The road to magnificence
29 May 2020 by David Bott
An interesting way to “start the week” – sitting around wondering whether we would be part of the Governments £6bn “triumph” cuts. We lost the £20m extra we got in the last Budget to sweeten the deals on SBRI – put that looks to have been a faux pas and we might get it back. There are swirling rumours about anything uncommitted from SIF being taken back as well, but as we pushed through the week, it increasingly looked like our colleagues in BIS had rolled over too easily. After a couple of quick chats about ongoing issues, it was time for a Funders Panel. It looks like everyone has got the message because we had a full house for this one. It also looks like the trend set by newly promoted Neil on Retrofit for the Future has been taken up because the documentation provided by the incoming Greg May (possibly helped by the outgoing Mike Biddle) and Ian Meikle made decisions a lot easier to follow. There were a few questions but mostly it was an easy set of decisions and everyone needs an “attaboy” for the way we have developed the process.
The next meeting was a slightly weird one. It looks like GE UK have just noticed our existence and activities and so a nice man from GE UK Corporate came to get more details on what we do, how we do it and how they can interact. Looks like another opportunity to “do a Cisco”.
Next up was a meeting of the Executioners to discuss strategy. We have now agreed a process (and got it signed off by the Governing Board) but we are still not good a closing out the steps – specifically the first one. The process calls for us to have agreed and clearly and unambiguously articulated what we are trying to achieve. Once we have that, we can make plans and derive measures for how well we are achieving those plans. However, we seem stuck in a nested do loop that means we keep on adding things to the list of priorities and never defining a list of true priorities.
Tuesday was technically my other job, but that didn’t stop me taking part in a very long telephone conference with the Low Carbon Innovation Group. For new readers (or those with short memories) this group has an interesting history. Early on Fearless Leader set up to meet regularly with his equivalents at the Carbon Trust and Energy Technologies Institute. Then they had to give a joint presentation and so their “trusted” assistants were delegated to make it so. We met and discovered lots of differences on approach and attitude, so decided to meet again to try to resolve them. I think we managed to express how the 3 organisations differed and complemented and got a document and website out of it. Then DECC decided we were a success story and gave us a name and wanted to join. The others wanted to join – first EPSRC and now BIS. Weird or what? Anyway, this meeting was all about working out who had been hit the day before – but no-one was admitting it if they were. It passed a happy 2 hours as I drove around the UK’s motorway system (hands-free, obviously!).
Wednesday was a visit to Qinetiq at Farnborough. This is the illogical consequence of me giving them a hard time over the Quantum Technology Partnership they have been hawking around the last few years trying to get funded. It’s not that it’s a bad idea, it’s just that they are pants are expressing it and no-one has come close to the logical framework that Simon Bennett started the campaign with. At 6 monthly intervals, they send a new person with the same presentation to try to convince me, and every time…. Anyway, when Ian Reid got to be CTO, he decided to try another tack and invited me to visit to see the wider Qinetiq capability. After a standard PowerPoint intro I got to walk around and see things. First up was the electric drive system they had developed for tanks that they think has application in trucks and buses. It is a triumph of technology, with 2 motors coupled through and electric differential and capable of generating 600hp. Unfortunately, the US programme it was designed for has been postponed so they are out of pocket and looking for other uses – hence the truck bit! I would love to see an automotive engineer go over it for potential cost of manufacture!! Next up was their electric propulsion system for spacecraft. There were dismissive comments about Surrey Satellites being a bit commercial, but I didn’t admit we had been there – or funded them. They seem to be quite effective at capturing the European market, but it’s only a couple of systems a year and so they are intent on breaking into the US market – running at over 50 systems a year. As they explained their business model, which seems to be driven more by pride than greed, I realised that, despite their assertions that they are a business, they still think like a government research establishment. Then I got another PowerPoint run through their energy portfolio. When I mentioned Energy Efficient Whitehall, they told me they had entered. Since I didn’t remember seeing their name, I realised that they had been way to the bottom of the assessed list. I later checked with EEF Man and was told that their proposal looked like they hadn’t read the exam question!! We ended up with a discussion on what they and we were up to next. Their results (published the next day) backed up my observation that they still don’t understand business.
Thursday was a London day. First up was the workshop to set up the Transport KTN. There was a good crowd from across the “transport” space so it boded well. David opened the proceedings with the usual introduction to our good selves and then 2 KTN Directors talked about their experience. They had been chosen well to show diversity. Steve Welch did his “my favourite uncle who knows everything” talk – and I learn something more every time – and Ruth Mallors did her impression of a Bond villain. Both captured the commitment of their communities and impressed. By contrast the interim Director of the new Transport KTN gave a confusing and lacklustre performance. Next came a Brian Collins view from the gods and representatives of the road, rail and marine communities. There looks to be a perceived hierarchy of technology use going from aerospace, through road and rail to marine and a little bit of the “I know my place” sketch http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w0DUsGSMwZY&feature=related The discussion I took part in suggested to me, that there is still work to do to get everyone to understand how they could benefit from discussion and joint activities. I had to leave early to take part in a “meet the Technology Strategy Board” meeting with David Mackay, the CSA of DECC. We had cobbled together a short 20 slide intro to what we did in areas he might be interested in. When we arrived there wasn’t a projector and he seemed more interested in giving away copies of his book. Once we worked out that signed copy might have more value on e-Bay, we used up his stock, so he went home with a much lighter bag. He then talked about a programme DECC had written to model various energy futures, but didn’t seem aware that there are many versions (some more broad based) that are already out there. Once we got past the intro stuff and into programmes, he began to pick up. DECC had done their usual trick and paid for their Scottish representative to fly down from Aberdeen to make a couple of comments of our Oil and Gas programme, but he mostly knew our EGS programme, so that went smoothly. He picked up a lot during the description of Retrofit and Energy Efficient Whitehall, but decided that he needed a cup of coffee at the crucial point of Tim’s description of the Ultra Low Carbon Demonstrator programme, so we had to explain it again. We got a note afterwards from his minder that we had made an impression, but I got the distinct impression he was prone to ADD.
Friday was a Swindon day and a full one at that. First up was an Innovate Steering Group. I am beginning to wonder if we should pay for Huw to have counselling, because the group varies so much in content and attitude that he ought to be heading for a breakdown. Although he wanted to agree the main stage content, we covered most of the alternative areas for discussion and probably never gave him to answers he expected in exchange for the very nice jam-filled doughnuts he provided. Next up came a meeting of the (still not complete) magnificent seven. At the last Governing Board meeting, I had agreed to produce a “dashboard” for Innovation Platforms to provide more comfort for the Board. This meeting concentrated on working up various ideas to develop something that was useful to us as well. Then we talked about the CRM system (again!) and the possibility of having to trim programmes depending on what happened to budgets in the special budget in June.
The external meeting of the day was with the chief engineer from the First Group. FL and I had met with the Godfather of travel and this guy a few weeks ago and we invited him down to discuss the idea of a novelty funding competition to develop plans for a “bus of the future”. He came down “loaded for bear” (as one of my US colleagues used to describe but found us engaged and interested. Actually, it was one of the best laid out cases for activity I have heard recently and we agreed to develop the idea if he could bring in a small consortium of bus companies to put up £500k to jointly fund the activity.
The final task of the day was an interview for Head of Healthcare. It was an internal candidate. I am used to knowing that the Technologist cohort are impressive – many of the recent “doing a Cisco” meetings are a testimony to this – but it is nice to know that some of them can raise their game another notch and seriously and unexpectedly impress me. Cyrus, Head HR Dudette and I were swayed by a presentation that started with a world view and ended up with an internal programme. We now have a new Head of Healthcare, and the magnificent seven are complete.
You get to match them up with their cinematic precursors.