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On Plumbing the Depths of UK Innovation - Barrie Blake-Coleman

Those of us on the Inventricity Website watched with growing disappointment the debate within the UK Parliamentary Select Committee on the Voice of the Future, as the various worthies, defending the need for stimulating the current UK innovation policy, were confronted by a panel who clearly had very little perception of what innovation was and what really ails UK innovation.

This was obvious from the less than searching, if not facile, questions that were put to the various witnesses asked to appear before the panel. Much was made of the current integration of the enterprise sectors, the university and development funds - not to mention the technical and advisory facilities supposed to assist innovative projects.

What we learned was the setting up of the Technology Strategy Board, the creation of Catapult centres and the intention to set up Fraunhofer centres (identical to the German model) in innovation support. However, for those excited by these revelations there was not only an increasing sense of deja vu as the committee asked it's inane questions, but a mounting sense of frustration and disappointment.

To those a little more perceptive it was clear that HMG's new and exciting innovation initiative is the same pie, with the same ingredients and the same taste as yesterdays pie. In short, all the ingredients that were in yesterdays pie are the same as today's. So, if you are an inventor, with a brilliant idea, you can effectively forget the Catapults because they are tasked with being: 'A physical centre where the very best of the UK'S businesses, scientists and engineers work side by side on late stage research and development - transforming 'high potential' ideas into new products and services to generate economic growth'.

The author trusts that the reader notices the term 'late stage research and development' which in no way obscures the fact that the Catapults are out to rapidly capitalise on projects virtually mature and close to commercialisation. We should not be surprised by this, after all, government is like all the rest in the finance sector, they want a quick return on their investment to demonstrate to their critics that they are not wasting taxpayers money. Moreover, the more the project has developed, the less resource and funding they are likely to have to invest to complete a commercial development. As it stands, the current funding model is one-third public money, one-third from business and one-third from collaborative work – jointly funded by the public and private sectors, such as European Union projects.

We have little in the way of a direct pathway whereby a lone inventor or micro-firm can get all the expert support necessary to optimise their chances of seeing an excellent idea turned into a winning product. If you live outside the expertise of your local University or lack the ability to convince a distant Catapult (should you be in the right category - see below) chances are you will not pursue your idea, and even if you do , like it or not, you will be so far from a technical or innovation centre it entirely excludes and removes the possibility of support.

So, what happens if you are at the threshold of an original idea, technically within reach and commercially potent, or you are a small or micro SME, struggling to get to prototype stage with very limited resource? Well, you certainly won't get catapulted towards the help you need by the Catapult centres.

What ails UK innovation is the lack of an integrated and co-ordinated innovation strategy intended to stimulate creative, inspirational and inventive concepts. This we were told had now been addressed by HMG's Technology Strategy Board in setting up of various 'Catapult' centres - but sadly only for well defined innovation sectors:-

1) SME's.

2) Large Businesses.

3) HMG (to deliver Innovation)

4) University/Business Collaboration.

Strange this is, because even the those lacking in insight will realise that (3) is tantamount to stating a remit, and not an innovation sector per se while (2) might be seen as offering a service unlikely to be needed. (4) is already an ongoing process with most Universities having set up research commercialisation and industrial collaboration agencies and departments. Only (1) has any real value and as we have seen, only where the SME is close to a final outcome of their product development plan.

If you appeal to a UK university, be prepared for disappointment. Contrary to much public belief, it's not the Universities who are the instigators of innovative commercial products - they don't see it as their remit - pure and applied research is their forte, but not new product development.

The fact is the facilities provided by any one university are seldom so arranged that they can provide the resource for all the surrounding industrial and business needs. Spare capacity is limited and most of the Faculties likely to be called on for help from micro -firms, lone inventors or SME's are stretched in an attempt to commit time and resource to external interests. And though we hesitate to say it, even the reportedly hectic, and apparently dynamic activity, surrounding University creative and inventive support is in fact, as Witty says, 'slow moving and bureaucratic'.

The truth is that only so many projects can be handled by any given institution and invariably it also happens that local needs for expertise and facilities cannot be provided because the institution has not, or no longer has, the appropriate departments or staff (how many physics or engineering departments do we have left?).

The constant and unyielding dependence, by the establishment, on the Universities to become the centre for all UK innovation and advanced technological support is specious and myopic.

To presume that all the Universities currently falling over themselves to gain funding for innovation support through the Catapults will actually make a reasonable return on investment is doubtful. The setting up of incubators and 'hi tech' facilities will mean that they will be tempted to take on even the most commercially unpromising project so as to 'make up the numbers'.

Who will be assessing the likely candidates, and what criteria will be applied when everyone is shouting for more innovation?

Highly talented and creative micro-firms, SME's and inventors invariably need resource to advance their technology and NPD from proof of concept through to pre-production - and it is never easy. And were it so, you can bet your life that everything necessary to move the project through all its stages of gestation and development will not be found on the spot. Even the University environment has seldom (excepting drug research) enabled a research project to reach maturity with a directly marketable product.

Experience regarding this aspect remains true, that the whole support framework for invention and independent technological development in the UK is too fragmented to make potentially valuable innovations exploitable. Few have the good fortune to be able to immediately and directly access the appropriate financial, technological, intellectual property and expert advice needed to take the idea to the point where it can be treated as a mature proposal for a marketable device or product.

From the many comments made by creative inventors and innovators, the UK needs a co-ordinated and centralised innovation system that does not exclude particular sources of ingenuity, creativity and invention. By this we mean the lone inventor or small team starting out on an innovative development. As matters stand we have one Fraunhofer centre in the UK (Glasgow) and it specialises in photonics and laser optics - so that won't help the guy in Chislehurst working on self-replicating robots!

If Christopher Cockerell had proposed his hovercraft today, demonstrating his proof of principle with a hair drier soldered to a baked bean can, do we believe any current UK innovation resource would have taken the idea on? As it was, the Ministry of Supply (as was then) initially rejected his proposal and then made an administrative error and provided funding by mistake. Would Frank Whittle, and his jet engine development, have been partnered by any British firm to meet the Catapult regulations for suport? What price James Dyson and his ball wheelbarrow - a massively profitable invention which would have the Catapult's laughing all the way, and even more hysterically had he mentioned a cyclonic vacuum cleaner!

But creativity is the pathway to innovation - it has an intrinsic value and doesn't grow on trees. Likewise, no teamwork or committee ever matched what happens in one individuals ingenious mind. If you have innovation at your fingertips it has the potential to do many things but mainly make money - and no moral arguments will change it.

Can there ever be a government innovation initiative that truly incorporates the contribution that single, lone and independent inventors can make? Unlikely (we are sad to say) and if you wish to know why, look at the people (particulalry those on the TSB board) who are asked to pontificate on TSB strategy and the supposed roaring success of their decision making. It's the same elitist people, with the same remote and priviledged background and the same corporate mind set as has always been appointed by HMG. They sit at their board table utterly unable to appreciate the deficiencies of what they are running. and even if they did, it is unlikely that anything would get changed.

We ignore independent invention at our peril. To often governments in the UK have known what was wrong, were told what the remedy was, and then did the absolute opposite!

© Barrie Blake-Coleman 2014

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