Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80 - 93)



  Q59  Chairman: Good   Q80  Bob Spink: I would like to focus on the ABOTTS Report, "Knowledge Transfer from Space Exploration" and the prospect and challenges for the UK. This report made several recommendations, all basically saying much the same thing, that we must promote knowledge transfer of the beneficial exploitation of space technology. How do you characterise the key recommendations, Nathan?

  Mr Hill: I think space exploration in Mars is a really interesting case study because Britain has not traditionally been strong in space exploration and to actually get to Mars requires a load of technology competences that we have not traditionally had within the UK space academic groups. So it has pushed the need for partnership with industry right up the agenda. The types of recommendations that we made in ABOTTS were firstly about, again, the national technology preparatory programme, which indeed PPARC has executed and has put about £1,750,000 into three specific technology areas, which are already showing the leverage benefits that I spoke about. Those funds were awarded about a year ago and we are now starting to look at the knowledge transfer outcomes of those. It has been looking at encouraging new suppliers into the programme, specifically from the defence, aerospace and security sectors. Then in terms of improved collaboration and technology sharing, I guess that is where we have not yet moved very much forward. The knowledge transfer programme side, though, has built up. So I would say that of the four main areas I looked at three of them have moved forward in the year and a half since we wrote the report and one of them has still yet to start.

  Q81  Bob Spink: Do you think that the Aurora programme is one of the key space programmes that this country should follow?

  Mr Hill: I am only interested in technology competences, so luckily I do not have to make the scientific argument for what the return from any given mission is. Certainly of all the programmes I have looked at Aurora has a whole set of industrially relevant technologies that it requires, all the way from detectors and instrumentation and pay loads, which you expect on any science mission, through to entry, descent and landing systems—autonomy and robotics was one of the areas that I focused on most. And really you have to pull the pay load mass down of anything that you are going to get all the way up to Mars, so the miniaturisation, ruggedness, the extreme hostile environment all provide these super challenges that take technologies forward, we believe, and I feel then will give the greatest potential for exploitation. So, yes, it is a good programme in that sense.

  Q82  Chairman: Nathan, you mentioned a fourth area on which there had been no progress. What was that and why has there been so little progress?

  Mr Hill: I think just the programme is immature. The fourth one I mentioned was the joining up and sharing of technologies between different partners. I think that Aurora is interesting in that it requires a lot of defence and aerospace technology from both defence contractors, but also potential to share that technology with the MOD and DSTL.

  Q83  Chairman: So why is it not moving forward?

  Mr Hill: It is an immature programme still, so I think there is still scope—it has not gone away.

  Q84  Bob Spink: So what are you doing with government to fulfil the recommendations of the ABOTTS Report?

  Mr Hill: In terms of the national preparatory technology programme PPARC was able to find, as I said, about £1,750,000 and we ran workshops to identify the sweet spots that industry would be interested in and academia. We have had about 50 academics, 50 people from industry, selected entry descent and landing systems, instrumentation and the autonomous rovers, as the three key areas, and have now funded those. The next job on that is that now those programmes are running to look at the knowledge transfer potential of each of those because the Aurora benefits will sort themselves out. In terms of the extra support for knowledge transfer PPARC and BNSC Partners led a bid to the Office of Science and Innovation to have a more joined-up ESA knowledge transfer programme in the UK, and that has now been awarded by OSI and we are now starting to deliver it. So the increase in rate of knowledge transfer is happening. In terms of the space knowledge transfer network, which was one of the other outcomes, we went a slightly different route, which was to join space and other government research facilities, or scientific research facilities and turn that into a knowledge transfer network and that is now up and running.

  Q85  Graham Stringer: John, you have explained, I think completely, in several answers how the ESA technology transfer works. Have you examined or studied any other international comparators, of how their technology transfer systems work?

  Mr Rootes: The ESA programme was actually based, in the early days, on the programme that the MOD was using with Farnborough and Malvern, and places like that. Whether there are any other networks? The American system that NASA supports is not exactly the same as the ESA system; it is much more reliant on pooling the technologies and advertising and making them available, quite often free of charge, to companies coming in. So I am trying quickly to think of a technology transfer network that you can compare with the ESA one. Rather than answer that because I cannot think of—

  Q86  Graham Stringer: Could you write to us on that?

  Mr Rootes: Certainly I could, yes.

  Q87  Graham Stringer: Even with the NASA one, what are the advantages and disadvantages of that compared to our systems?

  Mr Rootes: I could certainly highlight what I think are the disadvantages of ESA systems. In a way SPCQ technology transfer spin-off has a bit of a cachet about it—it is exciting—there is some focus on sexy transfer, things being put on cars for the Le Mans and stuff like that, which, in my view, wastes money. To some extent the programme is target-led—"Please find us 10 technologies this year for promotion"—and nations all have their own targets. My view—and perhaps it leads towards the American way, the way they do it in America—is that there should be more flexibility amongst the brokers—and I would redefine the word "broker" in a minute, if I may—as to how the money is best spent in the countries concerned. Certainly in the very early years there was rather too much, I think, spent on procedure and administration, generating targets for mail shots and what have you, rather than getting stuck into the very, very tricky business of identifying what technologies are actually going to be exploitable and concentrating on those. That is certainly one issue. The more formal and the more structured you get a network I think the more waste you are liable to get in it, and to some extent you can say that the ESA programme has suffered a little from that.

  Q88  Graham Stringer: Can I ask you about another international comparison? How do our intellectual property rights compare internationally and how could they be improved? How are they helping or hindering technology transfer?

  Mr Rootes: The standard patenting procedures in the UK are the same worldwide, the way people protect a technology and exploit it—that general procedure is worldwide. The difference comes in if you are funded from a source such as the MOD or such as ESA, or such as a university. The rights to that technology can flow down to varying levels to those that want to exploit it and certainly there are difficulties in the way that quite a few of our institutions have managed intellectual property. In our experience with universities we have come across several cases where in allowing a professor to start a start-up a company and develop that technology, if you like, the insistence on the university in retaining a very large proportion of the rights, including giving them voting powers over the company and that sort of thing, I think has, in some cases, inhibited the ability for that company and the technology to grow and develop. There is a saying that what you really want is 1% of something big rather than 50% of something which is small and constrained. So certainly the universities have suffered from that problem on occasions, and on the other hand there are examples in the UK of extremely benign and informed ways of working between universities and their academics. In ESA another problem is, as with the European Union, the way that the intellectual property may be split amongst contributors to a project, and if you look at the EU RTD programmes the massive amounts of money is spent by the EU on funding programmes. And a lot of the organisations I am talking about, and I am sure Nathan is talking about, who exploit space technology, take advantage of the EU RTD programmes to get funding to move it on a stage. One of the problems there is the sharing of intellectual property, and the difficulty therefore in subsequently exploiting the technology. We had a horrendous case also with ESA recently where because—and, again, it was a piece of technology which looks as if it is really going places—there were 12 nations involved in doing the initial research 12 nations had a stake in the intellectual property. It was actually paid for and patents assigned to ESA, and when an entrepreneurial company came along to take the technology on board and exploit it it was almost impossibly difficult to move ahead and, in the event, negotiations had to take place with 12 different countries and 12 different organisations. So there are still a lot of intellectual property problems. As a broker one of our first questions when someone comes to us with a piece of technology—there are several questions like, "How advanced is it? What is the market like?"—is, "How is the intellectual property owned? Who owns it? How many people have fingers in the pie?" And it is amazing the amount of good technology that is stifled from commercialisation because of the difficulties of multiple ownership. That can be one of the difficulties with these relationships between companies and universities, that if the university develops a good bit of technology the company does not want to exploit it is possible that the company may just sit on it because it does not want its competitors to exploit it either. So it is a whole fraught area.

  Q89  Graham Stringer: That is fascinating. Can I ask one further question? What is the solution? How would you improve it?

  Mr Rootes: The problem is that whoever pays the money calls the tune, and it is the same with the venture capitalists and the amount of intellectual property that they take. So the only answer is by negotiation between the parties and education. As I say, what you have to come down to at the end of the day—and it is something we have said time and again—what you are really looking for is 1% of a massive amount of money rather than 50% of something that ends up not being exploited.

  Q90  Chairman: A solution, Nathan?

  Mr Hill: I would like to give two solutions, one of which is general and one is specific to this context. In general there is enough difficulty in getting novel technologies into the market place without letting intellectual property get in the way, so I think that there is a greater need for communication of vision, that international collaborative programmes, or indeed ones that are being hosted by universities where they have the technology, there must be continued vision, pressure from research councils, from funding authorities to say, "You must make the process of intellectual property packaging and transfer possible and doable," and that is a pressure from above type thing and it does work. If you sit on people with a bit of a whip that will work. But in the ESA context I have something much more specific and I will give you an example of a spin out that I formed.

  Q91  Chairman: Could you be as brief as possible?

  Mr Hill: Yes, really specific. When ESA funds a company to do technology development the intellectual property in that technology is then held by the company and, as I said earlier, companies are brilliant exploiters of their own intellectual property. I had managed to take a whizzy technology called a superconducting gravity gradiometer, which was used to measure the height of the oceans for global warming measurements, and actually sold contracts to large oil majors to use this as an oil well explorer so that you could actually measure the amount of oil in reservoirs, basically by measuring the gravitational pull of the oil relative to water or rock, or whatever. We raised lots of money from industry by selling R&D contracts and then spun the company out into what is a company called Arkex in Cambridge which is now about to fly its first tool. It raised I cannot remember how many millions of dollars of venture finance now and it is now going to fly its first tool which will actually do geophysical exploration for oil and minerals based on essential ESA technology. That did not have the university bit or the intellectual property licence in the way because the essential technology development had been undertaken by us under contract from the European Space Agency in pursuit of one of its observation programmes.

  Q92  Chairman: Could I finally ask you, when Sir Martin Sweeting was talking to us earlier he talked about that small satellites were thought to be a form of lunacy. Do you feel that all your brokering and all the knowledge transfer activities get in the way of that lunacy, which actually becomes world beating technologies and wealth creation projects? In other words, are you adding real value through the knowledge transfer process or should we just leave it to companies themselves to get on with it and actually support some more R&D?

  Mr Hill: Gosh, that is an interesting one! I actually did some strategic work for PPARC on this a few years ago. I think it is some kind of ratio between the amount we invest in technology development and the amount you spend simulating it. PPARC has made what I think is an enlightened commitment to double the rate of knowledge transfer in three years. We are engaged in delivering that for them; it has to do that alongside having the money to invest in technology.

  Q93  Chairman: Trevor?

  Dr Cross: I think the sort of things that Nathan is doing are absolutely essential but get it into perspective—we need to boost the real technology development resource pool, I think, to match that.

  Mr Rootes: I think the ESA programme has demonstrated the contribution of the brokering. The amount is really quite small and I think some of the results have been quite significant.

  Chairman: On that note Trevor, Nathan and John, thank you very much indeed.

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