Attack of the Clones and the Return of the Jedi in one week!

So, another Monday morning with a reason not to be in Swindon and, therefore, another missed “start the week” meeting.  Instead, I met up with Security Boy and our friend from the Home Office to discuss the progress on exploring the potential need for activity based in m-commerce.  SB has been busy over the Summer talking to a variety of people around this space about the likely scale of the growth of m-commerce, the potential for UK profit out of that growth and the issues that will need to be addressed before we can realise that profit.  In exchange we learnt of a merry-go-round of Ministers responsible for the Forum for Innovation in Crime Prevention (we are now on our third in a year) and some frustration within the Home Office on engaging about the subject.  We agree that a joint Ministerial dinner with senior people from the banking, mobile communications and security fields would be a good idea and plan to make it happen!

Next up is the first part of a brace of Georgian announcement fall-out meetings – this one on Graphene.  EPSRC are hell bent on using the money to do research despite both the announcement and the body language of the civil servants being about translation.  EPSRC came to the meeting with Pete Dobson and Neil Alford, who both agree more with our suggestions for activity than the basic ones in the proposed paper.  I suspect this will all end in tears.  The £50m announced by George turns out to have to be spent in next year and be capital. This means someone will end up funding the recurrent costs that are necessary to realise any of the value of the capital investment.  Couple that with the fact that the “targets” of the funding don’t want to do what the Chancellor gave the money to do, the proposer university doesn’t necessarily want to share the money with other centres of expertise and you have a recipe for disaster.

It being a day of misinterpretable meetings, the next one was with UKTI and consisted of a lot of UKTI people and 3 senior “open innovation” enthusiasts from General Mills (see – UKTI spend a lot of time telling the GM guys that they can have anything they want if they will build a factory in the UK (I kid you not, I was getting embarrassed!) and that Technology Strategy Board grants will flow if they are located in the UK.  Luckily, the GM guys had done their homework and when we got around to discussing what we do and how we do it, the discussion got a lot more productive.  Biology Girl explained her last call, and its place in Biological Technology and I explain the Agriculture Innovation Platform.  We also threw in Knowledge Transfer Networks and other ways to build consortia and the GM guys seem to be interested.  Of course, 2 of them went back to the USA after the meeting so who knows what will happen.

Because it ran on, I was late and so I caught a cab to the headquarters of Broadband Delivery UK and an old friend, Rob Sullivan, who is now running it. It is mostly just the two of us until his deputy joined us towards the end.  Their original purpose was to connect the “final third” but that nice Mr Hunt seems to be more of a mind to connect the commercial third first in order to unlock economic growth (you cannot fault his logic).  The problem seems to be that various parts of government who impact on this area have sensible but uncorrelated goals and activities in the area, so we agreed to see how we can work together.  I got a late train home, but it’s one of the new Chiltern Mainline Trains, so was a lot more comfortable (see –

Tuesday saw me heading to Sheffield.  The first part of the day was at their request to talk about our support mechanisms.  After a very nice lunch with the VC and a PVC, I met parts of the university who are trying to work out how to help their alumni start businesses, either by educating them about business during their degrees or providing specific support once they have left and are actually in process.  I wasn’t that impressed and believe I may have let slip my feelings.  Then they wielded their tame entrepreneur (see – for a debate.  He expressed regard for our growing support for SMEs but pointed out we could go faster and that we ought to do it in Sheffield.  Lastly, I met some III-V physicists and was reminded how unworldly they can be!

The reason I was actually in Sheffield was to give the 9th Roberts Lecture (see –  Named to commemorate Gareth Roberts (see – it should have been a chance to try out an updated version of the infamous “scary facts” presentation we have been hawking around the circuit for the last few years.  Unfortunately, the disruption of the last few weeks meant I had put less effort than I had wanted into the preparation and was not confident that I had it all down pat.  Happily the audience was indulgent and liked the text-speak agenda, the components I stole from others and the final Michael Jackson tribute!  Apparently they filmed it and we will get a copy.  Scary.  Gareth’s widow liked it so much she decided that after the dinner with the senior local government folk of Sheffield that we would drink champagne to celebrate her ex-husband back at the hotel she told everyone we were both staying at!  It was about then that she mentioned that there was another Roberts Lecture – more about science policy than science – and that it was being held in London the following night – and that David Willetts was giving it. I switched into charm mode and explained what wonderful job the Technology Strategy Board were doing and, divining that she was involved in the ethics of care for older adults, gave her both barrels of the Assisted Living Innovation Programme.  We lasted until just before midnight and I suspect she outdrank me!

The alarm call the next morning was not welcome but I had been loaned the VC’s driver, so made it to the station to catch the 7.27 train to London.  Rushing down to the Design Council to meet Communications Man, I discovered he was late so caught up with my e-mails – BlackBerry was having a good day so I had some!  He arrived with a few minutes to spare before my next meeting so I downloaded the slightly longer recommendations of the External Communications Away Day Project Group than I had detailed in this blog weeks ago.  Then it was my regular catch-up with Mat Hunter of the Design Council.  We discussed what we would do with the output of the Innovate Design Panel (we are going to jointly get it edited down to capture the main points and use it on both organisations web sites to continue the conversation about the interaction of design and technology at the working level we have been building up to over the last year).  I then joined the TIC branding discussions with the Heads and Technologists who will be leading the next phase of the development.  It started a bit falteringly but was starting to hum as I left.

I had a lunch appointment with some people from Advantage Austria.  David Way had gone to one of their events the day before Innovate but they wanted to ask some more specific questions, so I got to shovel food in-between answers to their (very good) questions.  It struck me that they don’t really know what they want, think we might and want to get close to us as an organisation – although they are more like UKTI in their role.  We did discuss a limited collaboration over the missions they bring to the UK – where we could help them meet the best of UK companies in their chosen areas.

Then it was back to Tracy Island for a ministerial round table on nanotechnology.  BIS had rounded up the usual suspects but hadn’t really thought through what the purpose of the meeting was – many of the participants have been pushing nanoparticles for many years without that much success, the inevitable nanotoxicologist predicted widespread alien plague if the particles were ever allowed to hit the environment, someone pointed out that the Government had stopped funding basic toxicology in the area years ago despite ministerial promises, that the infamous twin steering groups (one chaired by DEFRA, the other by the DTI) had not met for years and it all started to go a bit pear-shaped.  Then the guy from BASF (who hadn’t said anything up to this point) mentioned that they sold millions of dollars of products that used nanoscale technologies but no longer thought of them as unusual or special.  Then the guy from UCL suggested that the idea of nanotechnology had been invented as an academic funding wheeze and had probably outlived its usefulness!  At one point someone suggested that we needed more MNT Centres but I was “robust” in my response.  I am not sure what David Willetts took from the meeting other than the area was a bit of a mess and that government had dropped the ball several times in the past.  I see from subsequent traffic that some of the throng are intent on continuing their lobbying!

I rushed back to the hotel to meet with Communications Man again to continue our dialogue about whether and how the Comms team would embrace the recommendations of the Away Day team.

I approached my evening appointment with some trepidation.  I had been button-holed by Damon Oldcorn (see – at the TechCity LaunchPad Investor Meeting and then again at Innovate.  The dinner I was invited to was presumably to push support for some new entrepreneurial activity in Northern Ireland.  Who I expected to see was Steve Orr, Director of Northern Ireland Science Park Connect (see –, Alan Watts, Director of Halo Angel Network (see – from Belfast and Norman Apsley CEO of the Northern Ireland Science Park (see –  What I also got was Mike Butcher from TechCrunch, Steve Moore CEO of the Big Society Network (see –, Alex Hoye CEO of the Latitude Group (see – and a hoody I never got around to meeting from Springboard (see –  The black velvets (see – were a nice Irish way to start the evening.  I gathered Steve and Mike were primary targets and got the majority of the charm offensive early on (expect to see Mike do a piece in TechCrunch on the Irish renaissance soon) but my turn came after Norman had softened me up with stories of the early days of Malvern!  What they want is to use our brand and some money to run something like a LaunchPad.  I told Damon I never do anything on the first date!  I got back to my hotel to find a message from the apprentice TIC Media boy that I would have to do a telephone interview with a freelance working for the Economist at 8.30 the next morning, so set my alarm and went to sleep. It was already Thursday!

What I learned from a pre-discussion was that we were bidding to get mentioned in a 600 word piece that introduced the manufacturing segment of the Economist review carried out by Ernst & Young, so I switched into story telling mode and tried to give the journalist something he would remember us by!  God knows if it worked!  It did, however, run on so I had to catch a cab to the Business Design Centre for my panel appearance at the Carbon Show.  I got there just in time to discover that Lord Heseltine had been similarly delayed and therefore they were running 25 minutes late!  Sadly, there isn’t yet an App for that!  Heseltine was remarkably on message, as was Andrew Miller, and the KPMG (but ex UNFCCC) guy was also crisp and targeted but the event was let down by the United Nations Climate Change Advisor (see – who managed to send most of the audience to sleep by reading out a list of 9 things she wanted us to do!  Our panel was mainly about practicalities but they had managed to fill it with advisors and analysts from non-profit organisations, so I felt distinctly uncomfortable talking about real world actions rather than being able to quote statistics.  It was also weird being in the BDC but not at Innovate and I realised just how crowded our event is compared to this other, quite prestigious, event.  I still was glad to get out, although I didn’t escape a posse of event organisers asking if I would speak on their panels!

I got back to Tracy Island and interacted with some of our BIS colleagues, grabbed lunch and a quick chat with FL before going into the second of my meetings caused by Georgian utterances at Manchester!  This was the £145m e-infrastructure executive panel.  As I wandered down I asked Graeme Reid if I was there for any real purpose or whether I was just a fig-leaf.  He swore blind I would be engaged!  He lied.  When I asked whether there would be any access for SMEs to these new facilities, I was met with howls of dissent from the assembled Councillors – this was about putting more money into the research base to help them to deliver more impact I was told!  I then sat through 90 minutes of the most arcane and self-serving bureaucracy I have ever heard – the only bright spark was Doug Kell, who actually seemed to see the whole farrago for what it was.  That said, once the £145m is spent, they want to develop a strategy for engaging business in their new system so wanted our input into what happens post 2015.  You couldn’t make it up!

I wandered back to my hotel to change into my DJ pondering whether we would naturally evolve to be like the research councils and resolved to leave before we do.  It’s depressing.

Arriving at the Science Museum to find Chris Crockford waiting outside to mug me improved my mood.  Inside I spoke to John Higgins and Tera Allas before FL turned up to brief me on his fagging by Martin Donnelly.  Then it was the usual round of people who actually “do” innovation and an “okay” meal.  The winners were (as usual) impressive (see – and the sadness that the winner of the “innovator of the decade” could not be there to accept his prize was palpable. This was now the third night in a row I had drunk too much champagne so I left with the carriages.

The next day – unlike many I had seen the evening before – I actually went to the Innovation Summit (see – and listened to the discussions – orchestrated with consummate skill by Tom Standage about what innovation tends to mean in the real world.  Perhaps the best way to judge would have been to follow the twitterstream but such is the ephemera of social media that they are “lost like tears in the rain” (see – at 3.04).  The first session included Hermes Chan, Mark Koska, Paul Buchheit and Greg Zehr.  Although Hermes and Mark gave told good stories about the human needs that underpinned their innovations, Tom Standage (who is an unreconstructed tech fanboi) spent most of his time talking to Buchheit and Zehr.  The story of g-mail, which started as a search function on a read-only copy of Buchheit’s own inbox and was plagued by people asking how it would ever make money is a good example of how the original idea needed to get out and be tested before it could evolve into something people actually wanted – and emphasised the point that disruptive innovation is often where one person sees the market in a way others cannot.  Zehr told the Kindle story as Bezos basically asking impossible questions until they ended up with the package that infests the tube these days.  Both Buchheit and Zehr were strong on demonstrators – as Buchheit said “you can dismiss an idea, but you can’t dismiss a demonstrator – you can only want to improve it!”

Next up was a panel with Stuart Parkin (see – interestingly had been sitting next to me in the session before singing songs from Broadway musicals quietly to himself – I suppose if giant magneto resistance is what you do, you need a solo hobby), Rinaldo Rinolfi (the man who developed the common rail injection system for diesel engines, see – and Vic Hayes (see – man who developed Wi-Fi because he worked for NCR and shops wanted to be able to remodel their premises without having to drill holes for those new-fangled cash registers that need to be connected to the central computer in the shop!).  They were all on the point that they were addressing challenges that had value in their solution.  Hayes made an interesting point that it was Steve Jobs who saw the potential of Wi-Fi beyond the original use and the uptake by Apple drove wider usage.  There was a discussion about the link between research and business, where Standage was after a separatist argument, but was refuted by all of the panellists.

After a break the next session included James Gosling (father of Java, see –, Victoria Hale (see – and Alpheus Bingham (Founder of Innocentive, see –  Standage once again allowed his inner geek to focus on Gosling who, although a fascinating man, only shows part of the picture, with both Hale and Bingham being as much about people as technology. Great quotes from this session included “setting lots of little challenges is more effective than setting a large one”, “ the current patent system is not fit for purpose in the modern information age” and “someone has actually patented the use of a stick as a toy for a dog” (for the last one see –

By now behind time, the final session was a bit more rushed.  It included Roland Haitz (the inventor of the LED, see –'s_Law), Stan Ovshinsky (for his work on Nickel Metal Hydride batteries, see –, and Chetan Maini (for the invention of the G-Wiz, see – for proof that he doesn’t get the link between design and technology!).  At this point someone pointed out that all the scientist winners were old, somewhat eccentric men and posed the question as to whether this was the reason younger people didn’t want to be scientist these days!

As the afternoon was concerned with “workshops” to encourage innovation, I decided that discretion was required and went to catch up with e-mail – only to discover that my BlackBerry had bricked yet again!  Instead I caught the train home and tried to catch up with the real world.

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