Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 180 - 199)



  Q180  Dr Gibson: I think there is a lot of difference between different subjects. Cancer has a lot more going for it in terms of the work that is gone into it and that the people who are attracted into it are really bright and have come along as things happen and that may happen in your field of course. I want to ask about the pull through. We hear about pull through all the time. What do we have to do to pull it through? What are we missing?

  Professor Bruce: I have seen a little bit of this at firsthand in the Scottish context because, in Scotland, they set up these intermediate technology institutes and they are rather like the ETI.

  Q181  Dr Gibson: Would you tell us about that. Where is it? Is it in Glasgow?

  Professor Bruce: There is one in energy which is based in Aberdeen and that is the one I know best. The concept is similar, to try and pick up on promising ideas in the laboratory in universities, invest in those, take them on to the demonstrative stage and companies would then be prepared to invest and take those technologies forward. I have to say, having seen that in operation, I think that David has one of the toughest jobs in this whole area because, again touching two of the things that have been talked about, we have to pick technologies or potential technologies that, you are right, are having millions invested in by the automobile companies in the US. We have to find solutions to the problems that are created in our universities that are not really being developed. That is the first problem. Then you have to invest in those and I think that even £1 billion is not a lot of money to really take technologies forward, so I think that that is far too small. I think that David's role—and I do not want to tell him what his job is—from my perspective is going to be to form partnerships with consortia an I think that has to be international consortia with manufacturers outside the UK so that we can actually use our ideas and our eventual know-how in partnership with these other manufacturers outside and the need for far more investment—

  Q182  Dr Gibson: Are the Government attracting that kind of initiative? Are they doing something about it?

  Professor Bruce: My key concern about the ITIs—and I see this just as an outside observer—is that understandably because it is public money there are particular expected protocols, shall we say, about protective investment of public money and I think that can act to tie the hands of these organisations looking for the best solution in any particular circumstance. On one extreme you have a venture capitalist model where you give a pot of money and say, "Go out, ETI, and do deals with companies and whatever, do what you like, spend the money in a way that you think is most wisely spent" and I think that would be a good model. My concern with the ITIs is that that has been reined back into the Scottish Enterprise mode and the more traditional model of public funding.

  Q183  Dr Gibson: This is ITIs?

  Professor Bruce: Yes, the ITIs, and I am really giving this is as an example of some of the pitfalls that need to be avoided as we progress towards the ETI.

  Q184  Dr Gibson: How can they get their hands on the money from the RDA?

  Professor Bruce: The ITIs basically have a budget guaranteed for ten years to spend on these things, but of course they are accountable through the Scottish Enterprise, so they are not really as independent perhaps as they appeared they would be in the first instance.

  Q185  Dr Gibson: Do they get their money from the RDA?

  Professor Bruce: They get the money from Scottish Enterprise.

  Q186  Dr Gibson: Does anyone else want to say anything about pulling it through? Do you have some magic initiatives to do that because it might work in other areas as well in this country? Everything is not silicon valley.

  Dr Clarke: No.

  Q187  Dr Gibson: Why not?

  Dr Clarke: I think that Peter's points are correct. This whole area has been addressed through a number of groups such as ITI and we have seen a whole range of options including venture capital. I think that the difference with ETI in terms of what we are seeing now is that the focus for this group is on engineering and technology and what we are already seeing is that that is bringing the excitement, both in people who want to work with us and people who to co-fund with us, and the fact that this is not about, with all due respect to Peter and his colleague, science in the laboratory, this is about a relatively near-term market and tangible demonstration of something that may be commercially viable and it is not just potential funders, it is people who want to work with us and people who want to work for us as recruits and it is other government agencies and offshore companies outside the UK and not just ones even who have a major presence here are expressing real interest and saying, "This looks exciting". This is going to start to pull technology through.

  Q188  Dr Gibson: I read about an options approach in environmental markets and economic reforms; is that a reasonable way forward? Do you know what I am referring to?

  Dr Clarke: Peripherally, yes.

  Q189  Dr Gibson: But you have never heard of it?

  Dr Clarke: We have not dealt with it at all.

  Q190  Dr Gibson: So, those poor people have produced a report that is of no consequence to the whole market. Yes?

  Dr Clarke: I cannot comment without reading the report, I am afraid.

  Q191  Dr Gibson: It is very interesting that you have not read the report.

  Dr Golby: I think that we have to be tolerant of failure as long as it is not repeated. In this area, not everything will work and, if we have a traditional government risk adverse approach here, we actually will not explore the technology areas that potentially are going to be—

  Q192  Dr Gibson: I wish I had a fiver for every time I have heard that said in this country! What are we going to do about it?

  Dr Golby: In the ETI, the private sector funders are making it very clear that we are in there to take those risks and we want the Government to stand alongside us and not to have a piece of soul-searching every time a particular project or piece of research fails. That is the nature of innovation.

  Q193  Dr Gibson: What was David Clarke's phrase—no risk strategy or something?

  Dr Clarke: Derisking.

  Q194  Dr Gibson: Derisking, yes.

  Dr Golby: The difference between derisking and—

  Q195  Dr Gibson: ... and risking, okay.

  Dr Clarke: There will never be no risk.

  Chairman: We will make sure that that comment goes in our report.

  Q196  Mr Boswell: Specifically, Professor Bruce, on knowledge and transfer, the Royal Society of Edinburgh recommended that the knowledge partnership scheme should be extended to renewables. Could you explain why that would make a difference. Also, if you look at the existing book of knowledge transfer schemes, have they made a measurable impact, so what extra has been added and what has been achieved so far?

  Professor Bruce: I am always ready to admit my ignorance and, since I did not write the report and am only really familiar with some parts of it, I really do not think that I have the knowledge base to sensibly comment on that. I am not evading the question, it is just that I do not have anything sensible to contribute.

  Q197  Mr Boswell: Does anyone else on the Panel want to comment briefly on what is available within the conventional knowledge transfer machinery at the moment and whether this idea of going for knowledge partnerships would actually help particularly with the smaller companies?

  Dr Clarke: There is a huge challenge that we have to address, not just ETI but the several organisations here, though particularly ETI, around collaboration across a whole range of organisations particularly around engaging some of the SME-type groups, in many cases not just with other SMEs but with the big corporates, and finding an effective way of making that happen. That is a major challenge that we have to work with. There is no magic answer, we just have to work at it.

  Q198  Mr Cawsey: My question really follows on from that, David, and is about intellectual property. There has been some concern expressed in the past that SMEs may have some of their ideas stolen by some of the bigger partners. Do you think that collaborative links between universities and industry are being hampered by intellectual property issues?

  Dr Clarke: I think they are being hampered by people's perceptions around what is going to happen to their idea and the impact of that is that a group who wish to collaborate together will probably spend 18 months haggling over a legal agreement to cover all their concerns. They will then put that agreement into a drawer and never look at it. I speak from 20 years' experience.

  Professor Bruce: I would endorse that.

  Q199  Chairman: How depressing.

  Dr Clarke: So the hampered part is about speed in my mind and the realities are, if we can engineer the right group of partners ... Certainly under ETI, we have no intention of attempting to steal IP, which I think was the phrase you used, from any of our technology groups and transfer that into any of our big industrial partners. If, as part of a legal agreement that we set up, that is agreed to happen, fine. The ethos that we are setting up within ETI is that the key issue is for IP to be retained by the people who can best manage it and exploit it and, frankly, there is no point in anybody having any IP in the technology space and the energy space if it cannot find a route to exploiting it. In many cases, if that means that you need a big corporate with the production capabilities and market access and service capabilities to actually exploit that IP, then, frankly, we will try and engineer a deal that gets that IP into the big corporate and gives a fair return to the SME that provided it.

  Professor Bruce: If we could get a situation where we could leave the IP issues until it actually matters, we would save an awful lot of time and money.

  Dr Clarke: And we would be a lot quicker.

  Professor Bruce: Nine times out of ten, it will not matter and, when it does, they will know how much it matters and how much they are likely to make from this and we can then have a sensible discussion. As you say, we spend a lot of time arguing over hypotheticals in this.

  Dr Clarke: We know that the two key issues that we are going to have to wrestle with are creating effective collaborations and going very, very fast.

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