Five years ago, the UK’s innovation scene was starting to look a little “creaky” according to Mike Gregory, former head of the Institute for Manufacturing at Cambridge University.
Not enough companies were coming out fighting from the "valley of death", the gulf between the end of public funding of research and shaping the outputs into something that can attract private investment.
Collaboration between universities and companies was not firing on all cylinders, said Gregory, speaking at a meeting in Brussels this week hosted by the European Association of Research and Technology Organisations (EARTO).
Then UK government policy prompted a change, with moves to rebalance of the economy by promoting high-value manufacturing. As a result, technology transfer from universities was put on a par with efforts seen in countries including Germany and South Korea.
“Five years ago, everyone realised something was wrong: there were far too few research and technology organisations in the UK,” Gregory said.
A report, ‘The Current and Future Role of Technology and Innovation Centres in the UK’, written entrepreneur Hermann Hauser in 2010, called for the creation of, “an elite group of technology and Innovation Centres that aim to exploit the most promising new technologies, where there is genuine UK potential to gain competitive advantage.”
While the role model is Germany’s Fraunhofer Institutes, the UK counterparts are called Catapults.
“I have a friend who has a plaque that reads, ‘An Englishman’s mind works best when it’s almost too late.’ It proved to be the case,” said Gregory, who sits on the board of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult.
Gregory is surprised to see the concept has really taken off, with nine Catapults created so far, spanning fields including precision medicines, cell therapy, satellite applications, offshore renewable energy, future transport systems and cities.
“The Catapults, for all intents and purposes, are research and technology organisations,” Gregory said. “They’re places where industries can bring their problems and say, ‘can you help with this?’”
As such, Catapults provide “relatively neutral ground, where people from different backgrounds can be in the same space and throw off their day-to-day prejudices.”
While Innovate UK, which manages the Catapults, describes them as centres where the very best of the UK’s companies, scientists and engineers can work side by side on research and development, transforming ideas into new products and services to generate economic growth, Gregory said he prefers to think of, “a muddy pond, the kind of thing you’d unwittingly slip into on the way back home from the pub.”
“There’s lots of specimens in there and we don’t know exactly how they relate, but they do, and their fundamentals are alike. We have to make sure they’re all aware of each other, and keep the pond filled with water,” Gregory said.
The formation of the Catapults represents significant progress, according to Gregory, who spent the early part of his career in the private sector. “I used to have so little confidence in universities. When I was working in industry many years ago, you’d see their papers arrive, and would just slide them off into the waste bin,” he said.
Winds of change blow in Canada too
There were similar problems in Canadian research five years ago, said Roman Szumski, vice-president of life sciences at National Research Council Canada (NRC).
“We were spending €21 billion a year on R&D and were number one for university funding, ahead of Germany by 35 per cent or so. But for productivity, we had dropped to number 25 in the world,” Szumski said. “Everyone thought: clearly something’s not working.”
The government reacted by commissioning four different reports. The one that made an impact was written by entrepreneur, Tom Jenkins, chair of Canada’s largest software company OpenText.
It was this 2011 report that recommended reform of the NRC, calling for it to be transformed, “Into a constellation of large scale, sectoral collaborative R&D centres involving business, the university sector and the provinces, while transferring NRC public policy-related research activity to the appropriate federal agencies.” Again, the poster child was the Fraunhofer Institutes.
“So my organisation was transformed into a research and technology organisation,” said Szumski, who joined the public sector nearly 11 years ago from industry.
This transformation involved huge shifts. “Changing the culture of a huge 4,500-employee organisation is the largest challenge you can imagine,” said Szumski. Now, however, you are more likely to find NRC employees at industry conferences than scientific conferences.
Research became more client-focused, with the NRC enlisting 100 new business development officers with backgrounds in industry in the last five years. It also became a member of EARTO.
Of the eight senior executives in the company, seven are new, with Szumski the only survivor from the old regime. “People ask me ‘why did your boss keep you?’ I’m afraid to ask,” he joked.
Early indicators say the shake-up is working. “In my division, we used to fund a group of scientists that were developing cures for cancer. These scientists are now working with clients’ molecules.”
“Of course, there were reservations at first. But now they’re really engaged and thrilled when they see businesses raise venture capital or make some headlines,” Szumski said.