Of Newts, Herring and Government Data
14 May 2021 by David Bott
Instead of Monday this week, my week started on Sunday afternoon, because I had to be in London bright and early for the World Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine Congress, so I caught a train down on the Sunday evening. I am constantly amazed by how many people migrate on a Sunday evening to where they need to be the next morning and look sad about it! Anyway, it worked and on Monday morning I was in the conference hotel just after 8 o’clock pressing the flesh and getting my bearings.
After one of those loud music, flashing images, barnstorming introductions the rather downbeat set of housekeeping instructions by the (commercial) conference organiser, he handed over to a rushed Chris Mason. We all knew Chris was rushed because the back of his suit jacket was tucked into his trousers and although we all tried to bring it politely to his attention, we failed for several hours. Anyway, his introduction was very upbeat and he introduced the first speaker. The man was the head of the USA Armed Forces institute of Regenerative Medicine – see http://www.afirm.mil/ and he described the work carried out to address battlefield injuries. After statistics about the type of injury sustained by US soldiers in the conflicts over this century, he actually got to the point that the ratio of injured to dead has changed from 1:1 in WWII to 9:1 in Iraq and Afghanistan. This means they have many more injured – with quite severe injuries – to fix and they were looking to “fix them properly”. He called this goal “resetting the warrior”. They have put £35m into the US academic-industry complex to achieve this goal, but he didn’t really describe a lot of progress that I heard.
The next talk, by contrast was jaw-dropping. Given by the CSO of Dendreon – see http://www.dendreon.com/ - it was about their Provenge® treatment for asymptomatic or minimally symptomatic metastatic castrate resistant (hormone refractory) prostate cancer (ask Zahid for a translation into English!). As I caught the explanation, they take cells from the patient, treat them at their facility with a mixture of prostatic acid phosphatase (PAP), an antigen expressed in prostate cancer tissue and something called granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factor (GM-CSF), an immune cell activator. It takes about 3 days, but they get out of it blood cells that are on a mission to kill prostate cancer cells. They infuse these back into the patient, and repeat the procedure 3 times. The results are impressive enough to have propelled Provenge® to the point where it will probably become the first blockbuster cell therapy with sales of over $1bn!!
As if to make up for the first talk, the 3rd was to the level of the 2nd! The Vice President of Product Development for Geron described the preparation and progress of their first “in human” trials of a stem cell treatment – for spinal column trauma. The lengths to which they thought through the potential problems and sought to avoid them was impressive. Although this type of patient is probably tetraplegic and has little to live for (which is why they sign the consent for an experimental procedure) the precautions to ensure the stem cells don’t migrate to the brain and affect it, with experiments in rats on diffusion lengths and longevity were statistically rigorous and thorough. The talk was a Masterclass for those who might follow and I noted the guy from ReNeuron writing copious notes!!
The next panel focused on the international competition/collaboration in the area and felt like a bit of product placement for the Greg Bonfiglio inspired cartel of existing RM centres that inspired the Berlin meeting all those months ago.
After Speed Networking and coffee, it was into the “debate”. To be truthful this was a cheap but effective presentational trick to get lots of people to talk about what they do but only giving them 10 minutes to do so. The premise was that autologous (derived from the patient) were better than allogeneic (derived from others) cell therapies. The truth – sniffed out by the authoritative adjudication panel of Greg Bonfiglio, Tim Allsopp and me – was that the world needed both and each had its niche in the pantheon of treatments. That didn’t stop some great arguments being made and some dubious techniques being used to try to influence the judges (Tim Bertram of Tengion here deserves special mention for dirty tactics and Kristin Comell of Bioheart for the avoidance of jargon). I did make the point about the need to influence the wider public about the advantages of cell therapies before they got too much of a Frankenstinian reputation and noted that most of the presentations so far had been extremely jargon heavy.
I attempted to eat the not very wholesome curried dog meat they served for lunch before heading off to the Home Office for the first pre-meeting of the Forum for Innovation in Crime Prevention. Although they keep talking about involving business, the meeting was composed of the CSA for the Home Office, the Head of the renamed HOSDB, John Dodds from BIS, David Kester from the Design Council, Bernie Rickinson of the IoM, and a copper from SOCA called Andy along with the Home Office people who will get to do all the real work! The agenda was mainly about working out what to tell James Brokenshire to say at the first proper meeting. Home Office wanted to tell him the focus areas and what we would deliver in the first year, but there was some push-back! Kester trotted out the list generated in the dying days of the Design and Technology Alliance, but no-one seemed to be impressed. Eventually, John Dodds and I posed the “what’s the biggest problem you’ve got that you don’t know how to handle?” question and the SOCA star opened up with a string of ideas that made my toes curl and consider emigrating! Kester had run out of pre-formed ideas and we had run out of time, but I think the young padawan and I ought to go and visit my new fuzz friend!
I had arranged to meet Zoe and Socrates Wife to discuss the Institute of Web Technology. Willetts had dropped hints that he would like something along these lines to be a TIC (or similar) and that “some oddly named American woman” had explained the basis ideas to him a few months ago, but he is basically in awe of TBL and snowed by Shadders about the commercial potential, so it’s probably up to us to sort something out.
I got back to the hotel in time to connect my computer to the fire-hose of e-mails and then rendezvous with Healthcare Man for a dinner with Ruth McKernan of Pfizer. We had expected her to be at the Congress so had booked a restaurant nearby, but it turned out she had been embroiled in the Sandwich situation – and would be again the following day – so she had made the trip into London solely for our company!! We made it worth her while by stitching her to the chairperson of the Cell Therapies TIC Assessment Panel (hope that’s okay David?) without agreeing to have a TIC in Sandwich. And the food was good, but the service was poor!
Back at the hotel, I got a message that the short blog I had written for the Times about the stem cells wasn’t provocative enough, so thought about how to “sex it up”.
The next morning it was down to the Congress again for a morning where the focus was very much on the UK and the Technology Strategy Board. After an insightful but overlong introduction by the ubiquitous Greg Bonfiglio, first up was a presentation from one of our Regenerative Medicine Business Model consortia followed by a panel on “non-dilutive” funding which comprised the looney military dude from the day before, a man from the Heart Foundation who only funds universities and me. Guess who got the most questions? Luckily, I was able to answer abstract stuff and dodge detailed stuff because Healthcare Man was talking after the coffee break. He was “not bad” (see http://yfrog.com/z/gy5gxvxj for translation, and even Hermann Hauser told him so. He was followed by a more Vulture Capitalist oriented panel which highlighted the differences between US and European VCs, mostly ignored Angels (because the amount of money needed by biotech companies is too big for them (?)) but gave Greg another chance to put his views! The final talk of the morning was by a guy from Athersys, and he seemed to be talking about an outsourced supply chain or open innovation, but it wasn’t clear to me where the money was coming from. He was followed by David Willetts, who had chosen the Congress to formally open the “activity” to choose the location and team to run the Cell Therapies TIC. It certainly made the international crowd pay attention and Hermann used the event to go and lobby David hard about how the High Value Manufacturing TIC wasn’t what he had meant in his report and emphasize that he hoped the Cell Therapies TIC would be a single centre. (I know this because he told me that what he was going to do!)
Unfortunately, I had to leave Zahid to bask in the glory (both direct and reflected) and make my way to Heathrow to catch flight to Denmark. I had been asked to talk to the Danish government some time ago and had only agreed because I had been able to combine it with a trip to see Vestas, but that had been cancelled last week! Goldilocks swore blind that he hadn’t stitched me for this, but it turns out his was the only name they knew, so I remain suspicious! At the airport I talked to the Times woman who wanted me to be more controversial about stem cells and edited the piece myself to get closer to her style. That didn’t stop her making it even more rude by changing what I said – see http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/science/eureka-daily/?blogId=Blog3dfc20db-8d88-49bd-9347-1957bc781c72Post7ad484d0-95f0-497a-88cf-78ef301ab846 .
Avoiding the raw herring in the bar wasn’t that difficult and the beer was nice, so the evening passed quickly – including a phone call from David Godber, apologizing once again for cancelling the Vestas trip at the last moment.
Wednesday morning, I was collected from the hotel by a very nice Danish government person and walked to the conference centre. I met my personal translator and settled down to listen. The first talk was by a professor at the Danish Business School and basically described an economy in terminal decline. He was followed by a man from the newly set up Danish Enterprise and Construction Authority. Apparently, they are supposed to be us, so I guess the non-sensical name fits. This guy gave a presentation that contradicted all the evidence the first guy had presented, and seemed to use extreme enthusiasm as the antidote to everything. They were followed by a panel consisting of a couple of business people and a couple of government support agency people. From their discussion and the questions, I gathered that the Danish equivalent of Business Link pulls a vacuum and that business people don’t think the government understands them. Novel?
Lunch gave a few people the chance to try out their perfect English on the foreigner and I learnt that there might well be something rotten in the state of Denmark!
I sat through the award of a “success in business” award to an RTO before it was my turn to talk. I gave a modified version of the “scary facts but we’ll save you” talk and answered some good questions from the MC, who is apparently their version of Evan Davies. Then it was a panel, with me and 4 others and the whole thing done in Danish (but not my answers or interjections). It worked quite well, although having to wait until the translator had finished before I could start led to some dead air. There were lots of questions and I think the national guys want to follow our path but the regional and local guys want to keep the status quo.
After a 45-minute break, it was back into a smaller session (of 20 I think) people from national government who wanted to quiz me on more details. After an hour, they brought in some food from Noma – the latest thing in Danish high cuisine – see http://www.clausmeyer.dk/en/the_new_nordic_cuisine_/noma_.html. Basically, it’s all raw fish and difficult to eat and answer questions at the same time. There were a lot of questions on process, some on metrics but the highest proportion were on how we got away with taking risks. They were all scared of making a wrong decision so don’t want to make any.
Thursday morning, I successfully navigated the situation caused by my ignorance that the Kroner was outside the Eurozone and caught my plane home. I say home, but my first stop was in London to rendezvous with Energy Man to talk to Anne Glover about her oft stated opposition to the idea of a low carbon energy systems TIC. We had sent her the Board papers earlier in the week, but she hadn’t looked at them yet, so Neil took her through the logic. She followed nicely along, asking a few questions, and then told us that she accepted all of the logic but baulked at the first step – the market!
She simply does not believe that offshore energy will ever be cost competitive with the other renewable energy sources without government subsidy. We pointed out that the market figures in the Board paper are from the DECC sponsored TINA, but she was unwavering. We then had a discussion about learning curves and we will try to assemble the historical cost curves of the various renewable energies to check that Anne is correct – but will also look to see if we can find the equivalent curves for the offshore oil industry costs from 20-25 years ago. This is because our premise is that 70+% of the cost of offshore renewables is the support and ancillary infrastructure and that is common with the oil and gas industry, so the focus of the TIC would be different and working off a base of experience. Neil and I left the discussion quite subdued. The logic Anne used can be used to destroy any argument about the future because it is based on her personal intuition about markets and difficult to disprove other than by citing other people’s personal opinions!
I made my way across London to meet Michael Hurwitz – at his request. His main point was the Hammond had now seemed to realize that the uptake of low carbon vehicles was going to be slower than he had anticipated (it’s probably going to be a classic S curve, but once again, it’s the future and so unpredictable.) He (SoS) is therefore looking for eye-catching policies and Michael has had to spend some time explaining to him why demanding cars should plug in with standard 3-pin, 13 amp plugs isn’t a flier!! I have to admit that I was slightly distracted by a call from the Media Dominatrix towards the end of my meeting telling me that the Torygraph was asking questions about my contract. This seems to be a result of the publication of the details of our grants released after a Freedom of Information request – see http://lyndsaywilliams.blogspot.com/2011/05/freedom-of-information-act-revealing.html. This made people go and look at our official release page on the website – see http://www.innovateuk.org/aboutus/public-data.ashx and find that the only interesting thing there is the salary disclosures. Anyway, fearing that I would be disclosed as a “consultant” taking taxpayers money, I set my affairs in order and prepared to flee the country.
The next day, the house wasn’t surrounded by paparazzi and, aside from a phone call with Cyrus and MD, the whole thing seemed to “go away”, so I instead took part in a telephone conference to prepare for next weeks Governing Board meeting and picked up the action to refute Anne’s points from Thursday!! FL also “suggested” to me that since we were already booked to meet the CEO of MRC next Wednesday and he had just received an invitation to talk at a Number 10 Breakfast meeting at the same time, I might like to do the Number 10 gig, whilst he took care of the MRC one. A few phone calls established that everyone expects something different by way of our input, so I will obviously have to talk in tongues!!
I then took part in another telephone conference with MD and a reporter from Research Fortnight, who was analysing the data made available under FoI and set her straight on any misinterpretations she had made because the data is remarkably vague on what it is and what it means. MD had already explained that the list only had the names of the lead partners, so that meant that Rolls-Royce hadn’t in fact taken £91m of the £635m – they had lead the projects. It’s amazing how many people think we fund “companies” and not projects carried out by groups of companies. We then had a fascinating discussion about why the new universities seemed to get lots of money (under the KTP scheme) but the more traditional universities were more often partners in collaborative programmes. Just wait until she sees that Imperial take more than many companies! I was left with the feeling that we have scored an own goal by the way this data came out, the form it came out in and the attitude these engender in people who often don’t like the concept of what we do, despite being supportive of what we actually do!
Finally, I made Energy Man an offer he couldn’t refuse to help me assemble a mildly compelling argument for the Board meeting. He worked through Saturday and sent me something late in the afternoon. Luckily, he texted me for comment because I hadn’t received it. As I checked through, it turns that my mailbox was being moved and was therefore “unavailable”. I am not sure if the others on the list got their copy, but mine only turned up on Sunday morning. Great IT support we have!