There's no such thing as the real world, just a lie you've got to rise above
23 July 2021 by David Bott
Extreme excitement at the “start the week” meeting. FL was off to Bristol, Cyrus had a broken PC and David Way was in London, so I got to chair it. End of excitement. By contrast the TIC Update meeting spawned a robust discussion about whether the component parts of the High Value Manufacturing TIC could bid for competitions outside the TIC. After a quick download of the weekly movement instruction set, it was on to a Metadata Production Tools Funders Panel.
The Heads of Innovation Programmes was depleted (it’s Summer despite the weather) – the young padawan was on holiday, Healthcare Man was down in London managing the Cell Therapy TIC Leadership Workshop, Energy Man was giving him moral support and learning what he has to do next, newly ennobled Technology Woman was committed to some other activity! We had John Hand across from EPSRC to tell us about their new approach to aligning their funding with their strategies. This will mean that they start altering the order of projects as assessed and emphasising those areas they think are important and have less proposals, and de-emphasising those areas where they think they is less potential impact and where they are overwhelmed with proposals. Looking at the list, we all foresaw a strong reaction from the academic community and, because their strategic focus areas occur at different levels of granularity, it is not immediately apparent how they line up with our priorities. We also talked about the TIC programme.
The meeting led seamlessly into a PRP discussion with Sustainability Man – soon to be renamed Brazil Man!
I had a quick catch-up with Strategy Man about how we are using Jonne Cesarani in the TIC Workshops – after his success with the Composites Grand Challenge – and whether he might be useful in other areas. Then I moseyed across to the soft seating area of EPSRC to talk to the Goth Heidi. She had 2 things on her mind – the role of EPSRC in supporting SMEs, and their interaction with UKTI. Since we are noticing more companies that have had earlier support from EPSRC, I suggested we trawled through the case studies and looked for this sort of overlap and bigged it up in the actual case studies. This idea quickly evolved into going through the list of companies involved in the Missions (which therefore had interest from ourselves and UKTI) with the same filter in mind – and then writing up the case studies that emphasise the joined-up government support provide by EPSRC, ourselves and then UKTI!
As I made my way down to join Healthcare Man and others at the Cell Therapy TIC Workshop I got a mildly agitated text from him saying that our respected minister had inadvertently opened the “hub and spoke” can of worms and I need to be “firm” when I arrived!! Wandering around the back of Paddington to get to Sheldon Square is always an adventure and this time I made it between showers. I arrived to find the last of the “leader group” pitches going on. The workshop had followed the technique of not allowing people to download their pre-prepared prejudice set, but instead get them to express the challenge /opportunity through a metaphor. It was obvious in discussion that the business guys had mostly found this quite normal but the academics had hated it – because they just wanted to get on and work out how to answer the question and access the money! Talking to the “home” team, it became apparent that the initial impression of a lack of excitement was universally felt. We came to the conclusion that only a few people in the room actually wanted to run the TIC, but that everyone else just didn’t want to be left out! We therefore re-planned the next day to address this issue. Over dinner, we tried to nobble the leader groups – aided by FL who turned up for cheese and biscuits!
The next morning, the home team met early to plot, and then we had a private meeting with the 4 leadership groups. We told them – as clearly and firmly as we could – that there was only going to be one centre, and that it was going to be world leading – and so everyone in the room had to support it. We told them again that the phrase “hub and spoke” was both confusing and disallowed and, in answer to a specific question, that we expected about 80% of the work to be carried out in the centre. They twisted and turned, telling us that they already had activities that were critical to the success of Cell Therapies in the UK, but we countered with the argument that we were setting up something new, and that it therefore did not exist at the moment – if it did exist we wouldn’t need to fund a TIC in this area! I sense that they didn’t like either the message or the delivery agent, but “them’s the breaks”! Then we asked the business people we had invited to the workshop to talk about what they wanted from the TIC. One by one they went to the front of the room and reinforced the points we were making – with stand-out points being made by Ruth McKernan of Pfizer, Michael Hunt of Reneuron, Paul Kemp of Intercytex and Chris Bravery of Advanced Biologicals Ltd. (but ex-NICE so heavily into regulation!)
Just before lunchtime, I had to move on to my next appointment of the day – after my chat with Sherry Coutu the other week, I mysteriously got an invitation to the Innovation LaunchPad Product Surgery. There were 9 companies (who allegedly could save the government £1.9bn pounds (per annum?) if their product replaced the current practice in government) pitching to a room of senior (and therefore capable of decision making) civil servants. After an introduction from Francis Maude, Sherry introduced the basic idea – that government should buy more existing products from SMEs. She did a nice job differentiating the task from what SBRI does, which was good of her. The afternoon was divided into 2 sessions. In the first, there was a mentor panel consisting of John Moulton (Alchemie, see – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jon_Moulton), David Smith (DWP, see – http://www.dwp.gov.uk/supplying-dwp/purchasing-in-dwp/who-we-are/), Kavalneer Walia (ERG/Treasury, see – http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/d/hmt_orgchart.pdf) and Brian Bath (DEFRA) who asked question after the presentations – each company was given 10 minutes to pitch and 10 minutes for questions. First up was Health Analytics (see – http://www.health-analytics.co.uk/) who do data integration for healthcare systems. They have sold to 7 PCTs already and their pitch was that could save £100m by better use of existing data. John Moulton (the only one who ever asked a difficult question) questioned how unique they were and how they would operate once the PCTs ceased to exist. The problem was really whether the savings would be made! Next came Cambridge Temperature Concepts (see – http://www.temperatureconcepts.com/) who we know well from the Future Health Mission. The JM question was why, since they already sell to yuppies through Boots for £500 a pregnancy (you have to hear Shamus for the “offering”, it is clever) the National Health Service should pay £2500? The answer, that they avoid roughly 20% of the IVFs carried out in the UK, which cost £16,500 a go, didn’t seem to make sense to him. Third came the Learning Pool (see – http://www.learningpool.com/) who provide e-learning already for the public sector and who were proposing to set up the “Big Society School”. JM told them they didn’t have a business model and had provided no evidence of where their claimed £100m potential savings came from and started getting grumpy when no-one else did anything but make jokes. Finally came MyWorkSearch (see – http://www.myworksearch.co.uk/) who seemed to offer more efficient job searching, but JM dismissed as only playing to the white-collar market, and asked why, if the idea was so good and the commercial director of the DWP was on the panel, there hadn’t been a deal already! In the break I met someone from the CBI SME Council – and a company called Redwood (but that doesn’t help because there are several!) – who claimed that they had scored very highly in the commercial evaluation but had not been selected for the Surgery because civil servants didn’t understand how they could save money! Although I missed the second half of the proceedings and 5 of the companies, I couldn’t help thinking that the process hadn’t been thought through properly and that the civil servants were the weak link in the thought process. That said, the publicity afforded to the finalists was undoubtedly valuable and although there had been no contracts signed to date, there might yet be some! What it did emphasise to me was the importance for small companies of being able to articulate they business case simply and clearly and for the need to educate the civil servants who make decisions about the environment in which they operate commercially!
Sadly, at this point it was time to swap meetings and move one room down in the BIS bunker to the John Beddington Wider Scientific Community meeting. It was a meeting in two halves, one of which was much, much more interesting that the other. The interesting bit was that John has commissioned 2 members to introduce each of 11 subjects in less than 7 minutes and the remaining time could be used for questions. The subjects – NHS as a driver of innovation, Where do we stand on trust in climate science? (70% of people still believe in climate change, 50% of people trust “scientists” but only 10% of people trust “government scientists”), How the precautionary principle is being interpreted (H&S), “Science as a public enterprise” (Transparency), The future for nuclear power, Science and Engineering & The Olympics, Impact on science of defamation laws, National Ecosystem Assessment (mention of LWEC debate on academic nomenclature making understanding of the issue difficult to normal people and business people (are they different?)), Implications for Britain of the E coli outbreak (although everyone knows it was spread by German bean sprouts, the original infection was apparently from Indian fenugreek seeds), Building synergies in national facilities across the human and animal health agenda, and Can science do more to predict global humanitarian disasters? – all were explained crisply and engagingly and kept the questioning going long after the meeting formally ended! The less interesting half was a talk by David Wilkinson about the European Joint Research Centre, which was holed below the waterline by John’s off the cuff remark that he hadn’t known about it until recently and then terminally damaged by Mark Walport’s question about what value we got for the over £300m it cost!
Wednesday saw the trek back to Swindon, and I was bemused to see John Greaves of Ernst & Young hanging about outside the building on the phone until I realised he might be joining Richard Harrison, who had come back to discuss some ideas about monitoring we had kicked off many months ago when he worked for us. And so it turned out. The idea is that we need to get better at making the scope of any competition more quantitative about its deliverables – not how many companies or size of funding, but alignment with the challenge we are trying to address – itself derived from the technology roadmap that underpins our work in the area. Needless to say, E&Y offered to help – for a fee. I’m thinking!
Then it was on to Transport Man’s PDR, and a period of catching up with stuff, before what was effectively the Funders Panel for the new cohort of Monitoring Liaison Officers. Although we might have lost a few good ones on the way because we weren’t as internally joined up as we could have been, this has ended up as a slick process, and almost makes the Shared Services guys we used to underpin the process look good! Then we had a quick discussion about FL and Co.’s trip to the Fraunhofer HQ next week and agreed where the issues might arise and what we could do to anticipate and even avoid them. Then Healthcare Man’s PDR, and a quiet evening in Swindon reading – surprisingly enjoyable!
Thursday started with an Executioners Meeting, with an odd adherence to the agenda – a bit William Burroughs – and less slippage than usual. The PAFs got delayed because we had lost bandwidth to progress them through the process bits, but none of them are that urgent, the action list provided the usual controversy and the review of scorecards has evolved into a “high and low points” discussion which can be followed up afterwards or not – to taste! As we segued into the Strategy part of the meeting, we discussed the improvement projects and our progress, the Eurostars context (and current problem) and the development of the Delivery Plan.
All too soon it was over and various of us made our way to London. I reached the hotel before the heavens opened (with rain, not fire and brimstone) and had an interesting discussion with a Venture Capitalist about both specific and general opportunities in the UK. Then I walked across London (I had time and it wasn’t raining any more) to meet Brian Collins for dinner. Brian may have left Chief Scientific Advisor status behind but is still working for Infrastructure UK and is about to take up a post at UCL as professor on engineering policy. We discussed the recently announced Krebs review of the effectiveness of CSAs and his reflections on the current interest in cyber security.
Afterwards I took a cab across London to find FL slumming it in a cheap restaurant on Queensway. I showed him the wonder of Whiteleys (see – http://www.whiteleys.com/) before we settled down in the bar of his hotel to plan our meeting with David Willetts the following morning. We had acquired Willetts briefing earlier in the evening but hadn’t had the chance to plot our game plan, so this was it. We didn’t even drink that much – it must have been serious!
The next morning, I made my way down to Tracy Island and watched our BIS colleagues roll up an hour or so later. With Mani we sauntered up to the higher floors and accidentally sat in Greg Clark’s office (they have given him the old waiting room) until the appointed hour. Willetts was in avuncular mood and we talked about TIC progress, our thoughts on cluster versus centres, our increasing international activities (he thanked us for sending a willing victim to have a Brazilian, but didn’t know about Mike Biddle’s potential run at a European presidency), possible input into the Autumn Statement (specifically to reflect the PM’s new-found interest in life sciences) and the TechCity LaunchPad (where he seems to have cut short his holiday to be able to take part on the Wednesday evening!). We overran and then Mani, Michael Hilton and I discussed when we might get a chance to pitch our branding team at Willetts. It turns out that we will need to include Cable in the meeting and that makes timing an issue. I pointed out that we were moderately ready to go but couldn’t really move until we got their buy-in so I hope they think the ball is in their court. By now I had missed the Low Carbon Innovation Group teleconference, but made the ETI public sector meeting nobbling discussion. FL is doing the dinner and meeting, but couldn’t make this pre-meeting (he was talking to GSK about the Cell Therapy TIC!) so I was his replacement. The main discussion – about the future of ETI post 2017 – drew some interestingly contrasting views from EPSRC, DECC and BIS, and John Dodds, who is replacing Adrian Smith as the senior British officer, was trying to work out what was going to go on! This was followed by an odd telecon with a guy from Conran Holdings who had apparently been told by Terence to “make it so” while he went off on holiday, but didn’t know what to do. We agreed that since this guy ran the business side of the Conran Empire and our interactions were more on the philanthropic and strategic level, he would just log that we had taken the call and wait for the return of the Man.
By now a bit behind even the re-arranged schedule, I caught the train to Swindon (it was delayed of course) and arrived just a little late for the discussion about the juxtaposition of Collaboration Nation and Innovate. Feelings were running high on both sides of the debate, but we (Innovation Programmes) were adamant that we couldn’t run the events on the same day, so Huw the Organiser is going away to see if we can run Collaboration Nation on the day before – it still means the Technologists will be horribly over-worked in early October but might save us have to prostrate ourselves in front of the Cabinet Office and admit we can’t organise very well. If it can’t be done, that Collaboration Nation will be run about 2 weeks after Innovate (and the Technologists will be very happy!). David Way and I squeezed in our catch-up meeting – actually we had seen a lot of one another this week, so it was mainly agreeing what we had both been discussing through the week!
The final meeting of the day was for Healthcare Man and I to agree the timetable for our now inaccurately named US Road-Trip this Fall. This is the logical, if painful culmination of our discussions with SIN and UKTI and will entail 5 days of meetings from Boston, through New York to Washington to put the Technology Strategy Board on the US healthcare map. Even just discussing the agenda took an hour and made me tired. I hope Healthcare Man can rustle up some Benzedrine, I hate the taste of Red Bull.