Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80
WEDNESDAY 6 DECEMBER 2006
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
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 systemsautonomy 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
Mr Hill: It is an immature programme
still, so I think there is still scopeit 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
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,
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 itit
is excitingthere 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 viewand perhaps
it leads towards the American way, the way they do it in Americais
that there should be more flexibility amongst the brokersand
I would redefine the word "broker" in a minute, if I
mayas 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 itthat 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 becauseand,
again, it was a piece of technology which looks as if it is really
going placesthere 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
technologythere 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 dayand it is something we have said time
and againwhat you are really looking for is 1% of a massive
amount of money rather than 50% of something that ends up not
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
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 perspectivewe 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
Chairman: On that note Trevor, Nathan
and John, thank you very much indeed.