartedly, but effectively re-wrote the draft implementation plan into a more challenge–led approach, asking for clearer communication on the way. Tom Ilube made the expected contribution (now we’ve got his number from Innovate, we are definitely “grooming” him for more work), Mark Ferrar managed to make an input through the difficult regime of being on a telephone (which means he will make the effort to attend next time) but the revelation was Ian Henderson from BP who sat quietly for the first hour before coming out with the most incisive and critical comments, but then turned it around to be constructive.
I then met with my friends from Oxford Biomaterials. They are just going through the process of asexually budding off their third spin-out, and wanted my advice on various issues (none of which involved our money, so wasn’t conflicted!). Their new baby, Orthox, has won a Welcome grant of £1.6 million and looks set to win some VC money as well. We discussed the various issues and they left with a plan that I am not sure I contributed to other than by asking questions!!
The evening was the launch on Web Mission 09 – see
About 8 o’clock, I got a phone call from Tim O’Brien. He had just learned that Advantage West Midlands were about to announce a large investment in a centre to support Low Carbon Vehicles. For new readers, it is worth pointing out that AWM had early on joined the LCV Integrated Delivery Programme (IDP) with a £30m contribution, but we had always realised that at least £10m of that would end up as bricks and mortar (it’s what RDAs do, as someone in BERR once explained to me). The announcement was that AWM would put £30m into a centre with Jaguar Land Rover and JCB, so there was the obvious inference that they were going to blow the whole wad on a building, leaving the IDP seriously depleted of programme money – the very programme money they were probably relying on to fill the building. “Sassafrassarassa” as Muttley used to say.
We had invited Oracle to dinner afterwards to probe why they weren’t actually engaged with us. Some of them had come to the dinner before Innovate 08, but we hadn’t followed up (on either side) and they seemed genuinely surprised when we explained what we were trying to do and who we did it. On the Oracle side, they had Chris Baker (Senior Vice President for Core Technology Oracle EMEA), Cairbre Sugrue (Senior Director, Corporate Communications, UK, Ireland and Israel) and David Rajan (Director Strategic & Emerging Business, UK, Ireland and Israel). We also had James Lawn and Bronwyn Kunhardt from Polecat (see
I managed to sleep for long enough and secure a supply of prescription drugs so that I was able to turn up for the meeting at BERR that EJ had fixed for 8.15 the next morning. This was to discuss the KTN review with Simon Edmonds and David Hendon of BERR. Fearless Leader had invited David Way and me to take part. Although the KTN was the spark, it turned out that they were feeling disconnected from what we are doing at the management level (we are technically what is known as a "non-departmental public body" but both BERR and DIUS haven't looked at the definition of one recently!) and we ended up agreeing to hold regular meetings to bring each other up to speed with our latest activities and plans.
On the walk down from 1 Victoria Street to 66, I managed a conversation with Stephen Gray of AWM – the interim Phil Extance – to get across our disappointment at broken trust, our concern that a building with no programmes was a hollow achievement and that state aids rules meant they couldn’t just support JLR (it turns out that JCB were a last minute addition, but that they hadn’t thought about Modec, Zytec, LTI and all the other Midlands based companies that are actually moving into the new technologies!!) In return for an agreement that we needed to rebuild a truckload of bridges, we put in a quote from Fearless Leader that emphasised the important contribution this centre could/would make to the national programme. Nevertheless, it has been a salutary lesson in trust and planning, and suggests (to me, at least) that much of the progress we have made in working with the RDAs is possibly hollow.
Then some more preparation/discussion before our appearance in front of the House of Commons BERR Select Committee. We were the last witnesses and had been heavily trailed by others – in a good way – so we were expecting a reasonable ride. We managed to get our opening messages across quite well and the first 30 minutes were almost, but not quite, fun. Then we got a left field question – interestingly based on wrong, misinterpreted and out of date information – which required Fearless Leader to exhibit a level of diplomacy that we hadn’t planned on. Obviously, his Joe 90 spectacles worked and the committee started arguing with itself about the facts. There then followed a series of questions which showed that they actually didn’t understand what we did – questions like “so you give grants, do you?” and “how do you pick winners?” came thick and fast and we had to go back to basics and write the “Technology Strategy Board for Dummies” book on the fly. I think we did okay, but it does emphasise yet again that our message isn’t getting understood by key stakeholder groups and we need (as one of my former bosses used to say) “find another gear”. I was running out of drugs at this point, so after a small stay in Fortress Kingsgate, I went home and crashed.
Crashed did I say? Friday was spent between a rather large number of telephone calls and sleeping – and they took the Cenex Smart away from me to deliver to Fearless Leader!! I hope the electrics in his house are more robust than in mine!!