Who knows where the time goes?

Yet another “start the week” meeting. This is beginning to be addictive. After that it was a visit with Fearless leader to Dolby at Wooton Bassett – arranged by EJ. The visit came in two halves. The first was a tour of the factory. Here they make the “professional” equipment that goes into cinemas. Then came description and demonstrations of professional and consumer technologies being implemented. It was interesting to hear how Dolby started in Clapham 43 years ago and, by supplying a product people didn’t realise they wanted, grew to become a $640 million business by a mixture of licensing their technologies, developing the hardware and software to penetrate new markets and thinking through how the technologies would affect the business models and leading that change. The demonstration of how the various “ages” of sound have evolved was amazing. I left wishing I had the money to buy a home cinema system to complement the LCD television and Blu-ray player – apparently sitting in the concert hall using the full power of 5.1 surround sound with all the extras was thrilling. One of the simple lessons I learned was to go to their website ( http://www.dolby.com/consumer/home_entertainment/roomlayout.html) and, following simple instructions, setup my television and stereo systems properly.  It works!! The sad bit was realising, in conversation with FL and EJ on the way back that some of the people we went were losing their jobs. 

That afternoon, we had a discussion with Imperial College. A month or so ago, we had visited them to find our more about some of the projects they are involved with and their “corporate” attitude to knowledge transfer. Part of that visit – and for me the highlight – was the visit to the incubator unit in the lower reaches of the Bessemer Building run by Imperial Innovations. The companies were developing exciting products and services and their interaction with the university seemed to benefit both sides. Their problem lay in their success. As companies grew, they got too big to fit within the incubator, but space for start-ups in London – especially ones that need scientific or engineering facilities – is rare and Imperial wanted to discuss some ideas for how to get around this problem. They also wanted our support for some of their ideas – which were quite attractive!! 

Tuesday saw me off to Aston University for a meeting of the Low Carbon Vehicles Innovation Platform Steering Group. We have two competitions under this Innovation Platform at the moment – the Ultra Low Carbon Vehicles Demonstrator programme and the Ultra-Efficient Systems for the market advancement of Electric and Hybrid Vehicles. The demonstrator programme was launched before Christmas and is receiving a lot of interest (31 Intentions to Submit last week) and the systems programme was launched the Monday – so there was a lot to talk about. One of the consistent messages we get from the community is that there are too many Government initiatives in many areas and they don’t know how to work out what they should do. We are therefore working closely with the Department for Transport, BERR, the Energy Technologies Institute and Cenex to make sure we coordinate our activities and are able to explain one another’s – so that one enquiry to any of us get the whole picture. Tuesday evening was taken up with the drive to Norwich so that I could be there for the next day, and so I got a chance to listen to the radio 4 coverage of Obama’s inauguration. A bit eerie driving through the darkness that is Norfolk listening to that speech!! 

Wednesday was the Open Innovation Conference 2009 run by the Norfolk Network. The day was a mixture of talks by large companies who practice open innovation, masterclasses on aspects of business development and 1:1 private appointments with the speakers. Since I was a substitute for Fearless Leader, I got to give the keynote address (all the presentations can be downloaded for here http://www.norfolknetwork.com/a.php?cat=11101&article_id=2859) and fielded a number of questions in the open session and in the numerous networking sessions on aspects of the work of the Technology Strategy Board – our Collaborative Research & Development grants, the Innovation Platforms and the Small Business Research Initiative. As normal, I find that people are familiar with what we used to be as part of the DTI and haven’t caught up with our new status at arms length from government or the many changes we have wrought in our delivery mechanisms. They always seem genuinely and pleasantly surprised!!! I have always been sceptical of the term “open innovation”. It seems to me that most of what the “instruction manual” in this space, Henry Chesbrough’s “Open Innovation” has to say is to elaborate on practices I have seen operating in industry through most of my career. Like many good “management” books, its subject has been “discovered” and not “invented”. The presentations by the large corporates varied between a profound understanding of this approach and what sounded suspiciously like the implementation of the latest management fashion. It is a shame that there wasn’t a speaker from the SMEs that make up the supply chains of this sort of company when they operate the “in” form of open innovation or who have been set up as a result of the “out” form of open innovation. With one exception, the discussions with individuals, both those who had booked an appointment with me and those who just took their chances in the coffee breaks, were the most inspiring. There was a guy with a genuinely interesting take on heat recovery from waste food and sewage (sort twice waste food) and a company that enables automatic addition of “emotion” to avatars – see here and follow links http://www.emotionai.com/. That about 200 people turned up to listen and learn was pretty good, but the fact that they hit on me and every other speaker at every opportunity speaks volumes for the hunger to succeed in the area. 

Thursday it was down to London. My first meeting was with Roo Reynolds, who had been recommended by our Graham Spittle, as we started to investigate what contribution technology could make to education, but who has now moved to the BBC to work on social media. Since the Technology Strategy Board has become a hotbed of “tweeting” over the last few months, established its island in Second Life in late November and is realising that this area represents a new opportunity to communicate with our wider community – or at least a different segment of it – the meeting took on a wider significance. Lots of ideas we agreed to discuss further. 

Then down to the BERR Conference Centre for a meeting of the New Automotive Innovation & Growth Team. The team are now in the final stages of collating and examining the accumulated data, bringing together the analyses by the different working groups and synthesising an overall picture and recommendations. It was pretty dispiriting to listen to the lack of communication in the room. The BERR guys were trying to get the industrial guys to understand that they really did want to make it an industry report and not another government one. Then there was the debate about how developing new products and services was a waste unless the government would give them money to industrialise these new products. They seem to be using the Aerospace industry as their role model but with none of the knowledge or finesse!! 

The final meeting of the day was to accompany Fearless Leader to the Royal College of Art. We have been (sort of) engaged with them for a couple of years through the Materials and Design Exchange, which is the design node of the Materials Knowledge Transfer Network. We have also talked to them about our first steps into the “Creative Industries” and the new Creative Industries Knowledge Transfer Network. However, our work with the Design Council has taught us that the concept of “design” is more integral to the process of innovation than we first understood and we are on a crash course to work out what more to do. This meeting was mainly finding out more about the RCA’s existing activities and how they complement ours – and then working out what to do next – but it did produce some ideas that Fearless Leader needs to tell me to make happen. 

Friday was an all-day affair at Zytek at the invitation of Bill Gibson, the founder and chairman of Zytek. Bill has been involved in the Low Carbon Vehicle Innovation Platform since the early workshops in 2006. He is a passionate advocate of electric vehicles and has spent much of the last decade putting that passion into business practice. He told us stories of his interactions with Banks and Universities that did not reflect well on them – but he seems to like working with us. One interesting insight was that both he and his Managing Director both thought that Collaborative R&D grants had to be with a university!!! His involvement with the area goes back even further. In the first competition the “old” Technology Strategy Board ran in early 2004, Zytek was part of a consortium on the development of “Energy efficient electric urban transport”. Then in a 2005 competition they were in a consortium that focused more specifically on the electric powertrain. Finally, in our first competition under the Low Carbon Vehicles Innovation Platform in September 2007, Zytek was part of a consortium aiming to develop a hybrid bus. During the day, Fearless Leader and I saw the Smart Electric Vehicle (both of us had driven one last year so were keen to see how it was built), a 7.5 ton hybrid truck and a Le Mans car that has beaten the Audis!! We also saw the motors that power the electric vehicles in both 55kW and 70kW format, (some stuff about Formula 1 I would have to kill you if I divulged), the manufacturing facility that makes most of the parts and the people who do all this. Bill told us over and over that making an electric vehicle was more complicated that just adding an electric motor and some batteries – the control systems and the various ECMs are all difficult to design and make. It was a truly inspiring day to see a British company that is still small but respected and contracted by many global players. We should write these guys up and add them to our pathetically small list of success stories.

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