A "layers to the Maxx" sort of week
09 October 2020 by David Bott
Another Monday, another “start the week” meeting, although the focus was a week hence – on Innovate! After a quick catch-up with Jools, it was into a meeting of some of the Heads of Innovation Programmes to talk about the progress on our contribution to the strategy development process and our ideas on how we would implement it within Innovation Programmes. To add to the input, we had invited Brains and Hilary along to explain how the process of looking at those RDA responsibilities we might get is going. They talked us through their meetings with the various RDAs as they unpack what they do – and interestingly why they think they do it! We finished just in time to join the back of the crowd for Huw’s final all-staff briefing on Innovate, which was followed by a (probably not) final meeting of the Innovate 10 Steering Group. This, however, was interrupted by a meeting to discuss what we would be doing at the Board meeting the following day – I was beginning to feel “meetinged out” and not sure where the decisions in one ended and the other began. With only a short break, it was into a Funders Panel in Network Services. Maurizio had ended up with some good projects but had gone over the competition financial limit. We agreed to stick to the limit but allow him to negotiate the projects down by 6-7% overall to be able to fund all the preferred ones – in the team this is known as “doing a Tim”. It apparently worked, so well done and perhaps this will become a tradition! The final meeting of the day was a “Competitions Sign Off” meeting. This series of meetings was started by Cyrus, but he had been called down to London for a Governing Board and had taken Chris with him, so Rachel took the strain for the Money Dudes. She had issued the programme for 2010/11 that she had as a .pdf, so we could ask questions and make changes – but to the master copy only. We started by shortening the time between competitions launch and first payment from 10-14 months down to 7-8, which is where it seems to be. What has happened is that we are doing more trail-blazing and “soft launches” so the time the competition is actually open for a shorter time than in the past, and the Competitions team are getting more efficient at the process – so the people we are interested in supporting are getting started sooner – which is good. It does, however, mean that we are possibly building up a financial problem, so we then put some competitions back in time. Overall, we are now in a position to make some last decisions on the programme for the rest of the year and the be able to predict the financial profile for next year – so we can then plan next year’s competitions with an understanding of how much money we can commit to give us a sustainable long term profile.
I had to leave, so Will took charge and I drove up to Warwick University. For reasons I am not really clear on, I was joining a small dinner party to celebrate the launch of Warwick Ventures Ltd - http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/services/ventures/ . It was an interesting evening. It started with a few people saying nice things about the Technology Strategy Board and, as I explained more about our values and goals, that got louder. At no point was I asked for money – all they wanted to do was understand more about what we intended to do. Weird!
The next morning, it was down to London for the Governing Board meeting. The morning was given over the “the day job”, with FL’s report filling the first 90 minutes. Then it was the young padawan’s turn to present the case for an Innovation Platform on Stratified Medicine. He and the extended team have been working on the case for almost 18 months now, and the presentation for about 3 weeks, but it was his performance on the day that mattered. I thought he was “not bad”, but from feedback afterwards, it looks like he has raised the bar sufficiently that we’ll all have to work a lot harder next time. We had also smuggled in some early use of the various forms of metrics that we were going to present in the afternoon, so did rather well overall. And they approved the Platform!!
The afternoon was given over to developing the strategy a bit further but a weekend episode of the “Adventures of Strategy Man” had left the star with a broken leg (he obviously does his own stunts), so FL did a lot of the voiceover stuff to introduce the sections we wanted to discuss. The (still) potential acquisition of some RDA activities went well. The discussion of Technology Innovation Centres seems to throw up new issues every time we discuss it and we sold them a vision of integrated metrics that might just be doable, so it was a good day.
After the meeting, FL, Cyrus and I went off to the Doric Arch at Euston to have a drink and discuss word domination, as we do.
Wednesday started with a breakfast meeting to discuss Missions – and particularly the Future Health Mission (it’s not www.fhm.com so don’t go there). James brought his new sales guy along – who tried to sell me a washing machine (figuratively speaking) so I am not sure he will last! We agreed some ground rules and swapped connections. Then it was down to Swindon for a quick suite of meetings. Sustainability Man briefed me on the progress of the DECC inspired, Carbon Trust implemented (either of those qualifiers would usually strike fear in the minds of right–minded folks, together they are really scary) Technology Innovation Needs Assessments (TINAs). We have been trying to get them to understand that we don’t push technologies, but understand what markets need. They are very high on the Offshore Wind area but fail to see that that is a market and they have actually decided that the answer is a turbine and are only analysing this option. Try doing that in cars or houses and see how far it gets you! Then I met the Emily Nott replacement job-share team – bright people, and I bet Em is proud that it takes 2 people to fill in for her! Then it was across to Polaris for the first meeting of the newly slimmed RCUK-TSB Strategic Partnership Group. I only had 75 minutes but it does seem that some are still resisting our place in the decisions making hierarchy. Then it was back to London to rendezvous with FL at the Death Star, he had promised me that it was a nice chat with David Gann about how to regroup after IBM had pulled out of the digital city bid at the last moment, but (wouldn’t you know) David Begg was there to ensure that any available money was hoovered up into their coffers. We had a mostly useful discussion before being thrown over for a meeting with Citi Group. I guess if they thought we would have been useful to them, they would have asked us to join them, but both FL and I noted that the CTO of Citi is based in London and will be looking for an opening! FL and I then sat in the bar at Marylebone Station for an hour plotting a variety of things. It has not escaped my notice that FL seems to know where all the railway stations bars are! I made my excuses and went home!
The next day it was down to London again for a day that promised 7 meetings and a dinner! First up was Anni Rowland Campbell from Australia who had apparently been stalking me in cyberspace and wanted to understand why we did what we did and then how. I suspect there might be some links to the sustainability and digital communities in Oz if we want them. Then it was on to a mixture of sales pitch and report card from Detica over the ICtomorrow projects, with both of them proving once again that they don’t actually understand why and how we do things! Then it was a phone call from Bron and James to follow up on the discussion we had had the day before – I wasn’t aware of any process to collect stories from the past year, and so no-one had seemingly asked them to précis the outcomes of the Clean and Cool Mission. They followed up within a couple of hours and I forwarded their input to Comms Man and FL. Next up was a two part meeting with the Chief Visionary Officer and UK rep from Designit - http://designit.com/ . When I pointed out that he only had the second best job title I had ever seen, he got quite interested and we discussed the challenges and opportunities of injecting a heavier design element into technology based projects. I sensed a fellow traveller, but then he does make money from doing just that! The afternoon promised some diversion in that it was a meeting of the Low Carbon Innovation Group at DECC. For new readers, this started off with Mark Williamson, Andy Haslett and I meeting a few weeks before Tom Delay, David Clark and FL met to make sure they had something to talk about. We wrote a document to explain how the goals of the 3 organisation were different, turned it into a website and generally tried to co-ordinate our activities and head off arguments. It worked quite well in that mode. At this point the NAO report said the energy field was a bit of a mess and that DECC were the worst offenders so we got given a title and DECC, BIS and EPSRC joined the meetings. DECC are currently distracted by a call to appear before the PAC and think they are explaining what we all do, so are running around like headless chickens. This is why the meeting itself wasn’t well organised and the much trailed meeting between the CEOs and Ministers had forgotten to invite any of the CEOs! What became very clear was that they were solely focussed on being able to say they were doing things in front of the PAC but they had no idea what they were doing and what the outcomes would be. I replayed the debate about TINAs that we had run a few weeks ago in a telephone conference and got strong support from Carbon Trust (who need friends) and BIS, and so we now have INAs! We also pointed out (again and again) that since the different organisations have different goals, a standard set of metrics would be meaningless. I suspect I am off the DECC Christmas card list!
Back up Whitehall to Tracy Island and a meeting with Andy Hopper about Emerging Technologies. We are groping towards a form of closure but need to understand that when we say we are going to do something, we need do it and that this is a very difficult field and most approximations will lead to errors. Once again, I had to leave before the end of the meeting to meet up with Sustainability Man and join the audience of a Nico MacDonald organised event about London and technology. FL started on a positive note but successive panel members managed to depress even me with their downbeat messaging and their failure to differentiate between invention and innovation. FL put up a good fight, but I suspect the briefing and selection of panel members had done for what could have been a good idea. To complete my joy, FL gave me a hospital pass in the form of Chris Crockford, who was not happy about our LaunchPad competition. It turns out that that fact they he had forgotten to put the right e-mail address into the form, that the call centre had been too busy to answer his call right away and that he hadn’t yet received his feedback put him in a bad mood. The day after, when he received the short feedback that told him nothing other than his idea wasn’t very good, he was incandescent!
Friday started in London and Sustainability Man and I snuck in a quick PRP over breakfast unencumbered by the need to fill in forms at the time! Then it was down to Tracy Island for the “make sure the LaunchPad finalists don’t look silly on the day” activity. We used the same organisation we had used for the Regenerative Medicine Collaboration Nation, but from some feedback, I actually wonder if they are putting across the right messages.
Because it was Friday, I had a telephone conference with Nigel Shadbolt, but this time Mrs Webster and the wife of Socrates were down in Southampton to curb the excesses of his hyperbole. We are definitely building our shared understanding and the case for a centre in the area, but it is still not clear if it looks like a TIC might!
Then it was off to Theale to meet with the CTO of PepsiCo. This had been set up through UKTI but I had virtually no briefing for the meeting. Rob Hargrove turns out to be an excellent fellow, looking to increase the amount of R&D carried out by PepsiCo in the UK. We talked about the structure of the company – the brown stuff is a global brand but everything else is split between beverages (Tropicana being the one I remember) and foods (Walkers, Doritos and so). They are obviously well aware of their markets, supply chains and the rest but gloriously unaware of the UK scene. I invited Rob or his deputy to Innovate – and the business breakfast. Rob remarked as I was leaving that he had expected a dry civil servant but was amazed and impressed by our attitude and goals and looked forward to working with us. I suggest the farm-boys need to explain what we do in their area but also get them to understand what we are doing in biosciences and high value manufacturing.