The day after tomorrow never came
04 December 2020 by David Bott
The drive to Swindon promised excitement, with all the dire threats of blizzards and a guest appearance by Dennis Quaid, but actually I got down in record time and got a parking space and a desk! After the obligatory “start the week” meeting, a period of sorting out e-mails and things led to a Funders Panel where we managed to tie together the “master spreadsheet”, the goals of the Innovation Platform and the amount of money available, and then it was down to the big city!
The trip had 2 reasons (although that had varied from1 to 4 at various points in the previous week). The first was to impersonate FL at a meeting of the HMG’s scientific community. Actually, since he trained as an engineer, I am not sure he would have been that welcome, since the culture always seems to be about academic science inputting into policy and the tawdry bit about making money is quite often left out. It started with Beddington talking about his worries that science was being squeezed out of decision-making in Government followed by a quick canter through the issues that are worrying him specifically. He has just discovered ICT induced financial micro-recessions and is telling everyone that it is engineers that will solve the problem – thus confusing the difference between academic and commercial computer code! He also wants to predict or control volcanoes – I wonder why? He was followed by Adrian Smith, our soon to be new mega-boss, who managed not to mention us (again) and then Alan Thorpe (representing RCUK) who did. John then went around the room to the great and the good asking how they felt about things. I was just about to surreptitiously pull out my BlancBerry and start working when John leaned across and pointed at me, obviously expecting an input. I made the point that, whilst it was nice that the science base had been (mostly) preserved, the translational funding had been cut by at least 50% and that, without translation, there was a possibility that the science wouldn’t make into commerce and so the impact would be lost. I ended with our new rallying cry of “excellence with profit” and tried not to look too much like I had been caught not paying attention. A few more heavy-hitters got to make their points before we broke for tea/coffee. I found myself the centre of a limited circle of attention and had some really weird but potentially interesting conversations, including discovering that the Chief Scientific Advisor at the Foreign Office is an old university acquaintance and that Pat McDonald is still alive! We went back in to discuss how some scientific advisory boards had been de-quangofied but most seem to think this was a good idea anyway, so the meeting broke on a happy note.
Given that there was a tube strike, I walked up Whitehall to rendezvous with the ex-TSBer La Porta at her new office. Actually, I was there to meet her new boss, Jean-Benoit Ritz. He described the EDF structure in the UK, praised our activities in low carbon vehicles and low impact buildings and expressed the strong desire to work with us in all energy areas. We also touched on the EDF position on the ETI Turbine Rest Rig project, which is proving to be a vigorous consumer of time! Despite discovering that Charing Cross was closed and having to walk to Embankment, I tubed across town, caught a luxury burger and the train back to Swindon.
Next morning, I woke up and brushed the minimal snow off the car and drive the 5 miles to North Star House. First up was an interview for maternity cover for Steph. The candidate gave a pretty poor presentation but then turned into a much more interesting proposition when we started asking questions – and he was polite when Paul showed him some old school search process, working it out from first principles instead of just saying ”no-one these days uses this old stuff!”
Next up was a scheduled 30 minutes presentation on Technology and Innovation Centres by Mike and David. It evolved into a group discussion of the goals, processes and success criteria that lasted over 90 minutes and certainly added to my understanding. We should have group discussions more often, we have lots of good people and they are capable of outstanding logic and analysis! I then had a session with Obi Wan going through my presentation for the Governing Board. I am constantly amazed by how he can use the English language in ways I only dream about, but it does help to be able to obfuscate with pleonasm. This led into Ray Browne’s latest retirement where David Evans played FL, David Way played himself and Jim played up.
Then it was in to the first of 3 Funders Panels. The first was an SBRI on the energy content of waste. We were doing okay until Cyrus noted that one of the potential winners was a university and it wasn’t entirely obvious how, if the work was successful, it would be commercialised – which is the ultimate goal of SBRI. That meant we read the application and discovered that this was a spin-off from an ETI project and that the ownership of the IP was confused. We did pause to wonder how the process had got this far without anyone noting these things – perhaps we need to up the game of our assessors – when the accountant is more observant, we might be in trouble!
Next up was a Wave and Tidal competition, where we had only 4 successful, albeit large, projects. Then we realised that the assessors had tried to double-guess the Funders Panel by offering a conditional ordering. It turned out that they had wanted to use up all the money and so had worked out a complex ordering algorithm to maximise spend. Cyrus and I rejected this. It is really important to note that the Lead Technologist makes the decisions on projects being in and out or scope, that the assessors are there to rank the proposals in terms of technical and business merit and that everything else is down to us. Mission creep in the Assessor Panels is a slippery slope. Then it was the Assisted Living Business Models and Social and Behavioural Studies. Mike Biddle gave an excellent introduction, explaining why this was likely to be led by academics and how the ESRC was putting in £1.5m but using our processes – mostly anticipating what out objections might be. This has been a long time coming, but we are at last reaching excellent academics with business strength questions and this will set the tone for many of our future activities. The final official task of the day was to talk to the SINner in Boston about some workshop Le Golding has stiffed me for!
Then it was hanging around for FL to get out of various meetings with accountants to run through my Board presentation with him. He did take out some of Obi Wans additions! Finally, I made it back to the luxurious Swindon Hilton for a sumptuous feast and a drink with Sustainability Man who had come down a day early to make sure he was there for the poster session!
Next morning, SM cadged a lift to work (another money saving idea!), and we joined the happy throng gazing at the posters and wondering whether it had been a false economy to print them on A4 sheets, as some of the detail was a little small! We also heard that Transport Man was unable to get to us because his various forms of transport hadn’t worked – or so he said. I had to slip out during the poster session to take part in an HMG side of the house discussion about the NAREC situation – how the fate of its potential as a TIC is now woven up in its success in keeping the ETI Turbine Test Rig contract. There are definitely too many cooks in this kitchen! The Board meeting went as well as ever, FLs bit being mostly accepted, my description of the history and guiding principles of our portfolio sparking only mild interest – there was an insightful discussion about how water was an interesting potential market but that government regulatory activity was making innovation in the UK more difficult than it needed to be – and how we didn’t have enough money to do everything and how achievability was the second razor after desirability – the third being the potential for co-funding! By contrast, the discussion on Technology and Innovation Centres went less according to plan. Although we are trying to balance the purist instruction set from the last Board meeting with the short term political pressure to do something (and invalidate the claim that we are mindless bureaucrats infected by the previous administration and merely trying to frustrate the pure desires of the Aryan Coalition Angels (or similar)), we didn’t manage to convince the Board that practicality was important! Oh well!
That evening I read my @tweets and discovered I had been cyber stalked by an 2008 vintage ex-Apprentice!! See - http://www.claireyoung.co.uk/ . I engaged in a short tweet conversation which led to a phone call and have discovered that she would like to use any case studies we have as part of her work with young persons in Yorkshire!
Thursday was planned as a day in London and so, with stories of travel disruption ringing in my ears, I got to the railway station early and prepared for the worst. As it was, the train got in a few minutes early, wasn’t that crowded and was toasty warm, so I arrived in London in good spirits. The tube connections worked too, so I got up near NESTA early enough for a coffee around the corner. I was there because their “Lead Policy Advisor – Growth Markets” had approached me (on twitter) after the Chatham House event last week to ask whether we could do more work between NESTA and ourselves. As I drank my second coffee (they do have a great machine) she explained all the things they were doing on entrepreneurs and high growth companies and asked how we could work with them. I did probe the whole “high growth companies” bit because our Board entrepreneur was on the same “why don’t we just identify the high growth companies and give them all the money” tack the day before and I was interested to see how you identify these important components of the innovation ecosystem in advance. The answer was, of course, that you can’t, and by the time they are “high growth” they neither need nor want our help. Back to the drawing board! We did have a discussion about how you make successful mentor-mentee connections, especially off a poor initial feedstock. That led to a discussion about how dating agencies work (pattern recognition software and an insightful questionnaire) and whether we could adapt that process. If we could identify the characteristics of a successful mentor and screen out companies that would not be receptive of support then we could add them as screens for MatchMe or whatever the functionality we are adding next year and make the dating game easier. I need to talk to Coatesy about this. I wonder if I’ll remember?
I went back to Tracy Island (taking a cab I admit, because I was late) to rendezvous with the Polecatters to discuss the Missions. The Media Dominatrix was to have been there but had e-mailed with golf balls in her throat and so only called in. We talked through the announcement of the winners of the Future Health Mission (to be held next Monday at NESTA) and the launch of the WebMission (to be held at TechHub next Friday). The more of these we do, the easier it is to plan and implement because we’ve made all the good mistakes before.
I then grabbed a quick coffee with FL to discuss the implications of the TIC Board discussion on the NAREC situation and walked down to Kingsgate House for a meeting of the UKTI ICT Marketing Board. As I understood its terms of reference, it made a lot of sense – get a bunch of senior guys from the ICT industry to help define and propagate the good features of doing ICT work in the UK. They had produced a “brand” – see https://www.uktechnology.info/ but seem to have had difficulty translating their ideas into reality. They were now interested in making the point that ICT was ubiquitous in modern commerce and they should be involved in (or in control of) everything. There obvious frustration was not improved by David Hendon’s opening presentation about the 6 new Government focus areas – advanced manufacturing, digital and creative industries, business and professional services, retail, construction and healthcare and life sciences. The observant ones noted immediately that ICT wasn’t a focus area and started cutting up rough. The fact that they missed energy and transport didn’t dawn on them until they started quoting areas where ICT was very important for the future! Overall, I gained the impression that the industrial members were pretty hacked off that nothing they ever said got translated into action and that “officials” weren’t taking them seriously. There was one other interesting logical flaw that amused me. Everyone talked about the need to engage with SMEs but all the people around the table were from large companies and acted like corporates! I also noted that senior IBMers have a similar chairing style!
The meeting ran on and I got away later than planned. I had a brief discussion with Socrates wife about the (now cancelled but previously planned) meeting between Willetts and Nigel Shadbolt and then called Nigel to try to get him to understand that whatever we do in web sciences and its links to business, it won’t be a TIC – no matter how many times Willetts has announced it in the past – FL and His Spittleness have put in the voodoo jinx – in a good and constructive way! By contrast to the trip down, the train was crowded and unheated and my feet were almost completely frostbitten after the over 2 hours it took to make the usual 90-minute train ride home!
Friday I was supposed to go up to Sheffield but the 15 hour Thursday and a growing aversion to trains kicked in and I elected to go virtual. I had a great 2 hour chat with Richard Jones about how a university could have an innovation strategy and learned lots about the way Sheffield sees the world. What was particularly interesting (given the themes of the last few weeks) was how they saw the AMRC, the causes for its current success and why it should be a TIC. Other than that, we discussed how the world didn’t see its problems through the lens of specific scientific disciplines, how IP deals with pseudo-VC companies were turning into disasters and how universities need to balance their global aspirations with their local roots and hinterlands.
Then it was a catch-up with Energy Man, who sent me the relevant documents 10 minutes before I needed them, engaged with a plan and finished 10 minutes early. I am now up to speed with what we are doing in Energy and all his colleagues will hate him as I start saying things like “Neil was more prepared”
Then an incoming e-mail from an ETI member prompted FL and I to discuss NAREC one more time before the weekend, and Jools called to sort out more stuff. Other than that, the week ended with a whimper!