A week of re-arrangements and serendipity
18 December 2020 by David Bott
Against the run of play, I got to Swindon for the “start the week” meeting. It was a “normal” Swindon day, with lots of internal meetings, catchings-up and clearing of tasks from the “to-do” list. I had a long postponed discussion with Anne about HR issues and how the hiring freeze is hurting the delivery of our programmes, then took a rather nice phone call. The back-story is that after Collaboration Nation I was approached by the Managing Director of VortexVid (see - http://vortexvid.com/index.html ), who told me about his company and suggested that we could use his systems to add value to the “sharing” process. I actually forgot until after LaunchPad that we had discussed this and so apologised by e-mail for my memory failure. The phone call was to discuss what we might do in future. As it happens, he thought that using YouTube had been the right approach and that his service wouldn’t have delivered the full “connection” capability that we had achieved. Given may people have told me that we aren’t getting it right recently, it was nice that someone called to compliment us! I managed to squeeze in a few minutes with a hassled looking FL before a “Heads of” meeting. We discussed the work we are doing to flesh out the strategy, the portfolio and the delivery plan. In particular, we spent some time going through the latest version of the master spread-sheet to reduce our forward commitment. Assembling the wish lists of all the groups we end up with a 35% overspend. We managed to take out 10% voluntarily, but now I need to arm-twisting private sessions to make sure we are delivering the most value enhancing competitions.
Tuesday started at home – because Obi Wan was going to the AWM meeting I had been invited too and we decided that you can have too many Davids when they are all quite busy. Instead I had a strategy telephone call with Chester where I told him what we had done, we discussed the “general presentation” and the portfolio analysis I need to commit to paper! Later I went to my usual railway station but caught a train going in the opposite direction, walked between 2 of Birmingham’s stations and boarded a train for the snowy North. As the train got further and further north, I realised what all the fuss had been about. Getting off the train at Darlington brought back memories of my time at Wilton and the inevitable delayed taxi through Yarm caused serious memory overload. That evening, I had dinner with Nigel Perry. I had owed him a meeting for some time now and the trip to see Ensus was a good excuse to only have to go to the North once!
Fairly predictably the main topic of conversation was TICs. Nigel, along with every other interested party seemed to have versions of our evolving prospectus. His main focus of attention was on a “process industries” centre, and he had already got to the idea of combining several elements into a single management structure to drive knowledge transfer. I therefore suggested the idea of a single manufacturing TIC, with a common governance structure and a limited number of geographical centres. Like many, his first thought was of the difficulty of getting the aerospace and automotive guys to work with one another, the probable resistance to changing the structure and drivers of the separate existing structures, but he managed to talk himself around to the attraction of the idea after 30 minutes, and then volunteered to help us construct it. I know Nigel from a previous life, where he project managed the building of a PTA plant in Pakistan, so if he is on our side, he might be a useful asset!
Next morning, I was taxied (at someone else’s expense) to the Wilton site. I sat through the site safety video, where the main change over the last 12 years has been to keep saying “the different companies on the site have different safety procedures so pay attention”. Ensus (see - http://www.ensusgroup.com/about_us.php ) is an interesting company. It takes in about 1m tonne of wheat a year and produces 400m litres of bioethanol (which it sells to Shell as a liquid fuel), 300 ktonnes of Carbon Dioxide (which it sells to Yara (see - http://www.yara.co.uk/ ) for liquefaction, who sell it to PepsiCo) and 350 ktonnes of high protein animal feed (which it sells to farmers – even some of them who provide the wheat!). It seems to be made up of old colleagues from ICI, but the plant feels like it’s a standard bioethanol design, just made a big bigger than usual. From the walking tour (great fun in a biting northerly wind) it feels like the design has evolved, with bits out of order and pipes taking things back the way they came. Their biggest problem is that fermentation produces highly volatile co-products that give breweries their distinctive smell but done on this scale it’s quite obnoxious and the neighbours, who had put up with the smell of a chemical plants for decades, complained. Their first move was to put a higher stack in place (I love the way engineers solve problems!), but since the original stack was on top of the drying plant and the structure wasn’t strong enough to take the extra weight of a higher stack, they build a tower alongside and the stack now takes a horizontal route to the new stack next door! This hasn’t actually got rid of the problem and they are adding a thermal oxidiser (another engineering response, the smell being organic, they can burn it if they get the temperature high enough!). Back in the relative warmth of their HQ, I got the sell on a project to replace the yeast they currently use in their fermenters with thermophiles that can tackle the more difficult sugars and turn them into ethanol. They were basically asking for advice as to which competitions they should apply for. They seem to have missed several and hadn’t considered – indeed, claimed not to know about – the agriculture/food activities. Their analyst seemed to know about the context of their work but did seem to use data selectively to prove their points! I got another trip down memory lane on the drive back through Middlesbrough to Darlington and then sat on a train with little room to work for 3 hours.
Back in London, I made my way to an extraordinary meeting of the Executioners and eventually found myself, with FL and Cyrus analysing business models in the bar of the Park Lane Hilton.
The next morning, I was supposed to meet with Michael Hurwitz to discuss next years LCV programmes, but he called off because of personal reasons. My next meeting, with Gartner then got converted from a meeting into a quick telephone call because the person who arranged it had left the company and her boss was unwell. Since my lunchtime crumble rendezvous with the Media Dominatrix and Alok Jha (Guardian Science Correspondent) had been cancelled the day before, my day was looking a bit lop-sided. However, Jools didn’t like the idea of me having a quiet day, so had contacted Pallab Ghosh, who we had been trying to fix up a meeting with for many months, on the off-chance and so I had a date with him. Before that, I had a short meeting with Anne Glover about renewable energy and the idea of a TIC in the area, so I made my way up to St James’s Street. Before we got to the main subject, Anne wanted to download a message about KTPs. The previous week, FL had talked to the advisors and partners and delivered the formal message that we were having to throttle back and were seeking to align the next wave with our other activities. According to Anne, this came a bit of shock to those she knew and she raised 2 questions. The first was why our internal communications to those advisors and partners was so bad that they didn’t know the direction of our thinking. Having talked this over the FL and David Way, I am worried that this was a partial and untypical response but, as with so much of what we do, the perception that we are bureaucratic jobsworths needs to be nipped in the bud. Her second point was to question why we were seeking to align KTP with our other activities – because it worked in its current mode. Since we had discussed this at a couple of Board meetings and it was definitely in the relevant Board paper, I decided to debate this one. Our reason to align was that we saw KTP as part of a whole offering to companies to help them get support from the knowledge base. To run it in stand-alone mode, which is what we have done since 2004, is to render it mildly irrelevant to the rest of our activities. By contrast, Anne saw it as a general tool to help anyone doing anything. Like many she thinks our strategies are our own invention – rather than the collection and collation of our interactions with the relevant communities. I left it that we disagreed and FL will follow up – he was her original target and I just got in the way! The substantive discussion was about whether we should, or should not, have a TIC in wet renewable energy. Her argument was that offshore wind, wave and tidal are peculiarly UK centric industries – no-one else has as much shoreline – and so the overall global market was limited and therefore the area didn’t warrant a TIC under the Hauser criteria! I was obviously feeling bolshie that day because I argued with her that there was real interest in offshore wind on the west coast of America, that there were tidal projects off Miami and in the Far East and that the field was growing. We agreed that we would look at the markets and talk to other VCs with closer renewable energy ties.
Then it was off to the BBC TV Centre. Pallab was a great host. After a meal in the canteen, a long discussion about what we did, why and how we did it and what was newsworthy (I had been coached on this aspect by MD) he gave me a tour of the newsroom – going in the opposite direction to the crowds of schoolchildren on the same sort of tour – before catching the tube back into London. MD had noted my illicit liaison with one of her kind and was on the phone for a debrief ASAP, then in contact with Pallab to undo whatever harm I might have done. She will be following up in the New Year, but we can predict that the BBC Science desk will be more engaged with us than previously.
I got back to find the Innovation Group of BIS doing a good Marie Celeste impersonation, so I collected my next guest personally. It was David Rowan of Wired UK. I actually ran through a similar conversation to the one I had had with Pallab, David knew slightly more because one of his journalists had taken part on the Clean and Cool Mission earlier this year and another might be going on the Future Health Mission next month (/year?).
Next up was an interview for the Ray Browne shaped Aerospace role, but we were disappointed.
Then I made my way up to Piccadilly to meet with Glenn Shoosmith of BookingBug (see - http://uk.bookingbug.com/ ). I started out walking but the driving rain made me reconsider my choice and I caught a cab, arriving at the designated Starbucks still quite wet. Glenn wanted to discuss the idea of an enhanced LaunchPad completion and introduce me to his CFO (who also is part of Rewired State (see - http://rewiredstate.org/ ) – who are involved with our Digital services activities (I think!)). We discussed the proposal to run LaunchPad with a few extra wrinkles. The first stage would once again be a 2 minute video, but unconstrained by an approaching Innovate sized deadline, we would have the entry open for a month, then have 2 weeks where people could contribute their comments on the posted ideas. This might lead to a “peoples choice” going through to the next stage or just extra input to the assessors, but otherwise there would be a standard assessor driven down-selection to a paper based second stage. The successful companies would be awarded up to £100k – but would then have a year to find the matching funds before they could start the project. If we hold a Collaboration Nation style beauty parade for the successful projects at TechHub (see - http://www.techhub.com/ ), with angels and other potential funders present we could help 10 companies get a foot on the ladder, build a bit more credibility with the digirati and tick a “we did something in Shoreditch” box. I haven’t found the downside yet. Nick has generously recognised that this would be a good way to find more applications nerds for ICtomorrow, so is diverting some of his money to fund it!
The final stage of the plan was to be consummated over dinner with the Queen of Shoreditch, Elizabeth Varley, who had managed not to blow me off for an appointment at Number 10 or in Paris this time. She quickly recognised the value to both organisations of joint working and even volunteered to be an assessor if necessary. The walk back through a cold and sleet-swept London was less depressing than usual!
Friday could have seen a later start because the first interview (for EGS) cancelled themselves, but habit got me into Tracy Island just after 8.30 – to find an SBRI guy working already!! They work them hard in that group!
The first interview was mildly diverting, but since we were in a very cold room, I had doubts that Jan would survive. The second guy was an altogether different matter and we agreed that we would offer him an interim position until the stupidity of the freeze was lifted.
FL had been in was sounded like an easy OSCHR meeting, so he came back in a good mood and we had lunch with David Way, where we sympathised with each other about TICs, KTPs, life, the universe and everything until it was time for try to get home. The train took slightly longer than usual but it was unfreezing the car that took time – first to be able to open the door, so frozen was the melted ice and snow from 3 days in a station car park.
Today being Saturday, I thought I might just catch up with e-mails and write my blog – seeing as how the planned trip to Falmouth isn’t going to happen. However, a phone call to order some logs for Christmas ended up with me talking to the Managing Director of Zeeko (see - http://www.zeeko.co.uk/site/tiki-index.php?page=HomePagePublic ), a firm that makes precision polishing equipment and is a sub-contractor for a Technology Strategy Board funded project at St Asaph. It obviously pays to have a mildly rare surname!