What is it about Lego that makes it a good metaphor?
31 January 2020 by David Bott
Another Monday and another “start the week” meeting. Will their fascination never dim?
Afterwards, it was straight into a series of quick fire meetings to catch up with things. Zahid brought me up to date with the regenerative medicine calls, Emily and I met with the NERC dudes about our shared support for the LWEC Business Advisory Board – NERC are (sort of) seconding Steve Loader into the Technology Strategy Board to help with this. Actually, he will still report into NERC and they will supply his IT, so it’s all a bit artificial, and feels like they don’t actually trust us to use him properly – quite a change from BBSRC and MRC!! My last Swindon commitment was a meeting to discuss the “Scottish Board Meeting” which went on slightly longer than advertised and meant I missed my planned train. I had been looking forward to the afternoon for some time. Chris Mason (the stem cell guru from UCL) had offered to give me a tutorial on the area and I had promised him dinner in return. As it happens, Fearless Leader and I had met with Chris and discussed the strategic direction of the area over dinner a few months ago, but I suspected the stature of limitation on diners had run out, so committed the afternoon and evening to the goal of allowing me to use words like “pluripotent” and “autologous” without embarrassing myself and the organisation. We went through the basics of the field, the subdivisions of terminology and so on, but we also spent almost 2 hours looking around the lab, meeting the students and seeing the kit. The main fact worth sharing is that the human body has around 100,000,000,000,000 cells in it and that it will take between 100,000,000 and 1,000,000,000 cells to treat a human being (about 1,000 time more than it takes to treat a mouse) and that making that number of cells reproducibly is currently beyond any existing manufacturing process. It is worth noting in passing that this was the first use of the Lego metaphor this week. The increasing complexity of modern therapies, from moderately large small molecules, through monoclonal antibodies to stem cells makes the accurate and consistent production of these treatments a priority for modern medicine. Dinner was a good steak with red wine (his choice!)
The next day, I caught the train back to Swindon and drove out to the Honda factory to rendezvous with a gang from SWERDA. They were basically introducing their new chairman, Sir Harry Studholme, to one of the largest manufacturers in the region. Honda famously don’t take government money, and SWERDA were trying to engage them in the Swindon to Swansea Hydrogen Highway. A tour of the factory (when it was actually running, albeit at half capacity) was worth the trip alone, but the discussions afterwards (especially once the SWERDA team had left) focussed on how Honda could engage in IDP4 to help maintain and build their UK supply chain are an important breakthrough for us. Then it was back down to London to catch the back end of a meeting with the rump of the NAIGT Technical Committee about the publication of the capability review we paid for last year. This is getting frustrating because we got the basic report a good few months ago, but the cacophony of “thoughts” from the manifold stakeholders is making publication for the good of all a tricky activity. We managed to get buy in not to leave out anything that says the UK is anything less than perfect in a field and seemed to have consensus on the fact that it would be badged as an Automotive Council document. Unfortunately, the BIS representative didn't and we got calls later from their Head to ask us to reverse the decision – on the basis of a whole bunch of information they hadn't previously shared with us. This might yet run.... A short break and then off to the House of Lards for a birthday party for the John Innes Centre. Actually, the birthday was last year but this was the first gap in the Cholmondley Room calendar. I am not sure whether the biting cold or the succession of people who told me we weren't doing the right things by the farming community was the primary reason I didn't enjoy myself. Highlight was meeting a lady who runs the Co-operative Farms who, on hearing who I worked for, asked why so many universities and research institutes were asking her to support their bids into our competitions. I had great fund explaining that it was her problems we were interested in solving, not someone else’s!!
Wednesday started with another trip back to Swindon, but instead of an exciting visit to a company, I had the joy of several meetings with Cyrus to address things like how we improve the competitions process, what is going on with Digital Britain (great presentation by Nick Appleyard) and finally how we are going to evolve the monitoring process. I thought things couldn't get much worse, but they did. After our meeting with the shadow transport guy the other week, he had put one of his traction engine owning friends onto me. This guy (and his partner) were peddling a transformational PR strategy for the automotive industry. They had failed to get traction with SMMT (which explained why they trashed them to me), got what sounded to me like a brush off from the chair of the Automotive Council and were basically asking to gate-crash our electric vehicle driving day in early March. I had to disappoint them but did so on the grounds that we were striving for a joined-up approach and that support from the industry, in the shape of the Automotive Council, was a prerequisite to work with us these days. After that I was the warm-up act in a meeting to discuss the output of the metrics and measures work with the Technologists. There were many rumours about the outcomes, and some amusing observations about the lack of any metrics or measures in what was presented to the Board. But mainly it was about trying to get them to understand that we were still striving for an accurate view of our finances, we need to get everyone to aim for maximum impact and that engaging with a market did require a pretty good knowledge of its size and trajectory. The main act was Steph demonstrating the Sharpcloud Beta software to enable us to view the data and think about what it meant, rather than just finding more market size or magically minimising the risk.....
Thursday was another Swindon day, and included some early thought from the ITSS team on why they had looked weak in the impact analysis. There is an obvious point that the changing of (more or less) existing markets is easier to estimate than the building of wholly new markets. We then had the joy of presenting to the BIS Management Board. Mark and I were the chosen victims but given only 5-10 minutes to encapsulate the potential of Innovation Platforms and SBRI. It was interesting to note how they seemed a little surprised by the existence of both and that the Chief Economist hasn’t lost her ability to miss the point completely in discussion. (it used to be a highlight of early TSB (Mark 1) Board meetings!) The final meeting of the day was teleconference to discuss the design of the Plastic Electronic sandpit in March. I honestly can't remember how, but the use of Lego was posited at some point!! I started to worry!!
Friday was another day out – I really like them – this time to the Additive Manufacturing Research Group at Loughborough University - http://www.lboro.ac.uk/research/amrg/ . This is the latest incarnation of what used to be rapid prototyping and has been promising to revolutionise manufacturing for almost 20 years now. Bizarrely, considering the week’s history of metaphors, the process is one of adding layer after layer of material to build up a product – a little like using Lego!! The AMRG had been very clever and the room was filled with not only the relevant academics, but also a range of companies that were involved in the field – and the various EPSRC and TSB grants that had gone into the centre over the last few years. The original target had been Simon Edmonds but he had been subverted to the Hauser meeting, so he has sent Marie-Anne MacKenzie. I took Robin and Heidi (actually Heidi took herself in an inspired piece of courageous networking!). It turned out that the targeting had been done by David Hughes who is a fan of the topic and loosely associated with Loughborough. The research stuff was pretty standard, but the companies involved were great. One had been developing equipment to produce reactive metal processing and had used its involvement in a project won under the Zero Emission Enterprise competition (which, if I remember correctly, proves that David Golding was once a technophile) to work with customers and academics to make the machine more useful and productive and they now (allegedly) lead the world – see http://www.mtt-group.com/ . Another was developing what sounded like an integrated cradle to grave analysis of the advantage of additive manufacturing and seemed very knowledgeable in an area we ought to know better - http://www.econolyst.co.uk/ . The Vice-Chancellor and a couple of University “heavies” joined for lunch and said the right things about getting more money from the EPSRC, but Anne Farrow did point out that they had had 10 years of money so far and ought to think more imaginatively about what they might deliver for the funding. Marie-Anne was keeping very quiet at this point, so I did a bit of challenging to see where they could be in 10 years and what was stopping them (see TSB engagement checklist page 1). I think they are going to hatch a plan to have a sort of stakeholder sandpit/consortium building workshop and we need to keep close.