UK reviews its innovation strategy: of Catapults and Fraunhofers

18 Jun 2014 | News
When entrepreneur Hermann Hauser laid the foundations for the UK’s Catapult research initiatives, he held up Germany’s Fraunhofer institutes as role models. The UK now has both models in action

A British government review of its national innovation strategy is due to be published soon. Among the issues: comparing the UK’s new approach to innovation, its Catapult Centres, with the older German Fraunhofer Institute.

The review, led by Cambridge entrepreneur Hermann Hauser, was commissioned by the business secretary, Vince Cable. Hauser is due to report by the summer to feed into the government’s Science and Innovation Strategy for the Autumn Statement 2014.

Cable wants the report to, “outline how the government’s network of elite technology and innovation centres can be fully exploited to benefit the economy in the long-term.” Hauser’s remit is to, “consider the future scope and scale of the network – including looking at the different Catapult models, recommendations on future funding models, international strategy and how a future Catapult network links with other government organisations such as the British Business Bank and Green Investment Bank.”

The review has broader interest in Europe, given the past importance of British technology policy. For instance, several innovation trends  – matching public-private investment funds, regional technology transfer offices, and an emphasis on spin-out companies – grew into large-scale efforts first in Britain, before being exported to many other EU member states.

Conversely, the creation of the Catapult Centres was a rare case of Britain deliberately importing ideas from the rest of Europe – in this case, Germany and its famous Fraunhofer Institute.

Science driving business

With public and private funding, the aim of the Catapults has been to bridge the innovation gap in a country that boasts of the quality of the research but complains that this scientific excellence rarely delivers business success.

The Technology Strategy Board (TSB), which manages the research centres on behalf of the government, describes a Catapult as a “technology and innovation centre where the very best of the UK’s businesses, scientists and engineers can work side by side on research and development – transforming ideas into new products and services to generate economic growth.” So far the TSB has set up seven Catapults:

  • High value manufacturing
  • Cell therapies
  • Offshore renewable energy
  • Satellite applications
  • Connected digital economy
  • Future cities
  • Transport systems

The Catapults came into being in the wake of an earlier report by Hauser in 2010, ‘The Current and Future Role of Technology and Innovation Centres in the UK’. In it, Hauser called for the creation of “an elite group of Technology and Innovation Centres, branded ‘Clerk Maxwell Centres’, that aim to exploit the most promising new technologies, where there is genuine UK potential to gain competitive advantage.” The role model for these centres was the Fraunhofer Institutes in Germany.

Learning from the Fraunhofer model

Hauser’s idea, although not the proposed name, survived a change of government. The first Catapult, in High Value Manufacturing, came about in a forced marriage of existing Innovative Manufacturing Research Centres.

Hauser’s review of the Catapult’s progress to date coincided with a recent conference at the Royal Society in London, “From mind to market,” organised by the Society and Fraunhofer. The meeting looked at the success of the Fraunhofer model and any lessons that it offers for the UK’s Catapult Centres.

One lesson: success does not happen overnight. The first Fraunhofer opened in 1948; so far the Catapults have a track record of less than four years. And over the years the UK has made many attempts at doing the same thing. As Wendy Hall, professor of computer science at Southampton University told the meeting, “I have seen many of these institutions come and go.” The belief in the UK, she added, seems to be that if one of these ventures is any good, after five years industry will take it forward. “It just doesn’t work like that,” she said. “Where the Fraunhofers work is in their sustainability.”

Such is the longevity of the Fraunhofer that, as Gerald Byrne, Director of the Board of Fraunhofer UK, put it, there cannot be that many technical managers or senior academics who haven’t had dealings with the Fraunhofers, or perhaps even worked in one.

Support for Hall’s view came from Oliver Ambacher, Director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Solid State Physics. “If you would like to go to the Fraunhofer model you have to ask the government for core funding for a long period,” he advised. “It can be painful for government, but it is important.”

Different but complementary

Although conceived on the basis of the German role model, Catapults differ significantly from Fraunhofers. While the latter are subject specific, with a focus on core technologies and enabling technologies, some Catapults operate in core technologies such as advanced manufacturing, while others operate more along sector lines such as satellites and transport. The difference, says Simon Andrews, executive director of Fraunhofer UK, means that Catapults and Fraunhofer centres can be complementary rather than in competition.

With nearly 70 institutes in Germany alone, an annual budget of €2.1 billion and 27,000 staff, Fraunhofer’s research institutes hugely outnumber the UK’s seven Catapults. The UK plans to create nine Catapults with a budget of £1.4 billion of public and private investment over five years.

Another difference between the two research models is in their links with universities. As Hall said of the UK approach, “I do worry that we are taking universities out of the equation a bit.” Fraunhofers, by contrast, are so closely linked to academia that the standard pattern is for the head of a Fraunhofer Institute to be an active professor at the local university.

Alexander Verl, a member of the Fraunhofer’s Executive Board, said that this not only gives the institutes access to academic research, but they can also tap into young researchers. There are times, he said, when PhD students probably do not know if they are working in a university lab or one in a Fraunhofer institute.

The ties between universities and Fraunhofer centres continue in the German organisation’s first foray into the UK, in Scotland. Martin Dawson runs the Fraunhofer Centre for Applied Photonics (CAP) in Glasgow while he is also Director of Research for the Institute of Photonics at Strathclyde University.

Fraunhofer’s move into the UK – it is already active in the US, South America, Asia and elsewhere – came after an invitation from Paul Drayson, then science minister. CAP, which officially opened in May 2013, sits in the middle of a long-established cluster of photonics businesses and universities with respected research groups in the area, sometimes dubbed Silicon Glen, around Glasgow and Edinburgh.

A big difference between the UK’s single Fraunhofer and its German counterparts is in its lack of central government funding. CAP’s initial funding came from Fraunhofer, Strathclyde University, the Scottish Government, Scottish Enterprise and the Scottish Funding Council.

“We aren’t supposed to use German taxpayers’ money abroad,” said Verl, “that is why we ask for backing from countries we set up in. In England we are not there yet.”


NOTE: This article was amended to clarify the relative characteristics of Catapult and Fraunhofer centres.

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