The University of Southampton

Technology focus - solving tomorrow's problems

Published: 24 August 2011

“We are working on the next generation internet,” reveals Professor David Payne from Southampton University’s world renowned Optoelectronics Research Centre.

“We are projecting forward and can see the UK is lagging behind in the provision of broadband. We will be running out of capacity in the 2020 timescale and we have a major project here, exploring if we can go back to the beginning and change the way we run the internet. It’s a deep project but when we are successful the change will be profound and give UK industry a great opportunity.”

Knee deep in the brave new world of silicon photonics, Prof Payne knows what he is talking about. After all, 40 years ago in the same Southampton labs he pioneered the fibre optics technology without which the internet would not exist in its current form.

And he can now see the potential for aerospace, defence and space industries to make greater use of fibre optics as the material to drive machines rather than traditional electronics. “We are asking is there a better form of optical fibre – with better characteristics, operating performance, using longer wavelengths. These are all high risk but someone needs to ask the questions and then hand it up to industry.”

Prof Payne is asking the sort of questions that the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) would like all of Britain’s leading scientists to regularly ponder.

The TSB is the Government’s little-known technology planning agency for Britain’s mixed economy, gently coaxing companies to invest in research and development (R&D), directing academics to support them and encouraging Whitehall officials to think of buying British before they head off to the United States for “solutions” to the country’s economic and social challenges.

David Bott, director of innovation programmes at the TSB, cites the Department for Transport as a case in point. "They care about decarbonising transport, making it efficient, making it cost-effective. What we care about is that they buy the solutions from UK industry so we get economic growth at the same time,” he says.

“The problem with any government department is that if you say 'tomorrow you are going to fix this thing’, they will probably go and buy from Germany, Sweden or America. Our job is to try to get them to think longer term, so we can put the seeds of new ideas into British industry and take them forward.”

The TSB is led by a board of independent industrialists, financials and academics that is chaired by Graham Spittle, the chief technology officer for IBM UK, and has spent £711m in the last three years identifying the juicy scientific advances that could solve pressing commercial and social challenges. “These are the [people] we have to justify our programmes to and not BIS [Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the sponsoring department],” says Bott.

One £18m initiative has tested out ways to make council housing more energy efficient. With 27pc of UK CO2 emissions coming from housing, savings could be made from using more effective building techniques. The TSB acts as the linch-pin to co-ordinate the work, initially engaging more than 190 organisations from housing associations to architects and construction firms to explore the best options. It then selected 87 to receive on average £142,000 each to prove their ideas would work in practice and the results are being assessed over the next two years.

The TSB has also brought together health professionals with the technology specialists that could make “assisted living” or home care for the elderly a reality.

Using cash from a myriad of sources such as the Department of Health’s National Institute for Health Research, the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council, the Economic and Social Research Council and the Ambient Assisted Living Association, the TSB has backed 100 organisations so far to stimulate the supply of practical services.

The TSB operates on a funnel approach, setting out the big-picture market opportunity that might not be obvious to individual companies and then awarding small grants to a large number of firms to explore ways of achieving the goal.

A recent challenge to develop regenerative medicines saw it initially fund 26 companies, then focus on around 10 companies to road test their plans before singling out just three or four and funding them through the development phase. At this point, the model assumes the private sector will become more involved as much of the risk of the early stage research has been borne by the public purse.

Bott is adamant the use of public money stimulates additional private sector activity that has a value beyond the immediate return to the companies involved, including encouraging companies to work together on shared problems. “They would not have done unless we dangled the money and articulated the prize,” he says.

“We work very hard to understand how government impacts on markets as well as how markets develop in their own right because Government regulation in particular and in some cases procurement will change the market.”

The TSB also rewards small companies for conducting R&D, operating the proof of concept and development grant system simply known as Grant for R&D. It has just approved 149 grants – half the total applications received – committing £13.6m. The organisation also coordinates Whitehall’s attempts to stimulate more R&D activity in small companies via contracts awarded through the Small Business Research Initiative. One tender launched last year is funding the development of ultra-efficient lighting to be used in government offices and subsequently sold into the private sector.

This activity takes place against a backdrop of budget cuts. The TSB saw its core annual budget reduced by £12m from £263m in 2010, although in addition it has been handed £66m of funds to set up a series of new Technology and Innovation Centres (TICs) and provide grants for research. It means its main budget this year is £317m, falling to around £300m in future.

The TICs – first conceived under Labour and costing £200m over four years – aim to fill the gap left by the demise of large corporate R&D labs to improve the commercialisation of scientific ideas. One centre – composite materials – is up and running, with two more, cell therapies and offshore renewable energy, on the planning board.

The cuts mean the TSB no longer has specific investment programmes for creative industries, high-value services, intelligent transport systems and services or network security – although some of the funding has been diverted to “themed” areas of investment, including digital services.

Iain Gray, the TSB’s chief executive, is more upbeat about the impact of budget cuts on the Government’s new-found focus on growth. “Almost as a matter of policy you would not have got [Departments of] Health, Transport, Energy talking about growth in their agenda 18 months ago. Now you will,” he says.

Prof Payne says he was seeing some progress, with the process of commercialising promising scientific ideas improving. “It’s moving in the right direction but it’s not perfect. I take the view that we in the UK are learning to make choices. In the past we have tended to take the view that we do a little bit of everything ... spread money too thinly. It is the easy political expediency to keep everyone happy. We have realised we have to focus in the national interest.”

Published 24th August 2011

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