Iain Gray, Technology Strategy Board
NMI's Derek Boyd interviews the CEO of the Technology Strategy Board
Derek: Iain thanks for your time today. I guess the first thing to do is just to introduce the Technology Strategy Board, how it’s come about and what you see as your key priorities going forward.
Iain: At the Technology Strategy Board we can no longer describe ourselves as a completely new organisation, but we’re still a pretty young organisation. We were put in place in July 2007, quite specifically to look at how we can help stimulate Research & Development investment in the UK, how as an organisation we can improve the exploitation for science and technology here in the UK for UK business benefit.
As an organisation we cover a pretty broad landscape, from a technology perspective we are covering some of the very traditional technologies; manufacturing, electronics, bio-science, pharmaceuticals but we also have a remit that takes us into some of the newer, less well-defined technology areas and things like financial services and creative industries as well. So we’ve got a broad landscape in terms of innovation and technologies; we are looking at it from a business point of view and we are looking at it in regards of both small & big businesses; how we make sure that the big businesses and foreign owned businesses that are here in the UK continue to invest in R&D in the UK, see the UK as a core part of their R&D global strategy, how do we help SME’s and bring SME’s through; and how do we spot and encourage small start-up companies and help them in their early years but also how do we help them to become the big major players of the future. So the Technology Strategy Board; it’s about business, it’s about exploitation, science & technology and innovation and it’s covering a very, very large landscape.
Derek: I’m glad to hear you talk about big business’s because from my perspective there is a tremendous amount of emphasis to support SME’s, but if I look at the microelectronics sector it’s probably dominated by inward investment; by companies that have invested in the UK because they could find the skills here and to do design and development work and I think that’s absolutely key to maintain and grow.
Iain: Well I think it’s important, particularly in these difficult times, that we recognise the dynamics of different types of businesses. The problems that small businesses face can be very, instant, almost on a 24 hours survival basis and so there’s a lot of focus on small businesses about survival. But big businesses; big businesses drive the economy. It’s big businesses that provide the pull, the demand into small businesses. If big business is positioning itself so that decision making is being taken off these shores, or it doesn’t have R&D capability here in the UK then that is by definition going to have an impact on the supply chain. So I think it’s hugely important that we are looking at both ends of the spectrum. The Technology Strategy Board very definitely focuses at both ends of that spectrum.
Derek: There is a sense from within the industry that the mechanisms for R&D are more user friendly than before; would you like to comment on your funding mechanisms?
Iain: Well, having described the landscape in which we operate, we then have a number of different tools in our toolbox in terms of how we can help businesses. Some of those are tools that we have inherited from the DTI e.g. the collaborative R&D programme. Some of them are our new types of mechanisms that we are putting in place; like the challenge-led approach, the Innovation Platforms and some of it is looking at initiatives like the Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI); the Government Procurement types of areas. So we’ve got a number of different tools that we are looking at. If I look at collaborative R&D, which is a hugely important part of what we do, we inherited some 500 collaborative R&D programmes from the DTI. I would say a lot of very good work has gone into those programmes, maybe one criticism I would have is that I don’t believe it was always the systematic follow-up or follow-through; in terms of are those programmes delivering benefit. So, one thing that I’m encouraging our organisation to do on collaborative R&D is the job doesn’t stop the day you issue the contract; the job carries on, and I’m encouraging our technologists to follow things through, to understand what’s going on and even to the point of when a R&D project itself is finished there’s a time beyond that. So you’ll see different behaviours from the Technology Strategy Board in follow-up.
You’ll also see slightly different behaviours in the definition of the competitions as well; I hope it is more user-friendly as you’ve already said. I hope in twelve months time people will say that it’s even more user-friendly because what we are trying to do is reduce the bureaucracy. It’s not always easy because sometimes we have very big projects and you do need to go through proper diligence and understand the contract, but we are trying to introduce some smaller more flexible type collaborative R&D programmes as well with a minimum of bureaucracy and a minimum of form-filling.
Where I want to put most emphasis actually is up-front of any competition, so it’s working with industry, working with the trade-associations and working with KTN’s to try and help develop through the formulation of our strategies what competitions should look like. Because my theory, my position is; the effort and the time we work together before we launch any competitions is the most important point. Once we launch a competition, we need very slick, user-friendly processes that run in the smallest amount of time possible and then get money out into industry as quickly as possible. I hope that as we move forward we’ll be seen as more user-friendly and provide better feedback; this isn’t always the case now. Quite often there are companies who are not successful in their applications and it’s important that we can give them good, positive advice in how to move forward as it is to work with the companies that are successful with us. So those are the kind of behaviours we want to get into the Technology Strategy Board and that for me; is as you describe it, a much more user-friendly approach than we’ve had in the past.