Science and TechnologyWritten evidence submitted by Roger Browne, MD Futurology Limited

Summary

There is a gap/valley of death.

A key reason is the different skill sets, behaviour and even values of those conducting research & development and those who have the entrepreneurial skills to spot a market opportunity and exploit it.

Those developing the “new” are often so in love with their creation they assume the world will welcome “their baby” with open arms.

Those with the skills to move from prototype to (say) bulk production, those able to promote the benefits of the offering, those able to kick open the doors of opportunity, are often not recruited to the team.

Those working on products, services or processes that will address Climate Change issues face even greater difficulties, since they will often need to change people’s behaviour as well as have their new offering accepted.

Picking winners is a most difficult task—but often there is no plan or approaches to catch proposals that are not funded but that emerge as strong opportunities sometime later.

Work is already underway—The EU funded Climate KIC project—to increase the involvement of business and to help understand how to change behaviours.

The focus of this work must not just be on research institutes, we need to address those best able (?) to commercialise the “new”—existing businesses. This is not a sprint but a marathon and a great deal of work will be required to change UK businesses so they are truly innovative and seek and welcome the “new”.

1. The gap

In my experience there is a large gap between the “new” and the “existing”, there always has been and it hasn’t recently gone away!

The gap exists whether the “new” is a new product, a new process, a new service or a new business model. It exists because there are always many who resist change, particularly those who fear that the “new” will encroach on their territory and negatively affect their income.

The best example I have heard recently of this phenomenon, came from Prof. Fred Steward, Professor of Innovation and Sustainability, Policy Studies Institute, University of Westminster. Professor Steward, speaking recently in Brussels, pointed out that the wooden shipbuilders and sail makers [amongst many others!] did not welcome the advent of steam power and iron ships!

2. A problem compounded

The facts that the existing providers often display “vested interest” mode, and that the prospective market is slow to react/accept the new offering both compound the problem.

The problem is then further compounded because those researching/designing/developing the “new” are commonly good at technical issues but not so good in other areas—key areas such as finance, marketing and commercialisation tasks.

Those at the research/design “front end” are often so in love with their “baby” that they believe that the market will immediately grasp the “new” and “beat a path to their door”. Seldom is this true. Vested interests abound!

There is also an enormous amount of work to get a product from the drawing board or lab to market! A task that is often under-estimated and not considered until far too late in the development life cycle.

3. Skill sets

Those at the front end often lack the entrepreneurial skills needed to understand the market needs [and more importantly the market “wants”] and the force of character to overcome the many hurdles between the research lab and profitable trading.

Perhaps more importantly the fail to see the need to engage people to the team that do have these skills. Outlining the problems that are likely to occur unless a complete team is assembled; isn’t an easy task and the messenger is sometimes at risk!”

A few individuals do have a complete skill set—perhaps Sir James Dyson is the best example of someone who seems equally at home in the laboratory, as the board room, as the City of London.

4. The Hauser Report

Many have talked about the sense of bringing together the two key skill sets—research skills and entrepreneurial skills. The Hauser report recommended an approach—the establishment of TICs [Technology and Innovation Centres] but action seems to have been slow here.

I recently visited EIT+ in Wroclaw, Poland and found that they were already moving in this direction and were planning to offer EU finance to local businesses who wanted to “pull” technology, from the local Universities, into their business.

In my view this pulling from research towards business has to be the focus. Looking to commercialise existing research is fine but pulling and even guiding the research is the way forward.

5. The Elephant in the room

An issue that I find is rarely discussed is the task of “picking winners”. It isn’t easy!

If funding is to be made available on some basis, then it is clear that some (projects) will secure funding whilst other will not. The basis is usually a group/committee decision by the funding body, based on their “corporate” view of the chances of commercial success.

I do wonder whether the funding bodies are sometimes too academically biased and also not inclined to take risks. Increasing the business/entrepreneurial input to the decision making process should be investigated.

I also feel that too often a few projects are funded with the result that the majority goes away empty handed. Those that are not funded should NOT however go away without support and guidance in their commercialisation task. Too often such support is not offered, and the potential to include the late starters is missed.

I think this is an absolutely critical area—given that it is so difficult to pick winners. Providing limited support to those who fail to access funding allows a lightweight monitor of those that slip through the net so that, should their ideas show real commercial worth, they can be “captured” later.

Too often the task is seen as funding the right research, to turn this around … perhaps the task should be funding and supporting the most able entrepreneurs. Many are serial entrepreneurs so this might not be as difficult a task as first seems?

It’s clear, or at least highly likely, that a significant proportion of future growth will come from “clever” technology. Of concern however is the fact that a number of today’s large global businesses were built by entrepreneurs, mavericks even, who have excelled at spotting opportunities and reacting to them. It would be a shame if any “Facebooks” or “Groupons” of tomorrow were not included in the fold.

6. A common problem?

I believe, for the reasons outlined in paragraph 1 above, that the gap exists in all, or almost all, sectors.

One sector that I believe faces particular problems is the “Green” sector, the sector where addressing Climate Change is a particular challenge.

As well as the problems outlined in paragraph 1 above, the green sector faces a special challenge because very many of the products (for example) that emerge from this work will require a change in behaviour—as well as acceptance of something “new”. Both are difficult!

This double whammy would under normal circumstances delay adoption. With the urgency that surrounds Climate Change this cannot be acceptable!

7. Issues already being addressed?

The EU Climate KIC project is, to some extent, already addressing these issues in the green arena. Major planks of the work undertaken over the last two years are:

(a)increasing the pull from business rather than the push of/from technology;

(b)speeding products (for example) to market; and

(c)Exploring the process of transition to a greener world.

I submit that with the driving principles this project is going in the right direction although I don’t for one minute suggest is has, or will reveal, alll the answers!

Dutch Universities have provided much of the input to 3) above and I spent two weeks as part of the Climate KIC project, in Wroclaw trying to draft a guide to commercialisation.

I believe this guide, albeit in very draft status, together with a number of tools developed by the Dutch Universities could provide a helpful guide to those looking to commercialise “green” products, services or processes.

I also looked at the way that EIT+ in Wroclaw are planning to fund a small number of businesses to “pull” research from University into their businesses, and I proposed an approach of support and lightweight monitoring of those who apply but fail to secure funding—see paragraph 5 above.

8. A shift in direction

Much of the current focus [and therefore support/funding?] appear to me to be on Research. Whilst many will see this as the starting point there is a strong argument that often the successful starting point is the problem (that research eventually addresses) or the market gap/opportunity that beckons.

It may be that “research” needs to receive the lions share of funding but I believe that encouraging businesses towards a more innovative approach is worthy of support also.

9. Existing businesses

The focus of this work must not be just on research institutes, we need to address those best able (?) to commercialise the “new”—existing businesses. This is not a sprint but a marathon and a great deal of work will be required to change UK businesses so they are truly innovative and seek and welcome the “new”.

Existing businesses can fail to understand the need to constantly re-invent themselves. They can fail to keep in touch with technology, thereby failing to keep their products fresh, their processes efficient and their services leading edge. In short businesses can fail to realise what technology could do for them.

It would be I believe, worth exploring some ways to get over to businesses the enormous range of things that technology can now do, the fact that very many modern products have at their base “clever” technology, and the risks they face from disruptive technology.

One approach (that would open up the minds of business people?) may be some form of technology audit where opportunities to make a difference could be revealed. From this small start oaks may grow?

The audit described above could also usefully seek information about where is the greatest opportunity to save costs. A Pareto analysis could help gain data on where costs are high and this could help focus the search/inform the debate about where to look to apply “better” technology.

The production of a simple paper describing a handful of typical, but really successful, innovations could pay dividends by helping businesses to see what is possible. It should/could feature innovations that have “changed the game” by altering a business’s costs, or by delivering a user welcomed new product or by enabling a technology based customer service.

Businesses need to be persuaded to say what problem they really want solved, rather than assuming that a solution is not currently possible. This approach leaves, should it be necessary, the researchers able to say that something can’t be done at the moment. The question then becomes—”So what can you do NOW to help me?” To make the point that technology can help it may help to adopt or adapt a marketing/selling phrase from the UK circa 1970 ... “The answer’s ‘Yes’, what’s the question?”

January 2012

Prepared 11th March 2013