Involuntary Brand Recognition

It was Monday, so it was a “start the week” meeting.  Nothing remarkable about that.  After a quick briefing from Jools so that I went to the right places during the week, it was a PRP with Will.  Then a Funders Panel for the European PIANO+ programme – the  “+” means that any money we put into the pot was added to by the European dudes.  It is interesting to note how far the process for European programmes has diverged from normal processes, so much of the meeting was performing internal knowledge transfer.  We seem to have done quite well in the actual competition, the original “publicity” campaign resulting in oversubscription by UK companies and us getting more than our fair share of the action (and money). The afternoon was totally filled with an EMT meeting to move the strategy process forward and make (or at least ratify) decisions on how we would respond to the 20% cut in our core funding and apportion the extra money we look to be getting for Grant for R&D (or “single company support” as we like to call it) and the Technology Innovation Centres.  The growing understanding of what we are trying to do – broken down into discrete “strategic objectives” is making the discussions about what we actually do easier to move to closure, but we need to focus on making decisions which are driven by, and consistent with, our strategy if we are to influence others with our actions.

Tuesday started off with my other job, but I will mention something that happened because it is quite interesting and relevant.  The moderately small company, who are not in bad financial shape reported on a TSB supported project (see - ).  Although it was quiet speculative, it turns out to have spawned a whole new area of work for them, and involved PETEC, who can similarly benefit from the project.  I hadn’t heard this through our monitoring and reporting system, so wonder if we are asking the right questions.

Then it was down to London, with train problems that almost made me late for my next appointment – at the House of Commons as a guest of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (see - ) to recognise the contribution science makes to the economy.  Actually, it was solely focused on the research councils and I got either welcomed with open arms by some from the research councils, because my presence somehow enhanced their reputation, or asked why we weren’t exhibiting.  I had a nice chat with Lord Haskel, who introduced me to his son, an economist at the Death Star, who reputedly wrote the paper Willetts took to the Treasury and convinced them of the value of basic science (Willetts actually thanked him from the podium later, so it might well be true).  Then a chat with Stephen Benn, who introduced me to someone from the Science and Technology Committee, who obviously knows Le Golding, but said she wanted to talk to me as well.  Adam Afriyie now “leads” POST – although I couldn’t see David Cope anywhere – and was the MC.  One of the talks was by David Delpy, who talked a lot about the direct links the research councils had with industry and never once mentioned working with us, even though I tried hard to be in his eye-line.  It was Willetts who name-checked us, although mainly about the TICs.  Although I am but a humble servant of the TIC-Fuhrer, as he observes, we now have lots of new friends and this event was a fertile ground for them.  Even the strategy guy from the AHRC wanted to talk about a TIC for the Creative Industries, although he didn’t know what they would do (It’s a bad habit I know, but I can’t help asking the question).

I wandered up to Covent Garden, dallied in the Apple Store telling myself I didn’t actually need a new 11” MacBook Air and then joined Chris Mason for dinner.  At one point last week, various bits of Government had wanted a location to announce the TICs and we had helped set them up at UCL – but the plug had been pulled late on Sunday evening, so I thought I owed Chris one.  We had an interesting chat about ITCs in general – Chris is that rare academic who thinks that they need to be distinct from universities and add to the final stages of “translation” rather than the early stages.  He also wanted to persuade me to go to Berlin with him to talk about the business of stem cells and I think I agreed.

Next morning, I was in BIS early, listening to the chatter about Growth Fortnight (it started as a week but aspirational inflation made it longer and but then reality kicked in and various days had to be cancelled!).  Will and I then had an interesting chat with Marie-Anne McKenzie.  She is obviously interested in the much trailed TIC in manufacturing and we discussed how many of the inertial centres seem to be in the space – the AXRCs, the National Composites Centre, the National Industrial Biotechnology Centre – but that merely funding their continuation might be seen as a bit of an easy way out of our responsibilities.  We discussed whether it might be possible to think through the convergence aspects of the various strategies we have that cover this area and construct a single organisation (almost certainly with separate physical manifestations) that allowed for rapid and effective knowledge transfer between the different manufacturing activities.  I think she got quite excited about the idea of being seen to have a plan and implement it, rather that dropping into responsive mode.  Both she and Will are going to think through the idea a bit more.

Then it was off to lunch with Eric Mayes.  Eric is an old friend who has had a major learning experience (that’s code for he spent a lot of money and the company failed) with one company (Nanomagnetics – see ), then worked for one that got bought out by the Japanese (Cambridge Display Technology – see ) and now works for a spin-out (Endomagnetics – see ).  Actually, he is the only employee but is making real progress in bringing the academically initiated idea into the commercial world – and claimed that without a TSB grant the company would have failed!  The “device” tracks the movement of magnetic particles through the lymph system to allow surgeons to find the nearest node to the source tumour and be able to accurately excise it for testing the spread of the cancer.  He invited me to meet the founder and see the device later in the week (see Friday).

Then it was round 2 with Graham Brown-Martin on our potential involvement in the Learning Without Frontiers conference in January – see .  Graham has been trying to engage with us for a while now, but his basic style is to ask for money, so he hasn’t been very successful.  I think I have now agreed to speak on lessons from other industries and how technological disruption has changed business models – and to think about sponsoring the speakers dinner, since many of the people we would want on our side if we ever move in the area of technology enabled learning would be there!

Then it was on to catch up with Alex and his other job – it has been nice to watch someone we know quite well in our world develop his own ideas and turn them into the basis of a company.

The final meeting of the day was with James and Bron of Polecat.  After the discussion with Bob Driver last week, I wanted to see how they saw the future of the sort of Missions we have worked with them on.  They are keen to keep up the pace of the ICT based missions but agree that the Clean and Cool and Future Health Missions are better run every other year.  The subject of moving them somewhere else than San Francisco obviously came up and we debated the attractiveness of India, China and Brazil as targets for the sorts of companies that are just starting out on the path to global domination.

Thursday was an easy start because my first meeting was 0.3 miles from the hotel at the Royal Society of Chemistry and wasn’t until 11 o’clock.  It was a long time commitment to talk about the work of the Technology Strategy Board to the Sustainable Technologies Advisory Board of the Chemistry Innovation KTN.  This group, which is the linear descendant of the Research, Development Technology Transfer Group of the Crystal Faraday Partnership of many years ago – and still has some of the same members!  The recently updated strategy of the CIKTN puts sustainability at the centre of their activities, so this group is now the tactical advisory board for the whole KTN mission.  It was neat to see the culmination of the sustainable design work started many years ago by Sustainability Man and Sebastian Conran (although the link to MADE and the Materials KTN seems weak), the cross working with the Environmental Services KTN on materials security (and the excellent endangered elements periodic table - ) and the various schools and public engagement activities.  It was also fun to talk about what we do and realise that – no matter how many times we talk about how we see what we do – many still hold a view that we are an ex-DTI organisation full of bureaucrats who are too busy keeping their noses clean to be really useful.  Hopefully, another 20 have got the message this time!

After the meeting finished, I got a chance for a quick phone call to Strategy Man about how things were going.  Then it was off to Shoreditch for the launch of the Google sponsored, Boston Consulting Group delivered analysis of the UK’s Internet Industry.  A trendy location just off the Bethnal Green Road, a brace of Ministers (Jeremy Hunt just back from hobnobbing with the glitterati in Los Angeles and David Willetts, who had cycled up from Westminster), a shallow video and the digital great and good (and good wine too!) made for an interesting mix.  Contacts from Cisco, NESTA and others who wanted to be David Way’s friend, but would settle for me, abounded.  I realised an ambition to talk to one entrepreneur who is now a lot more successful than when we first met him and has turned into a bit of a nob, then it was on to the speeches.  Hunt was up first and mainly talked about who he had met.  Willetts was more measured and told the story that he had killed the Institute of Web Sciences when he had taken up his post but had been lobbied by Tim Berners-Lee and was now expecting it be to resurrected as a Technology Innovation Centre, which his boss had announced on Monday.  This made many of my new friends even more friendly!

Friday morning saw a small problem with a lack of hot water in the hotel and a spirited twitter discussion on how to deal with it.  Then it was a return to Oxford, where I had left my car earlier in the week, and a short drive down to Milton Park (which I note styles itself as part of Abingdon, presumably thinking this is sexier that Didcot?).  The reason was the official launch of the new Nexeon - - facilities, although they have been there since July, this was their chance to have a senior Sony man, their MP and a variety of people they wanted to impress see their shiny new stuff.  It is truly impressive – they have put in place a facility big enough to produce enough product to satisfy their early markets, whilst continuing to develop the technology.  The tour was encouragingly positive and pitched at the right level and there was a poster on how a TSB supported project (with Axeon, Ricardo and St Andrews) was enabling them to get into the automotive market.  For the second time this week, I heard that we had helped a company move up a gear and that they saw us as vital to their growth – is it a case study?

Poor travel planning meant that I now had to drive down to London – at one point for a meeting with FL, but he was apparently having too much fun at the RAEng, so I called Eric Mayes and arranged to go see him at the Royal Institution – since that was my eventual goal anyway!  I met up with Eric and Quentin Pankhurst and saw the product – which we had enabled with a project between Endomagnetics and the company in Kent that made the control box.  It is actually quite ugly (a possible target for out Design (not-) vouchers scheme) and the plastic was yellowing badly, but the functionality was impressive, showing real signs of understanding the needs of the doctors who would use it as well as the underlying technology.  Apparently, Eric had submitted a case study through the Monitoring Officer, but hadn’t heard anything back from him.  Quentin did comment that he thought our normal case studies were a bit twee and boring so he assumed their contribution didn’t fit with our house style!

The final act of the week was to join a Royal Institution Friday Evening Discourse.  It is a few years since I went to one, but they are things of beauty and tradition.  The reason was that the Head of Programmes at the RI had looked me up after many years and invited me.  She had to cry off for personal reasons, but instead I got the Chief Executive and the Interim Director of Fundraising and Membership as my new best friends – even after the “we don’t give money to anyone except commercial companies” speech that puts most people off!  As part of rebuilding their activities (and brand) they are looking to interact with business in a different way and had watched us extend our reach and credibility and wanted to learn from it.  I joined the trustees and some spare royalty that wandered in for drinks beforehand and then had a special seat in the lecture room.  Professor Stafford Lightman (of Bristol University – that’ll make FL happy) gave a great talk on the cortisol control system – and explained how a feedback system can give rise to useful pulsed charges of hormones in the human system, and how the control system is affected by stress and ageing.  At the dinner afterwards, the road warriors at the table tried to get free advice on how to deal with jet lag and we discussed the plans for the Royal Institution.  Another of the guests, from Hiscox, explained the risk balance and managed to tell everyone that he was involved in a TSB funded project that might well enable them to move into a new commercial space.

Just after 11 o’clock, I realized that my 2-hour drive was going to cut into sleep-time, so made my excuses and left.  As I walked onto Albemarle Street, I was immediately aware that I was surrounded by zombies.  On the walk to car park in Shepherd Market, I must have met about another 100 – I had no idea that London became the playground for the undead on Friday evening after we have all gone home!  The drive back was quiet and, as the midnight news was finishing, I realized that the strains of “Sailing By” might prove too soporific, so played with the pre-sets on the car radio.  Happily, my kids had left a thrash metal station tuned in, so I spent the last 30 minutes listening to German death metals bands (Grinder and Mekong Delta were 2 names that stick!) and kept awake,  I also discovered the location of the Birmingham “Zombie in Need” party and considered whether the people I had seen in London were not actually the undead, but merely happy, charity loving normal people out having fun.  Since they didn’t try to eat my brains, that may well have been the case!

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