Nothing travels faster than light – with the possible exception of bad news
12 May 2022 by David Bott
Ah, the glory of bank holiday weekends, when we get an extra day to lie in. Since I was shaking off the remains of last weeks cold, this was especially pleasant, and so I was raring to go for the Tuesday morning and the “start the week” meeting. It was a exclusive gathering and the business was dispatched by the ever efficient Cyrus. Then it was a Catapult meeting, where we discussed the fact that the subset of the Governing Board that is the Scoping Advisory Group has now factionalised with one member deciding that what we thought we had agreed with the other 3 is not an approved process and has too much risk. Sustainability Man and Transport Man have explained what they are doing and why, but he seems intransigent and is effectively slowing the next stage up. FL has agreed to speak to him, but at the time of the meeting we had not had feedback, so we were not sure what to do next. That inevitably led to a discussion about what else we could do and exposed the continuing frustration at Communications – with various people saying there was not an agreed slide-set, format for business cards and letterheads and so on. Maarten told us that a Communications Strategy for Catapults (there was a some confusion about the overall Communication Strategy the EMT has been expecting for some time and the specific Catapult Communications Strategy) was with management for approval, so everyone got more depressed! The meeting ran on and on, so I had little time before my meeting with Grant Peggie the new Head of Strategic Partnerships, who has joined us from BIS (where I knew him quite well!). He is still trying to work out the dimensions of his new role and why some allocations of responsibility seem to be uncorrelated. He is new!
Then it was a Funders Panel for the Technology “Big Projects” competition. This is the complement to the Technology Feasibility Studies, where we give 80 companies £25k a piece and get them to think about and partially develop new ideas. After they have presented (or do I mean tested) in a Collaboration Nation, they often want to progress into a bigger project and this competition is designed to help them. It a precursor to the idea that we should help businesses along the whole journey and not just intermittently invest money is apparently random areas in an uncorrelated way – which is what the DTI used to do, and what our strategy specifically says we won’t do. The Technologists take this all very seriously and are worried that some companies submit a suite of proposals hoping one of them will get supported – then we have to go and ask them whether they have enough resource to progress them all and take some away. We think there should be a 1 or 2 proposal limit in future competitions of this sort aimed at SMEs.
Moving seamlessly from one meeting to another is a Monday requirement, so I joined the Governing Board Briefing Meeting not long after the last one finished. Although FL was not present, he had talked to Mr Smith and then talked to Lesley who had sent a note to Guy. That was the cause of the sudden new action on me to re-present the LCV Paper to the Governing Board for approval. Last time I had talked to FL, he was of the opinion that although they had debated the paper at the last meeting, they recognised that it was doing well and so would not want to revisit it. Wrong! The only good news is that the meeting is at the new Cisco Olympic House – see http://www.ciscolondon2012.co.uk/learn/cisco-house.
My next formal meeting was a catch-up with Strategy Man’s new process guru. He has extracted what might be Critical Success Factors from the last strategy document, but I worry that they don’t seem to capture what I signed up to do, so I suggested he found out how we derive area specific strategies, using Development Man’s inestimable justification for the Stratified Medicine Innovation Platform as one example, Sustainability Man’s evolving understanding of buildings and infrastructure (where we had to do things to start, but are now discovering things we could never have found out before we started) and the most successful thing we’ve ever done (according to FL) the Low Carbon Vehicles Innovation Platform. I was going to join the Competitions Progress Meeting but got to the room late and there was no-one there (I later discovered they changed rooms because the previous meeting was over-running, but assumed they had abandoned the meeting!)
Tuesday was a London day so I made my way to Tracy Island, pausing to ponder why there were so many police and weirdoes dressed up as al manner of semi-constitutional figures. The first appointment of the day was an interview for a Lead Technologist to work on Synthetic Biology. The candidate explained their past work clearly and simply but Development Man was disappointed they hadn’t done more specific preparation on synthetic biology, but they did say when they didn’t no the answer, so will probably make a good addition to the team.
Then it was a chance to be FL at the Automotive Council. This was the one labelled “informal” which means the Minister doesn’t attend and we do lots of real work. There was a fair amount about Mobility – because they had held a meeting a few weeks ago where Vince had said vaguely sensible things and everyone was in thrall to him. They are still in the “it’s an important area, we must do something” mode, so I became proud that the Catapult team have moved onto the “what are the barriers, what specifically can we do to move things forward” phase. Jerry Hardcastle wasn’t there but sent a series of well crafted presentations that capture the process they use in the Technology area – they are effectively now taking the roadmap capability review action plan process down to the next level of granularity. There was a sticky point when they tried to explain their abortive plan for a battery pilot line (apply to IDP7 and funnel some HVM Catapult money) and how it went wrong. When I pointed out that their proposal was way below the quality line and that trying to sneak big ticket, strategic items through us without proper discussion was dumb, everyone outside the BIS Automotive Unit looked thoughtful – and RPJ had a big grin on his face!
By contrast the Finance activity seems to have been a complete wash-out. The presentation (from Dave Allen of JLR) was waffly and meandering. RPJ had a go at them and suggested we need more commitment! They do seem to confuse working capital with money for innovation.
They were also really suspicious of the Advanced Manufacturing Supply Chain Initiative – saying that the organisers don’t understand the needs of industry!
I dropped my stuff off at the hotel and made a damp trip to St Pauls for the second half of the Frost & Sullivan Growth, Innovation and Leadership meeting (see – http://www.gilcommunity.com/events/europe/agenda/). Development Man was there (apparently he has been before) and confirmed my suspicion that it was a combination of gee-whizz examples and peddling of Frost & Sullivan services. The first 2 presentations confirmed the first half – a woman who was using people working at home to drive the efficiency of a call centre (see – http://www.arise.com/) and a man from Merck (emphasising that these were his thoughts and did not represent his employer!) talking about the challenges facing the pharmaceutical industry (Doh!) and then the following workshop reinforced the second. It wasn’t actually badly directed – using word models to test the desirability and achievability of markets and product ideas, but it was so wrapped up in jargon and American earnestness, I found myself feeling queasy!
The awards bit passed quickly and without incident – Martha Lane Fox had elected to stay at home and sent a video acceptance speech, but I did mine live. At least it meant I didn’t have to introduce myself for the rest of the day! The networking over drinks exposed a number of people from various bits of my past and present. I met Steve Shor, who was winning a lifetime achievement award for his work on the treatment of leukaemia. Since he had started after the loss of a son, it seemed a poor substitute! I ended up sitting next to a journalist who seemed to be associated with the Transport KTN!
Thursday was a London day and Jools had allocated me a lie-in, but FL thought that if he was on holiday and working, I could get up and talk to him – so I did! It’s another one of those regular “if you had more money, what would you do with it conversations”. Sometimes, they pay off, but mostly they don’t. I look at it as preparation work for next years Delivery Plan.
Then it was up to Shoreditch to visit Makieworld (see – http://www.makielab.com/). We have known them for some time, but they were part of the Tech City LaunchPad, and were first to get their private matching funds – which meant they bore the brunt of us getting our act together on more effective support for SMEs. Early stage, pre revenue companies (of the type we are expressing a desire to support) have difficulty finding the matching funding (hence the LaunchPad idea of awarding them the £100k subject to then subsequently getting the private money), often have a poor trading record (so tend to raise flags at out “financial checks” phase), have no working capital (so that our standard procedure of paying quarterly in arrears gives them a real headache) and generally cope badly with bureaucracy and formal project management. We dropped the first ball, when we didn’t keep tabs on the winners for the first 3 months (because we were in old skool mode), then we didn’t understand their questions (because we were used to larger, more experienced companies) and then we ignored them because they were difficult. Eventually, the problem rose to Director level and Cyrus played a blinder and sorted out monthly payments, and we both talked to the founders to understand what we had failed to do so to date! I went up to further reinforce our support and because they’re an interesting company. I couldn’t have timed my visit better. After the obligatory coffee, they were descended on by Fi Glover (see – http://www.figlover.co.uk/about-fi-glover) who is making a programme either about innovation or female innovators and had already interviewed Alice Taylor (see –http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alice_Taylor and http://www.makielab.com/team/). I was introduced as being “from the TSB”, which led to an initially perplexing conversation about banks until we told Fi about the UK’s Innovation Agency. She expressed interest, but was on a tight schedule (is that a journalist put-down?). After this small hiatus, I talked to Jo Roach (see – http://www.makielab.com/team/) and, after expressing some disappointment at our early interactions with them they told me where Makie are – and the noises are all good. They have used our money to leverage equity funding, they are about to launch their first products (on May 15th if all goes well) and they are establishing their supply chain. I played with their beta website (coaching from Sulka Haro, see – http://angel.co/sulka). My current plan is to buy one of the first dolls for our display cabinet – so will have to take time out next Tuesday to order just the right one (there is one with no hair that looks like someone I know!). I also followed up on their interest in colouring additive layer manufactured objects (they had talked to Robin and John (I think) but still need a cost effective solutions to make these little darlings..
I had seriously over-run my time with them and was too late to make it to the ERA Foundation (see – http://www.erafoundation.org/) lunch, but thought I might not be missed in the 100 or more great and good that go – but no, David Clark is already chasing me!
Instead I grabbed a quick snack and headed over to Mayfair to meet Dave Stone! Dave (tweeting as @davestone) had been a little bit critical of our website (“@innovate_uk your website is terrible. That is all.”) at the beginning of April (picked up via the excellent Vocus service used by Comms). I had contacted him to ask what specifically was wrong and been sent a lot of Direct Messages – some of which I actually understood but many of which I didn’t. Eventually, he decided that I didn’t know what I was talking about and offered to show me over a coffee. This was it! He has a number of comments about different parts of our web presence and is amazed how uncorrelated they are! Our main website is apparently an out-of-date mess in coding terms. He suggests we organise all our different forms of data in different buckets with a standard API (Application Programming Interface – see – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Application_programming_interface for the beginners guide) that enables people to search the datasets. This could lead to a cottage industry (or its cyber equivalent) of people writing apps that enable users to search on things like “I’m a coder interested in healthcare, tell me when future competitions are likely in my area and who has been successful in TSB competitions in this area in the past?” Apparently, the current structure is too difficult to navigate simply (and, as he kept telling me, really out-of-date!). The next set of comments was on the competition process. Once again, the old skool and broken theme came through. He has tried to enter a couple of times, but the combination of broken macros and a call centre that doesn’t understand the process has left him frustrated and angry. There was also a point about the types of pdfs we use that whizzed right by me, but sounded like it might be important from other things I have heard about our inability to extract data from the entry forms. On _connect, he was interested in our attempt to use more up to date technology, but thought we should have architected it better (I think that’s the polite version, anyway)
My next meeting was also a bit remedial. Some time ago, I had talked to the Royal Institution about their plans for an Internet TV channel. FL and I had agreed to do something, but Communications Man had binned the idea on lack of resource and low priority grounds. They went ahead without us, see – http://www.richannel.org/. Mr Smith had been in (wearing his Cisco hat) but the Royal Institution had pressed him on our involvement. I had therefore agreed with FL and him that I would go in, be enthusiastic, recover our reputation and make something happen, using either internal or external resource! Since we have also been trying to get the whole “success stories” activity going, this felt like a good opportunity to combine streams – and undertook to organise a workshop with the more creative (and available) members of the Technologist cohort before the end of June, identify and prioritise the top 5 success stories and get them made into videos and on the RI Channel by Christmas!
By now the heavens were well and truly open and the umbrella I had borrowed from the hotel allowed me to walk back to the hotel without getting too wet. I dealt with a few e-mails before making my way down to the Death Star for the opening dinner for the resurrection of the Imperial Court – a wide selection of “stakeholders” that Imperial are trying to get more on their side. I had lots of interesting chats with people who I didn’t know, before sitting down to dinner next to Professor Donal Bradley (I think I sponsored his first post-doc) and catching up with all our old friends from conducting polymers days. I also managed to talk to David Philips (soon to be ex-RSC President) and Julia Higgins (ex-Imperial and many other things!).
Friday saw an early train back to Warwick Parkway and our quarterly Heads of offsite. We started off trying to work out what was and wasn’t on the go with Catapults at the moment. The confusion over who uses which process got some airtime, and then we discussed (this is code for I ranted again) simplicity of concept and language! There is also some frustration that HR is overwhelmed dealing with the fall-out of InterimGate at the same time as trying to recruit new people into the new Catapults and things are taking way too long! A short section on the Delivery Plan – and how it ought to play into the Competitions Planning Meeting (it was here that I discovered they’d swapped rooms on Tuesday afternoon and I had missed the meeting because I wasn’t that observant!). This led inexorably into a discussion of the Manpower Plan for Innovation Programmes, which dropped out of the Delivery Plan and had now been approved by FL. Most were happy, but the non-availability of short-term contract staff is giving us a problem in Development and with the Catapult “enforcers”. We then talked about the work Ian Stansbury is carrying out, and how we could help him define what works and what doesn’t. This led into a heated debate about our internal culture and how it is affecting our external reputation. Because the Technologists are out and about with companies, they get the sharp end of their feelings about how we are (allegedly) becoming more bureaucratic. Stories of how our competitions systems don’t work that well and the support we then provide being inadequate are growing, there is growing criticism of how we treat companies at our Briefing Meetings, how we still take months to approve the start of work (when we know from the Smart experiment that we can get it done in a couple of week if we try), spend too much time having arguments with larger companies about overhead rates (that we used to pay without question) and how we are giving Monitoring Officers a hard time because they aren’t reporting project performance fast enough. It was suggested that we are behaving like we are more scared of auditors criticising our system for not catching the few per cent of miscreants and saddling the vast majority of the business we are supposed to be supporting with much more work that we did before – and getting compared unfavourably with other funding agencies – even European ones. A lot of this is second hand and we know that it is a sport to make up stories about government agencies, but from personal experience, what I was being told rings true and so I think we have a real problem with our reputation at the moment. We then got on to discussing the internal competitions process, where the new system – where we separate out the strategic intent of the competition and approve that with a PAF from the process of “filling in the details” using the PID – and was told that it seems to have got caught up with people not knowing about the new process and applying the rules of the old one (which apparently feels like approval at every stage for everything) and so not actually achieving anything. It is no wonder that the scores for “will the Directors do anything different as a result of the staff survey?” question got lower scores in Innovation Programmes than anywhere else – because we have seen no change from last years “improvement projects”!
In other areas, we are still not sure what our international engagement should be – we get lots of invitations both directly and as FL cast-offs but without a strategy or priority method, we are not sure how much time to give up from the day job to make it happen! We are also getting worried that we are already 2 months behind where we were last year on Innovate and are not sure what date to put in our diaries and what preparation we will have to do between now and then (whenever it is!).
All in all, the final appointment of the day – to have my teeth scraped by an ex-CIA waterboarder seemed tame.