Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today. If you like it, you can do it again tomorrow!!
04 April 2019 by David Bott
An unusual Monday. Firstly, I wasn’t going to Swindon for the “start the week” meeting, and secondly, because my first meeting wasn’t until 3 o’clock, I didn’t set an alarm!! Yeh!!!
Instead, I cracked through a whole bunch of e-mails and drove up to Loughborough. I say “up to Loughborough” but once there it became obvious that I had also crossed into a parallel universe, where the Energy Technologies Institute is the only funding body in the energy space, where cats and dogs can live together in peace and where civil servants effusively praise whoever in the room (there are universal constants). Yes, I was impersonating Fearless Leader at the ETI Board Meeting, and the first item on the agenda, a year in, was to agree what value the contributing organisations saw in their membership. EDF basically said they had been leant on by the Government to join, Caterpillar are asking questions about what they are getting out of their membership and Rob Margetts seems to be having difficulty adding new members in this economic downturn but the minutes will undoubtedly record 100% agreement that ETI was successful and on track. Over dinner and the next day, a different picture emerged, and it became obvious that the corporate members were all tasked with getting more than their contribution back as benefit. As I read the numbers only Rolls Royce has succeeded so far. By the time we got to discussing specific projects, we had rejoined the world I recognise and the debate was intense. When it became clear that one project involved a company we had previously funded several times, I was asked for any data I could supply, and even though the other project was criticised by everyone for poor cost engineering, the solution was to make Caterpillar a member rather than question the underlying premise. The discussion on “transport” was dominated by BP and Shell telling everyone that electric cars would never catch on and should not be supported, and ETI telling their Board that they were leading in the space – at which point Rob asked me to outline our position. I think I saw some jaws dropping. “Buildings” was a similarly a bit weird because EoN and EDF want to do something in the space but the rest don’t and, although it isn’t actually on their plan, ETI have just announced a £2m study. I was left with the feeling that I will never again criticise our Board. Although having driven, opinionated (in a good way) and experienced members who want YOU to do well is sometimes difficult, when they want their company to do better at the same time, it becomes problematic.
As the meeting ended, I drove up to Bradford for a meeting of the Interdisciplinary Research Centre in Polymer Science Industrial Club (IRC-IC). This is almost 20 years old and a good example of the time it takes to build a network. IRCs were selected on “academic excellence” grounds in 1989 and awarded 10 years funding. Many built industrial clubs to engage downstream – and this was in the days when many companies still had the luxury of research groups doing more basic research. The discussions with the 4 universities (Leeds, Bradford, Durham and Sheffield) showed how little universities value links to industry when they don’t generate short-term money and, as we got into company specific discussion, it became apparent that no-one understood the flexibility of the KTP scheme. I gave a longer version of the “societal challenge” presentation and had a good discussion with a guy from the Max Planck equivalent institution before driving down to London!! I was expecting Fearless Leader to buy me a drink, but he was still out carousing with Guy when I reached the hotel just before 11 o’clock. Instead I ended up reading Le Goldings excellent briefing notes.
The next day started with a breakfast meeting with Fearless Leader, Le Golding and Guy to prepare for the Select Committee. We went early to avoid the planned riots but got there in plenty of time and watched the session before us to gauge the temperature. Select Committees are fun to watch – it’s a game of intellectual chess where the good witnesses can catch where the committee members are leading them and turn the conversation their way. We watched the chairs of the Food Standards Agency, the DEFRA Chief Scientist Advisory Group and the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs debate the meaning of “independence” for 60 minutes before it was our turn. Fearless Leader is getting rather good at précising our history and goals and sparred gently with Ian Gibson to start. Evan Harris scored the first point, when he trapped FL into going for short-term metrics and not starting with the “strategic” defence. We countered with the “innovation is a journey” motif and therefore needed both long- and short-term measure to restore the balance. The rest was mostly anodyne until the final minutes when Phil Willis played the “you are starving the KTNs of money as a cheap cost-cutting measure” card (also known as the Williams manoeuvre). Unphased, Fearless Leader gave the perfect answer, citing confusion in the general community and ruthlessly dismissing “narrow silos of knowledge transfer”. The ball was definitely in the back of the net!! They said they would like to see us again on specific issues, but it was easier than the BERR one a few months ago.
We split up to go our separate ways, and I ended up back at Fortress Kingsgate to catch up on the progress of the Ultra Low Carbon Vehicles Demonstrator programme and try to understand a particularly crass e-mail from Peter Perfects office requiring us to visit a specific design player in the space. There was more than a hint of “my department’s faster than your department” in the e-mail thread and the “arm” was feeling a bit shorter than we were comfortable with. I also met up with Liam O’Toole from OSCHR, who was also in seeing OLS (as the Office of Life Sciences is styling itself – just wait for the logo!!). We discussed the development of the “community” in stratified medicine. This has been bouncing around for about a year – led by the ABPI – but went very silent until a few weeks ago when FL and I met with Liam and Sir John Bell. We are now working with OSCHR to align the planets and get it resurrected. Liam also showed me a demo of a “web portal for Health research” that he would like to build our related efforts into. The major pharmaceutical companies have signed up, BBSRC have signed up but MRC and DoH are hanging back. Liam was anxious for us to buy into the idea to tip the balance. It was a nice well-constructed approach with shades of how we might want to align our cyber presence with the Design Council, so I said I would introduce him to Lee.
The final act of the day was a dinner with the chair of the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation and Growth Team (IB-IGT), and the chair and director of the Chemistry Innovation KTN. On our side we had Fearless Leader, the young padawan Mason and moi. The IB-IGT report makes a small number of sensible recommendations (I have even blogged about them externally - http://www.innovateuk.org/blog/post/2009/02/16/Action-is-a-consequence-of-thought.aspx) so the discussion about our generic support was perfunctory and agreeable. We then got a small side order of “you are starving the KTNs of money as a cheap cost-cutting measure” before we settled down to some interesting discussions on the area and an experiment in how much wine some people can drink. Not really sure whether the ball moved down the pitch or not, but a pleasant way to spend an evening.
The next morning was an early start to drive to Shalford to reprise the visit Peter Perfect had made the previous Friday. I was expecting a general whinge about how the Technology Strategy Board doesn’t understand small businesses, favours large corporates and so on, so the initial response was disarming. It became rapidly apparent that the e-mail thread had been very wrong. True, Gordon Murray Design had applied to 2 of our competitions and not been successful, but.... the first one they had been looking to build a consortium for the final push to commercialisation (which was therefore not really in our territory) but they admitted that the process of answering the questions on our form had built a good relationship with JCB and they continued with the plan anyway until the recession took JCBs money away – which it would have done even if they had been funded by us. Their entry into the Demo competition was driven by Caparo, who is a major investor and wanted a credible design component in the mix. Their question was more about understanding the general area and wanting help with connections. They explained their situation and we discussed what else was going on and they seemed genuinely pleased to have made the connection. They were definitely in “sell” mode and although I declined to sign a confidentiality agreement of many pages, I did sign a simple one pager so that I could actual see what all the fuss was about. What they have is a blueprint for a turn key operation to make cars that would cost about £6000, get more than 80 mpg from a 600 c.c. Internal combustion engine and actually be functional as an urban vehicle. Their analysis of the challenge and the thoroughness of their response was truly impressive. They have developed a low-cost manufacturing process to enable a large reduction in the cost of capital (they claimed 80% reduction) and although I couldn't judge the numbers, the approach felt right. Their problem is that they have delivered a new approach to building urban cars in the teeth of the recession and no-one has even the 20% costs of a new start up factory. This is the sort of thinking we don't see much of and, although their basic package is beyond our remit (and purse) there could be real value in getting them “bred” with Zytek to scope out the building of a low-cost electric car. I spent 4 hours there and haven’t learned so much about the field since my visit to Zytek with FL a few months ago.
The next morning, I decided to spend the day working from home to catch up with stuff and spent a happy hour on Skype with Celia Caulcott of the BBSRC keeping one another up to date with the progress on the two organisations working together. The young padawans ears ought to have been burning, all the nice things that got said about him. :-)