Three dinners and a revelation
22 May 2020 by David Bott
After the excitement of 3 “start the week” meetings in a row, I made my bid for freedom this week and went to London instead. The first official appointment was with Tom Ilube, who chairs our Network Security Innovation Platform. I wanted to tell him about the decision to close the Platform and talk him through the next steps. We met in the “tie free zone” of the Institute of Directors, at 123 Pall Mall, and altogether less grand than the main entrance. Tom had worked out what was going on after the last Steering Group when I presented the initial output of the wrongly named “metrics review”. Tom understand and accepts the logic of our decision and has agreed to stay on and shepherd the Steering Group through the close-out procedure – a discussion of the achievements and learning points of the Platform – and then lead a cut-down group to monitor the ongoing portfolio of products. He also told me that he was about to step down as CEO of Garlik and would be starting another company.
Then it was across London for a “co-ordination” meeting with the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (a.k.a. NICE). This had been set up by Zahid as part of our long-term plan to support the healthcare industry. NICE are often cited as the biggest roadblock to new entrants but the truth (as always) is more complex. We discussed their role, how they influence the health policy of other countries both directly (e.g. Sweden) and indirectly (e.g. America), and what we did. It felt like a good meeting, with mutual understanding and a shared set of goals.
Next up was another quick trip across London (which therefore necessitated a taxi, Chris, although we did fit 3 people into it in an attempt to get both low cost and good value). The next meeting was with Michael Hurwitz of the Office of Low Emission Vehicles. With the ongoing uncertainty, it was interesting to hear that even OLEV – which is slap bang in the middle of most of the things all parties agree on – was having to prepare for budgets cuts. We talked about IDP4, the current competition intended to develop the supply chain in the automotive industry. With the current situation, Michael was keen to emphasise the business potential of the successful proposals and was asking how we could amplify our normal business questions to maximise the potential financial return. It is inevitable that he would focus on policy issues and we discussed how these 2 factors interacted. I suggested he wrote up his aspirations and that we built them into the (interactive) next stage of assessment. He then offered “hot desk” facilities for anyone from the Transport area of the Technology Strategy Board at Great Minster House. This is not a totally benevolent offer, as he admitted. His team is a bit light on both technology and business experience and he hoped that more day-to-day interaction with the Transport team would raise the OLEV game.
The final meeting of the day was an ABPI organised dinner to discuss the progress of the UK wide stratified medicine initiative. It was a meeting of the great and the good, with high-level representation from ABPI, OSCHR, CRUK, MRC, AstraZeneca and the Wellcome. Richard Barker has always seen the entry of the Technology Strategy Board into the area as key to unlocking the discussions and move them into action. He has therefore been a bit frustrated with our analysis and preparation approach. He now seems to understand the care with which we are planning to place our bets and the questions we continually ask until someone gives us a sensible answer that doesn’t sound like “proof by assertion”, “proof by infinite repetition” or “proof by neglect”. Since I got to speak last and Harpal and Iain of CRUK basically told everyone we were planning to work together, I think everyone went home happy.
Tuesday saw a quick train ride down to Swindon for the Governing Board Debrief meeting. As always, it is interesting to note the different things we all remember and the different interpretations we all put on things even when we remember them the same way! That was followed by a meeting with MRC to talk about the wider bioscience programmes we have – although we didn’t have BBSRC in the room, which seemed odd. Next up was a telephone conference of the provisional Low Carbon Innovation Group – yes, ETI, Carbon Trust and we continue to have our private meetings to set the wider agenda!! Andrew Haslett had seemingly forgotten the meeting or got delayed so Mark Williamson and I spent time talking about our new structure and the various scenarios that might unfold about funding for the 3 core partners of LCIG.
I then caught a train back to London for a Foundation for Science and Technology meeting focussing on Technology and Innovation Centres. There has been a lot of activity lately on this subject lately, although it has largely been theoretical and/or vague. We had been allocated the role of steward in the Hauser Report, but since this was under the “previous administration” it is not clear whether we are still under the same imperative. The meeting was opened by Hermann Hauser himself, who seems to have ignored what the civil servants did to his personal recommendations and is pitching for a limited number of “Maxwell” centres in areas that he is interested in. He made some important points about the role of centres in the development cycle of some technologies, but seems to have fallen for his own hype when it comes to specifics. He was followed by David Delpy, who started by apologising on behalf of FL and his Spittleness, which gave him an air of representing the Technology Strategy Board. He then went on to place Technology and Innovation Centres (which is the anodyne, not Maxwell, title that these beasts currently have) firmly out of Research Council territory – which means they shouldn’t be funded with Research Council money – but suggested that they should be co-located with universities because that is where the talent is. He also managed to suggest that we were dragging our feet and the line that we were waiting for Ministerial clarification was a cop-out. The final speaker on the stage was Alex Broers. He came out fighting. His first point was that this was nothing to do with universities or Research Councils and that we shouldn’t judge David harshly for a speech sticking up for his constituency. He also managed to disagree with Hermann, in that he felt the selection criteria were the most important thing to get right rather than rushing to conclusions. The questions from the floor fell into 2 camps. There were several university (and NPL) representatives trying to make the point that they should host a centre and a lot of older (and sometimes ex-) business people pointing out that we have been having this debate for 25 years and we ought to make a decision and move on. As is usual with FST meetings, the alcohol before and during dinner made for a more pointed discussion session over the petit fours (which Dougal has abandoned to save money!). The theme of timing was repeated, and DD managed to once again criticise our alleged stance. What was interesting was the people who were most critical of the situation were the ones who supposedly control the various systems in play and the common response was that we should have centres but that someone else should pay for them.
The next morning, I met up with Rashik Parmer to follow through the discussions at the Death Star last Friday. He is still in shock from the various discoveries he has made about us and what we do, so he is now intent on inviting us to both Hursley and Dublin to see what they are doing and enlist our help. This being a badly planned week, I then had to catch a train to Swindon. The reason was a “high level bilateral” meeting with BBSRC. This is the process whereby Em, Celia and I check up on what FL and Doug Kell think they have agreed. These meetings have gone from outright suspicion about our intentions to warm, joke-exchanging, back-slapping bro-fests. We started with the Agri-Food Innovation Platform and went on to warmth and global peace. I then went back to London – are you sensing the travel SNAFU theme yet?
The evening was given over to the CBI Dinner where I was the guest of BMW/Rolls-Royce. Given the confidentiality breach last week, I was looking forward to this about as much as a trip to the dentist with toothache (that’s me not the dentist). I entered the Grosvenor and couldn’t see the BMW guy but hung out with the EPSRC – they had a table with people like Tony Harper on it! I saw Mark Gibson in the distances but otherwise it was a new(ish) crowd. I made my way to the table and was introduced to the Managing Director of Rolls-Royce and Head of Communications. At that precise moment, Harpal Kumar appeared at my elbow and started to talk to me. We talked about the stratified medicine work and he bemoaned the attitude of MRC. When he left I explained who he was to the MD and he was blown away. That got us into a conversation about the breadth of Technology Strategy Board activity and I think I upped our reputation another notch and (sort of) offset the confidentiality screw-up. We then talked about their project, their concern to preserve its secrecy, the fact that they see only Bentley as their competition and so on. It turns out that the Head of Communications had been F.W. de Klerk’s Press Secretary and the MD had been the champion of the resurrected Mini and was on his way to the top. Helen Alexander, the president of the CBI gave a stonker of a speech, Osborn was a bit flat – starting by saying that the coalition would repeal “most of” the jobs tax went down like a lead balloon – and Ellen McArthur was a poor presenter. It became obvious that my hosts were keen to get off, and it turned out that they had the company car outside. So it was that, dressed in my dinner jacket, I ended up sitting in the back seat of a Phantom before walking home past all the posh cars with sleeping drivers awaiting their very important cargo. At the hotel, I was checking if FL wanted to buy me a drink when Nick Buckland walked in – fresh from the Royal Aeronautical Society dinner, where he had been a guest of Airbus. An hour in the bar put the world to rights – again!!
The next morning, although I once again woke up in London, I didn’t need to go to Swindon. Yeh!! Instead I made my way up to UCL for the second of the review meetings. I had missed the first one, but it is interesting to compare the two London Goliaths. Imperial spend all their time influencing at the high level and then their minions are very successful at applying for grants. By contrast, our interactions with UCL are at the working level and they are rather successful, but – at the high level – they give the impression of benign neglect being their management policy. These meetings were seemingly set up to address this but haven’t started having an impact yet! They seemed to be looking for a silver bullet, but we offered fostering a stronger, more managed, interaction over the extension of our work from buildings to cities and they agreed. Weird meeting.
Then it was off to the fringes of Soho to visit a small company from the “creative industries” I had met in one of those “entrepreneur” meetings I get invited to by mistake. What I found was slap bang in the middle of where our next creative industries competition is aiming, and the analysis of the underlying market need reinforced the fact that we are getting better at identifying those areas where we can and should act. What I also saw was an integrated approach to making metadata add value (rather than be seen as an overhead), an integration of human and computer based analysis, an identification of the value creating steps in a modern media workflow, an almost “by-the-way” use of a novel input device and a job creation scheme for the North-East!! I left with my head spinning.
The final meeting of the day was with James Lawn of Polecat (and the Missions). He had met with UKTI and they had told him (allegedly) that the Missions were widely regarded as one of the more successful things UKTI had done recently and they were looking to use Polecat more – and could they bring us along? I explained that we did not really have enough resource to support more than one or two Missions a year, and that they needed to be closely aligned with our strategies (should that be business plans?). We agreed that there would be a spectrum of missions, from ones where we were in a leadership role through those where we were interested but resource constrained to those where we saw them as outside our core activities. Our level of commitment would scale with our interest. We had cream tea but he bought it – I am now conflicted about spending money unnecessarily and running into the wrath of Accountant Man of being influenced by vendors. What to do!!??
Friday was a normal (ish) Swindon day. It started with a spot of “courageous networking” by Greg May – who seems to be enjoying himself enormously, and then went into a catch-up with Maurizio, who has been extending our digital reach into Europe a lot recently. FL’s staff briefing went well and then I ran through my current presentation with Alex, who is being me at a meeting in a few weeks time. It seems unfair to give him a 30 minute presentation when he had 5 minutes to pitch, but it was more the tone that I wanted to get across. We were then joined by Guy for a meeting with Adrian Atkinson. This was borne of a couple of conversations (with each of them separately) about the psychology of entrepreneurial behaviour. Adrian is writing a book on the subject, is the principal of HFI, who are doing a part of our staff development process, and was moderately validated by his work in the 2003 BBC programme “The Mind of a Millionaire” where he managed to use psychometric profiling to pick the entrepreneurs in a mixed group of business people. He has developed his model and explained to us that “wealth creators” (themselves only a small percentage of the overall business population) come in 4 flavours – entrepreneurs, enterprisers, corporates and experts. Each has different drivers and needs and we would need to tailor our engagement with each type differently. We explained our aspiration to work more effectively with what we call “entrepreneurs” and the two main strands of our current activity. He thought the additional training for those we were already funding was a well-targeted approach and that we would be supporting mainly experts and corporates through this route. Engagement with enterprisers would require a different approach and we would probably never be able to give entrepreneurs what they want – because they mostly didn’t know!! He offered to meet a wider group – perhaps even the Entrepreneurs Working Group to explain his work and how it might help us have a greater impact in this area.
Next came the meeting I have been praying for. Cyrus had got me an audience with Richard Edwards, the CIO of Shared Services. He expressed regret that ISS had been a bit abrupt when they marooned me in cyber space on the Edinburgh trip (its not in our SLA!) and offered to sort out what could be done to allow Macs to operate on the network – assuming they had encrypted disks and up-to-date anti-virus software (not for the Macs, but in case they allowed them onto the network). I await the outcome of his good intentions with interest – and a lot of followers!!
I then went through the plans for the first Emerging Technologies and Industries Steering Group. We have, once again, used Guy’s Guide to making sure your advisory board comes up with the answers you need, and John will be briefing Andy Hopper next week. A few last-minute issues delayed my escape into the bright blue sky until after 5 but I made it!!!