If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there!
31 March 2022 by David Bott
My cold persisted through the weekend (that’s to see if you were still paying attention at the end of the last blog) and I was well dosed with Night Nurse on Sunday night (this does not constitute an endorsement of this particular brand, it’s just that cold medicines stratify too and this one works for me!) and so I was feeling woozy enough on Monday morning not to risk driving until later. This resulted in the irony of getting a text from Strategy Man complaining that I hadn’t made it to the “start the week” meeting.
Instead I made it down in time to sit in with Healthcare Man and his Catapult apprentice and 66% of the EMT to hear their first pass at the back-story of the Cell Therapy Catapult. Because we are being driven by external timescales, we had developed the owners’ manual for the Catapult before we had set down the contents of the brochure that would have made us buy it in the first place, so we were confusing new readers. Perhaps it was because my brain was full of snot, but I don’t think that this meeting helped! We seem to have lost our communications mojo at the moment and need to get it back quickly before we leave even more false leads abound the landscape.
I then took part in a Funders Panel for our first Rail competition. We had a very nice man from the RSSB (Rail Safety and Standards Board) (with his cheque book!) there and looked at the entries. Everyone else was very happy with the proposals and had offered more money, but the bottom 4-5 had all scored below 70, which is rapidly becoming our minimum qualifying score, so we decided not to add any more of our money and explained to the nice man why. He took it in good part and understood that whilst he looked after only railway stuff, we looked after a wider remit and therefore had to have general standards.
I fitted in a quick PDR with Manufacturing Man before sloping off early to snuffle and feel sorry for myself.
The next day it was my other job in the morning, where we continued the task of working out what would make money and what was just “interesting” – and had a first look a potential new CEO (I have to report that recruiting in the real world is a difficult as in our public service cocoon, and that price is not the issue it always appears to be – it’s the quality!)
Then it was up to Sheffield by train (arriving on a glorious summer evening for South Yorkshire!) and a dinner with a couple of PVCs to understand where the university scene is at the moment. Their abiding issue is student numbers, but we also talked about the attractions and barriers to binding any university together into an integrated knowledge hub. The problem is that they have mostly evolved into a loose federation of departments run by robber barons!
The next day required a taxi out to Catcliffe and the Nuclear AMRC for the Nuclear Collaboration Nation. For those who have not been paying attention for the last 2 years, the Technology Group developed the idea of feasibility studies (£25k for 75% of the project, originally paid under de minimis rules, to enable companies or consortia to think about something that wasn’t mainstream to their activities or test their wacky idea out with!) and then decided that everyone had to come back and explain what they had learned (in a Collaboration Nation event). The first of these (actually the first pair) were held on Congress House just before Easter in 2010 and caused most of us to have full memory buffers for the holiday, having listened to about 160 interesting ideas – with evidence. For the record, it was also the first time we really saw how badly some good ideas got pitched!
Anyway, we have used the idea several times since then and this was on behalf of the nuclear industry. Before I go on, it is worth noting that we do realise that no-one in the UK builds nuclear reactors. What we do know, however, is that if we build reactors, then we will need to supply components and systems, that those reactors will need to be monitored and maintained and that dismantling a nuclear reactor requires specialist skills and equipment – and that all of these constitute a growing global market. So, there were about 220 people in the “large shed, slowly filling up with equipment” that is the Nuclear AMRC. We listened to opening remarks from Philip Sharman from the EGS Steering Group, our own Energy Jedi and Paul Howarth of the National Nuclear Laboratory. Then it was two groups of four 8-minute explanations of what they had done (see – http://www.innovateuk.org/_assets/pdf/case%20studies/nuclearfeasibilitystudies.pdf for booklet of all projects). After lunch, we got a very bullish talk from EDF about their intentions to build in the UK (which contrasted with the news the next day that others had withdrawn because there was no clarity in government intentions – http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/5a9f344e-798b-11e1-8fad-00144feab49a.html#axzz1qgV7lAPE) then it was 2 groups of 6 shorter pitches from the remaining projects. Philip decided we need a Q&A session and got some interesting views – Rob Buckingham (of OC Robotics and known to us) suggested that we need more money and that it should be taken from the research councils because they claimed to know everything, ignored SMEs, and often duplicated work. That required some defusing! The final piece of the day was for me to announce our next nuclear competition, partly follow CR&D from these feasibility studies, partly new feasibility studies (see – http://www.innovateuk.org/_assets/comp_nuclear_crd_final.pdf for these two bits) and partly a linked KTP scheme (see – http://www.innovateuk.org/_assets/comp_nuclear_ktp_final.pdf for this bit). What is nice is that we have co-funding from the Nuclear Decommissioning Agency, the Department for Energy and Climate Change and the EPSRC that more than doubles our money!
The train ride to Daresbury that evening (through the lower end of the Pennines on a another glorious evening) gave me a chance to reflect that we have quite innovative supply chains in many areas but with no clear market drivers, it is difficult to extract the maximum value for the UK! I arrived at the hotel to find John Brown just checking in so we added together all the people we thought would be there and booked a table – it turned out to be John and Andrew (therefore the Audit Committee) and Strategy Man and Board Boy. Dinner consisted of a lot of discussion about the underspend and how we got there. Cyrus joined us late on and rapidly caught up with the food and the discussion!
The next morning was Day 1 of the Governing Board meeting, but it didn’t start until 11, so I got in a quick interview on the nuclear collaboration (see – http://www.themanufacturer.com/articles/applications-soon-to-open-for-15m-in-civil-nuclear-funding/ for the resulting article). The CEO’s report went well and over lunch we got a tour of the Daresbury site and some shameless plugging by the new CEO of the STFC, whose personal style seems to provide continuity with the last lot. It is interesting to note that the people who actually do the work didn’t show us around, but a layer of management above them, who (at one point) got the story wrong. I wonder if we do that?
After lunch I ran through a presentation built to contain a primer on Innovation Platforms, a progress report on the Low Carbon Vehicles one and a request to extend its timescale. No-one dared speak against it, but such is the nature of the Governing Board, they couldn’t quite allow themselves to say “yes” so asked for a more detailed breakdown of the goals and potential metrics for the next phase before formally extending what has possibly been our most successful activity – based on several parameters. I was followed by Strategy Man, who pointed out that an early draft of the Delivery Plan had been attached to the Board papers and only 3 people had responded and then went through some numerical analysis of the situation. There was a bizarre discussion about whether we needed to change the strategy we agreed with them last January and published in May, but FL beat them off – with the exception of one Board member who persists in the belief that if they didn’t agree to it, then there had been no decision!
The final section of the afternoon saw FL speaking to a bizarre set of slides that to my eyes contained too much information, inconsistent messages, different numbers from the ones Strategy Man had included in the Delivery Plan presentation and failed to define what its purpose was – other than to “see how things were”. It is a tribute to the personal charm of FL that a presentation that would have got any of the rest of us hung, drawn and quartered was hailed as triumph. I wish we could put that skill in bottles!!
The Executive were expelled from the next session, where the Board are looking at how they work, so we went back to the hotel and tried (in vain in my case) to catch up with e-mails. All too soon it was time for an extended dinner with the Governing Board and many of our research councils guests from the next day. I ended up in a long conversation with Anne Glover about the state of the UK venture capital community, where although many funds are delivering their promised returns, the sources of money have dried up.
Friday started with an inevitably over-running session to approve the Satellite Applications Catapult – whoever thought we could have that discussion in 30 minutes? Then it was on to the investigation of our interaction with the research base. It started a rather odd few words from Steve Caddick (speaking bizarrely for the Wilson Review, although UCL poked through occasionally!) who seemed to be channelling Uriah Heep (the Dickensian character, not the 70s prog rock band). Then David Sweeney challenged the basic premise of the discussion by pointing out that universities were actually quite successful at making money for the UK but as educational establishments not sources of spin-outs! His challenge was to an extent negated by Paul Hagan from the Scottish Funding agency who gave a more “normal” view of the relationship between the organisations in the room. Then it was Keith Burnett, who stirred things up a bit (I have to declare an interest in that I am on Council of Sheffield University and Keith and I joke about who works for whom!). He as followed by Keith Robson of SetSquared and I honestly cannot remember what he said! Then we heard about things we had done jointly – Dave Mullins of WMG and a video of Jerry Hardcastle (recorded at Geneva after he and Transport Man had been drinking I assume from the fulsome praise we got!). That led into a weird session, which started with an anodyne introduction from Rick Rylance (as CEO of RCUK), and where the CEO of STFC talked about how successful our relations over Space had been and how it would continue through the link between ISIC and the Satellite Applications Catapult, with a passing reference to the Low Carbon Vehicles Innovation Platform and some other stuff, before the CEO of EPSRC talked about how we had the wrong timescales, didn’t provide seamless support for their projects and generally weren’t joined up enough. I have to admit I didn’t recognise the details of any of the examples used! The discussion was similarly stochastic, with some people new to their jobs making sweeping points from a narrow perspective. Talking to our main contacts afterwards, it appears that RCUK itself has difficulty joining up, so it is no surprise that they cannot align with us. On specific projects, there can be real success, but looking for a “one size fits all” linkage between us and the research councils feels futile! What was interesting was hearing a vice-chancellors views of the intent and potential success of the discussion.
After lunch, which I thankfully missed because Declan and I had work to do on the Biomedical Catalyst, the Board considered the input and worked themselves into a lather over what extra they could do to help the research council – despite the fact that they had told us only the day before to not over-commit because of resource limitations. Attention span of a goldfish, obviously!
We finished 2 hours early because the chairman had to catch a plane (some things never change) and all dragged south on trains! I am truly not sure what we accomplished other than chewing up time!