It is a paradox that has puzzled politicians, academics, businessmen, investors and other observers for some time that the United Kingdom boasts several of the world’s leading universities, three in the top ten and another four in the top fifty, while economic powerhouse Germany has none in the top fifty. The rankings take into account all of the universities’ core missions including teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook. Yet Germany produces excellent engineering and leads many technical industries. One possible reason is the Fraunhofer Society, a German research organisation with 67 institutes spread throughout Germany, each focusing on different fields of applied science. It employs around 23,000 people, mainly scientists and engineers, with an annual research budget of about €1.7 billion. It was founded in 1946 but its famous Fraunhofer model has been in existence since 1973. Under the model the Society earns about 70% of its contracts with industry or specific govern ment projects. The rest comes from federal and state government grants and is used to support preparatory research. Thus the size of the budget depends on its success in maximising revenue through the delivery of successful outcomes. This encourages a flexible, autonomous and entrepreneurial approach to the society’s research priorities.
One of Lord Mandelson’s final acts as Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills was to commission the well-known technology entrepreneur, Hermann Hauser, to conduct a review into how the UK could learn from other countries’ innovation network and his report “The Current and Future Role of Technology and Innovation Centres in the UK” was published in March 2010.[i]
Dr Hauser particularly focused on the Fraunhofer model and recommended something similar to be set up in the UK. He emphasised the long-term commitment necessary to deliver this model.
The government largely accepted the recommendations and in April 2010 the Technology Strategy Board announced the planned formation of a number of technology centres. They said “We have identified key priority areas that have the greatest scope for boosting growth in the United Kingdom through innovation. In addition we have a number of new opportunity areas in the pipeline where we are developing future areas of focus.” £1 billion of funding over ten years was announced and a somewhat unseemly scrum broke out as many interested parties sought to lobby for their own sector to be identified as a beneficiary of this largesse.
One of the potential sectors was transport with the need identified to develop sustainable transport systems. I was then Chairman of innovITS, a government backed agency promoting Intelligent Transport Systems, (see my blog innovITS 18th May 2013 tag Business
). With colleagues from a leading university and a top research consultancy I lobbied hard for the decision to favour transport. The process was long and laborious but finally successful. To my great delight the new catapult was called the Transport Systems Catapult (TSC) thus emphasising its adoption of a systems approach.
Last week I was invited to attend an event at its new headquarters in Milton Keynes entitled “Brains to Business”, thus encapsulating the essential nature of knowledge transfer. To my even greater delight I learnt that the TSC is fully focused on the concept of Intelligent Mobility (IM), the new name for Intelligent Transport Systems. This name was coined by the Intelligent Mobility Working Group, a sub-group of the Automotive Council on which I served throughout its life. It succeeded in persuading the Automotive Council to adopt Intelligent Mobility as one of its five “sticky technologies”, i.e. a technology in which substantial R&D can take place in the UK thus encouraging greater Foreign Direct Investment.
Will Whitehorn, one-time Chairman of Virgin Retail and now spearheading Richard Branson’s efforts to build a business in commercial space travel, is the Chairman of the TSC and chaired a series of presentations and panel discussions. His CEO Steve Yianni, formerly of Network Rail, with whom I worked on the Transport Knowledge Transfer Network board for some time, explained the TSC’s mission: to drive UK global leadership in IM promoting sustained economic growth and well-being through integrated, efficient and sustainable transport systems. The challenges include an aging population which is set to grow from 62.2 million to 77 million by 2050, overtaking France and Germany. Congestion costs business £11bn a year and that is set to double by 2025. Transport accounts for 36% of all energy consumed.
Steve thinks a shift in dynamics is required to meet these challenges. Traditionally transport is done to people. In future people’s mobility should come first. That day the TSC announced a university partner programme with 14 universities selected for their credentials in transport research. They have also announced an Ambassadors programme with various individuals taking an evangelical role including entrepreneurs and investors. More than 30 projects and programmes are already underway some of which were being demonstrated in their so-called Imovation Centre. One I was in on at the beginning is the “LUTZ” Pathfinder programme that will put electric-powered pods that are capable of driving themselves on the pavements of Milton Keynes. Being built by Coventry-based manufacturer RDM group with technology developed by Oxford University’s world-leading Mobile Robotics Group led by my old friend Professor Paul Newman (see my blog Robotics 21st January 2012 tag Technology
), the pods are blazing a trail for autonomous, on-demand vehicles that aim to minimise congestion levels while also reducing carbon emissions.
Another exciting development is the “Departure Planning Information” (DPI) project which will improve efficiency and minimise delays at airports. Linking in with the Europe wide flight information network, DPI will provide real-time departure data (today’s data has been pre-loaded some three hours before) putting the UK at the forefront of intelligent data handling, with reduced fuel costs and enhanced airspace efficiency.
Professor Andrew Hamilton, Vice Chancellor of Oxford University, pointed out that British universities are anchors of the economy. Oxford University has a turnover of £2.3 billion with 17,000 employees as well as its 22,000 students. Universities are sources of innovation and knowledge through commitment to excellence in research and long-term investment. This has been developed over decades and is both incremental and disruptive. For example, the Rolls-Royce University Technology Centres, based at a number of UK universities have encouraged other large firms such as Alstom, Siemens, QinetiQ and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to invest in joint collaborations. In the US 5% of university research grants and contracts income comes from industry. In the UK it is double that while at Oxford it is 13% of £437 million, the highest level of research income of any UK university. This may be a crude measure but it is still a useful indicator of the level of engagement. Professor Hamilton talked about the Lutz project as well and forecast that “Oxford will beat Google at this game.” Less relevant perhaps to transport but still very exciting he told us about Perovskite, a material that has similar photovoltaic properties to silicon but is far cheaper. It is also transparent offering the potential of using it both as windows but also as a medium for solar power in a building.
Alison Starr, Technical Manager for Strategic Partnerships at GE Aviation Systems, quoted the founder of GE, Thomas Edison, who said “The value of an idea lies in the using of it.” As far as working with universities was concerned GE had learnt that the best way is to conduct long-term relationships. The relationship was a combination of industry pull with university push. The value chain required leadership to set the goal and then the strategy resources and funding to facilitate development and the end goal was Intellectual Property that could be exploited. GE is very strong on IP and in the US tends to mistrust the idea of sharing it. But it had learnt that this could be possible in the UK and so while cautious was open to ideas. However, it also warned universities to be more realistic in their expectations of time to-market.
Professor Richard Brook is the president of the Association of Independent Research and Technology Organisations (AIRTO) which is committed to making innovation happen. As such they try to help with the practical problems of getting to market. He contrasted the cultural differences between “Brains” and “Business””. While universities want to do research industry wants to make money. While academics are drawn by curiosity businessmen are focused and work under many constraints. Overcoming the valley of death means not running out of money. In practice there are multiple valleys, raising finance, scaling up and meeting regulatory demand, but in the end they’re all about running out of money. He had also learnt that academia, industry, government and finance all have their own languages. As well as technology translators you need to be able to translate these different ways of expression.
Other speakers included Peter Jaco, a serial entrepreneur and investor who spoke of setting up a fund for the TSC; Adrian Shooter CBE, Chairman of the Board of the Oxfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership which faces the challenge of a 30% increase in the number of homes in Oxfordshire by 2030; and Chris Bilton, head of R&D at BT who in 35 years there has seen the company be transformed. It now operates a network of open innovation partners including start-ups, universities, government, industry and customers.
It was a fascinating morning and I came away well satisfied that I had helped get something off the ground which now has a momentum of its own and is starting to do world-class and exciting work.