The need to link innovation to real commercial opportunity has been recognised by Government in plans to establish a new network of Technology Innovation Centres.
Following the announcement, made yesterday by Science and Universities Minister, David Willets, that the government will be committing £200m of public money to support the establishment of 6-8 Technology Innovation Centres (TICs) across the UK an evidence session was today held in Westminster to investigate how the Technology Strategy Board (TSB), which will be orchestrating the TIC scheme, plans to spend the money and ensure it answers real economic needs.
David Willets and Ian Gray, CEO of TSB, attended the committee session to give evidence as to the intentions of the new centres and answered questions on the strategic direction and priorities of the centres, their funding structure and administration, their approach to intellectual property challenges and their relation to existing innovation frameworks.
The evidence committee were particularly keen to asses this last point and avoid overlap between TICs work and established, trusted innovation facilities already used by academia and industry. While Gray’s response to this question did seem to leave some doubt as to competition with existing innovation bodies (the CEO stated that it was not TSBs concern to assist underperforming existing centres) there was both an acceptance that opportunities to minimise spending on new bricks and mortar would be looked for and a definite belief that the TICs would be offering something distinct to the current UK innovation market. Willets pointed to the Hauser Report commissioned by the previous government in order to justify the need for the TICs programme. This investigation of UK innovation capabilities pointed specifically to a failure to exploit innovations at technology readiness levels 3-7 (those technologies ready to be developed for market) and the TICs hope to address this capability gap.
The TICs aim to link innovation to key strategic priorities and although the allocated £200m from government is designed to support 6-8 centres the initial goal is to establish 3-4 by the end of 2012. These first wave innovation centres will focus on top priority areas chosen from a list of initial candidates including: high value manufacturing, energy and resource efficiency, transport systems, healthcare, ICT, electronics, photonics and electrical systems.
High value manufacturing was firmly identified during the course of the evidence session as a candidate for fast track TIC development due to a strong existing innovation structure and the potential for innovations in this sector to transfer and benefit other industries. Composite material advances were mentioned as an example of this potential. Gray was also swift to allay concerns that a focus on high value or advanced manufacturing meant that, what one committee member termed “less fashionable”, industries like food and drink, would lose out on investment even though they contribute a great deal to the UK economy. Gray asserted that “from a process perspective food and drink is absolutely included when I refer to high value manufacturing”.
Another key concern of the committee was the intended funding structure of the TICs which are based on the German Fraunhofer Institutes. Roughly following the example set by these it is intended that the TICs will be sustained by financial support delivered in thirds from the public coffer, private enterprise and applications and competitions for broader funding, for instance from research councils and the EU.
While this system works well in Germany there was a concern from the committee as to the time it would take to establish a balanced contribution from all three areas and, as Andrew Miller MP, committee chair, pointed out the UK must consider the missing link in the “virtuous circle” of trust and support that exists in Germany between industry, the innovation institutes and the banks which invest in projects. Without interest from the banks in supporting TIC led innovation and experience in seeing the returns from innovation projects the committee cast doubt on the short term ability of TICs to maintain themselves.
On a longer term outlook there was apprehension that the lack of continuity inherent in the British political system and the longevity of support for the TIC scheme as a whole. Attempting to allay this concern Willets pointed to the fact that the initiative was one which had sprung from both an organisation and a report established by the previous government. Miller suggested that the Chancellor and Shadow Chancellor might form a formal accord to guarantee their intention to give the TICs longevity and support real outcomes from this business focused initiative to support UK competitive excellence.
A TIC prospectus was launched on January 6 by TSB to start engaging industry in the establishment of centres and to get a sanity check on the intended priority areas for innovation. For more information on how to engage with TICs and access the innovation facilities they will make available go to the TSB website: www.innovateuk.org.