When they reach a mirage, people don't drink the sand because they're thirsty. They drink the sand because they don't know the difference between it and water.
05 May 2022 by David Bott
Another early Monday trip to London, so no “start the week” meeting. Instead, I dumped my bags at Tracy Island and made my way to the nerve centre of the most ruthlessly efficient organisation in Government. The reason was a meeting to attempt to get a number of commercial organisations to commit support and resource to the Open Data Institute. Actually, it turns out that an invitation to Number 10 event for a early Monday morning meeting really does get bums on seats. As we went around the room, I was moderately impressed by the range and seniority of the people assembled. I was also remembering Tim Kelsey’s point that Number 10 goes to the same group over and over again and that one day they won’t open their cheque books! The grand orchestrator, Tim Kelsey, had been delayed by a fallen tree across his drive (in Somerset) so we got a poorly briefed Rohan Silva to open the meeting. All bluster and promises, Ro did what he always does and read the room, then delivered what he thought they wanted to hear. He did manage to remember that we were involved and christened us “the rather peculiar garage that is the Governments Technology Strategy Board” – I think in reference to the famed start of many Silicon valley companies in their parents garages! Nigel’s imaginary friend, Tim Berners-Lee actually came to this meeting and made one of the most confused and confusing introductions I have ever heard, but Nigel had notes (possibly the shadowy hand of Tim Organ again?) and nailed a tight introduction and the offer and ask on the table (This is a reversal of normal roles apparently!). As we went around the table for comments, there was a tsunami of support offered – resources, secondments, projects and so on. It was amazing!
We agreed to hold a meeting of the main protagonists afterwards to discuss the exchange over the proposal the week before. I made the point that Nigel had been too paranoid and that the conditions imposed by the assessors were to make the proposal stronger and then explained how Nigel had partially already answered some of them and what they needed to do next to move on. Once again, Tim Organ seemed to be the one who took notes! TBL was more concerned about international impact and the Cabinet Office had an eye to keeping their promises.
We left the dining room a happy and aligned team and there was the usual round of photo taking at the front door. This picture below shows the 3 directors of the new Open Data Institute!
Back to Tracy Island with the Queen of Open Data to discuss progress and next steps, then on to a meeting with our very own nurse to discuss how she thought the Assisted Living Innovation Platform is going. The answer is apparently very well, which means we are keeping the human aspects of the programme balanced with the technological ones!
The final formal meeting of the day was to interview someone for High Value Manufacturing. As with many recent candidates, we are finding that the “market value” of good people has gone up faster in the outside world than it has inside our organisation and so offering the going internal rate gets perilously close to insulting the candidates!
Tuesday started with a much-delayed catch-up with the Foresight group in GO-Science. They are engaged in a major project on manufacturing that we are well plugged into (via Malcolm and Mike Gregory) but it did no harm for Manufacturing Man to run through where we are to their leadership team.
After a more general discussion we got down to a detailed discussion on Catapults and the Future Cities one in particular. Sustainability Man had crocked himself at the weekend so he sent his young padawan and Finger Man was also in attendance, so the discussion ranged far and wide but was never ill-informed or boring.
I then met the people from Frost and Sullivan to get final details of the Growth, Innovation and Leadership Meeting in London next week (see – http://www.gilcommunity.com/events/europe/agenda/) and find out what I have to do. Nice people!
Then it was a meeting with UKTI to discuss the Missions – with the kick-off planning for the Boston Future Health Mission this Fall. UKTI have been confusing us because they have a more normal Trade Mission in the same general subject area and to the same place planned for about the same time, so we went through the same argument about not wanting to combine them and confuse the very different goals. After Healthcare Man had made the logical arguments and got nowhere, I pointed out that I wasn’t going to run the joint one at the same time. That seemed to stop the discussion – for now! It also emerged that they might not run theirs at all, so I got confused. From my point of view, Healthcare Man was deputed to decide a date and then we would make it all happen. Bob asked me some questions about the big event this October, and I sensed some concern about progress?
On the way home, my throat started getting raspy and felt ill – I should stop talking to people at work with children who participate in germ exchange programmes!
Wednesday I made it down to Swindon despite feeling a little coldy but it was worth it. First up was a meeting with Adrian Atkinson and Virginia Minaee from Human Factors International (see – http://www.hfi.com/) who are running a team development programme for the Heads of Innovation Programmes in a couple of weeks time. We have all been probed psychologically and discussed (as a team) how we could understand and benefit from sharing the insight into our individual neuroses for the benefit of the organisation (I think that’s what we are doing, but could have got it wrong!). Expect great things from us after May 15th!
Then I joined FL to meet with Ruth McKernan and Annette Doherty of Pfizer. We were anticipating a selling job on Discovery Park (otherwise known as the old Pfizer site at Sandwich) but we actually got some very interesting ideas. Their first question was about setting up a stem cell bank. There is going to be a European competition later in the year and they were asking how we could position the UK to grab this to complement our other activities in Cell Therapies. We agreed to run a “grand challenge” competition fairly quickly to bring together interested UK parties so that they were able to put in a very strong bid to the European competition. That means we will have to launch very soon, hold a consortium building workshop before the summer and award in September. Since we would get enormous (financial) leverage and the European centre if we succeed and would get a UK centre if we fail, there is no real downside.
Next on their ask list was activity on sustainable manufacturing in the pharmaceutical industry. Bizarrely, I knew something about that from my time in the Crystal Faraday Partnership in the late 90s – when the wastage rates in the pharma industry (someone won a prize for only having 1400% waste) gobsmacked those of us from the chemistry community! Apparently, there is a thriving flow reactor community in Discovery Park and they were looking for support. I pointed out that our soon to be published High Value Manufacturing Strategy would almost certainly have this as a focus. It was then that they unveiled their “embarrassing TSB” e-mail. One of the companies had applied to the Smart call, and had the usual confusing feedback, and then been told by one of us that they couldn’t get funding unless they had been in operation for more than a year. We moan about assessors not understanding what we do, but when our own employees get it wrong and turn off aspiring companies I do wonder whether we haven’t got a real problem! Our hour with them ran over – to 2 hours – so we had no time to discuss the next meeting – the bilateral with the EPSRC.
After feedback from the mano-a-mano meeting between the 2 CEOs we dived into the thorny issue of the next phase of Innovation and Knowledge Centres (IKCs). The first ones were set up by the EPSRC on its own. The second tranche were set up in collaboration with us and the BBSRC. No-one is really sure what constitutes success – because we all through different ones were successful – so designing a better mousetrap becomes problematic. The advent of Catapults also confuses the issue because many want a defined relationship between IKCs and Catapults. I hope we agreed that IKCs could define an area for a future Catapult but don’t simply grow into being one! Development Man showed a large sheet of brown paper with not much on it as the output of the joint discussion that morning, so I am not sure we have an answer yet either! I think we also pressed hard that the subject areas would be decided by us (Research Councils and Technology Strategy Board) but I think they reserved the option of open calls as well. I think we ought to sit those ones out! Next up for discussion was the “aligned funding” mirage. When we had hard targets, everyone bent the definitions (money actually put into shared competitions was counted alongside independent competitions with similar titles and suchlike) and we declared ourselves successful. It always fascinates me that when the RCUK guys start talking about alignment, no-one ever mentions the Integrated Delivery Programme in Low Carbon Vehicles, where we are agreed a common roadmap and then call the different timescale of required development separately but in concert. Perhaps we don’t actually understand what we are doing? The announcement of Accelerating Impact Accounts sounds interesting – in that the EPSRC are going to give more money to those who already get money so that they can put more effort into commercialising their research. Obviously EPSRC do not give much credence to the philosophy of setting a course and keeping to it but believe that constant change spurs academics to greater effort?
The evening saw us decamp to Alexander House and then the EMT catch a minibus to a gastro pub for a discussion of some pressing issues – and a last minute check that we were all in alignment for the following day.
The Away Day is an annual event that is still growing. It now has an established front end – with FL giving his views of the previous year – but we have not settled down into a format for the rest of the day. As with last year, we based it on the Delivery Plan, but then decided not to actually explain it – I would have had 15 minutes to explain what is – at 46 pages – over half the document. Instead I tried out some “basic prejudices” because we seem to be adding a very large number of people without actually using the “courageous networking” that once seemed to be a clever way of immersing people in what we do and why we do it. I am not sure what we presented demonstrated a single dynamic EMT – but at least we tried this time! After lunch we played back the staff survey and asked people what they thought. The fact that around 40 people in the room thought they had not been treated fairly by others was a recurrent theme on the feedback and the lack of an apparent training and development programme got air time, but no-one mentioned that fact that only about half the organisation think that the EMT is up to the job – they must be all too polite! Until we learn to be honest we are going to miss the big ticket items and not achieve what an amazing group of individuals is capable of. By the end of the day, my cold had taken a firm grip on my chest as well as my sinuses, so I slunk off home.
The following morning didn’t see me any more healthy, but needs must….so I was on the early train to London again for some intense Cell Therapy Catapult meetings. First up was a discussion about location in the bowels of Tracy Island. Internally, we have all agreed where we want to be (having discovered that the criteria used to get us inside the M25 was capable of further granularity!) but we still need to negotiate a good deal. We discussed our approach and agreed to let the landowners stew for a bit, but have a series of responses ready for different responses from them early next week.
Then it was the Cell Therapy Catapult Interim Advisory Group 3rd meeting. We now have our CEO (see – http://www.innovateuk.org/content/news/technology-strategy-board-appoints-cell-therapy-ca.ashx), so Healthcare Man and I started to take a back seat and let him take the strain. We discussed the vision and its communication – we are increasingly seeing disappointment with our efforts to date and the request for more than just in time delivery of business cards! Then we got onto the Supervisory Board. I think we agreed to put the Chairs job description on the website, tap a few heavy hitters on the shoulder and run an interview process fairly sharply to get the Chairman on board and then let him/her and Keith appoint the rest of the Board.
I then went upstairs in Tracy Island and sat with the Transport Catapult apprentice pointing out all the things I didn’t think worked about their current Registration of Interest document. What was mildly depressing for me was his belief that some of the more execrable manglings of the English language were boilerplate and had to be that way. Once he had understood the goals of the document and the importance of clarity, he started motoring (apt metaphor, I think!) and verbally produced the sort of explanation I think we need. By the time I caught the train home, I was completely knackered and have slept for most of the weekend so far. So much for work-life balance!