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Competition, innovation and picking races

Over the last couple of months, there’s been extensive media coverage of the 2014 Longitude Prize. Commemorating the 300th anniversary of the Longitude Act in 1714, which saw John Harrison develop the marine chronometer - allowing sea-going vessels to, for the first time, accurately define their position, the Longitude Prize 2014 is a prize fund of £10m to tackle what the public deems to be one of the biggest issues facing humanity, and was first announced by Prime Minister, David Cameron, last year.


The first of John Harrison’s marine chronometers, H1, now on display at the National Maritime Museum

The Technology Strategy Board is launch funding partner and has contributed £5m to the prize fund. Of the six challenges put to the public vote, the challenge of finding a solution to antibiotic resistance was selected to be the focus of the prize. The next task for the Longitude Committee is to determine the exact nature of the challenge. I am sure it will reflect the need to create a very low cost but accurate, rapid and easy-to-use test for bacterial infections that will allow health professionals worldwide to administer the right antibiotics at the right time.

Meat and drink

The Technology Strategy Board’s involvement as launch funding partner for the prize has been fairly low profile. In part, because of our view that the challenge – and above all, the innovation it sponsors is ‘the star’, but also because for us, supporting innovation in this way, whether because of clear commercial opportunities for UK companies or in response to a societal challenge is what we do. With plans to commit well over £400m to business-led innovation over the current business year, through 88 funding competitions. Using competitions to incentivise companies to innovate is meat and drink to us.

Picking races

Much of this day-to-day support for innovation is realised not through us ‘picking winners’, but by ‘picking races’ – identifying those challenges where the UK is well placed to devise innovative solutions and to successfully commercialise the resulting opportunities.

In the area of agriculture and food, for example, this sees us using funding competitions to incentivise companies to innovate to increase the productivity of crops and animals while simultaneously decreasing the environmental impact of the industry. Our £70m AgriTech Catalyst, co-funded with the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Department for International Development (DFID) will shortly announce the winners in its first funding competition.

’Our role is unglamorous and requires a patient approach, but the ultimate benefits are realised ultimately by the UK as a whole

In the health and care arena, the key challenges of a growing, ageing population and an increasing burden of disease, present opportunities for businesses to deliver technological and service innovations, in particular to support independent living for that population.

Our work to support innovation in resource efficiency sees us sponsoring innovation across low impact buildings, the sustainable food chain and Future Cities to address the challenges posed by an increasing global population, increasing consumption, the availability of water and food production.

Innovation as the prize

These funding calls – in particular our collaborative R&D funding competitions, tend to be of huge benefit to companies, irrespective of whether their particular project proposals ‘make the cut’, as far as funding is concerned. This is because of the way they the compulsory collaborative element obliges project participants to collaborate, drawing together disparate skills and specialisms, often resulting in innovation both within and without the scope of the competition and ongoing collaboration.

Incentivising companies to develop innovative solutions to societal challenges is, in a modest way, a modern realisation of the aims of the original Longitude prize of 1714. The Technology Strategy Board’s interpretation sees us supporting companies to develop their potential solutions, with the ultimate reward not being a financial cash prize, but the capacity to successfully commercialise the solution we have supported the company to develop. Our role is unglamorous and requires a patient approach, but the ultimate benefits are realised not just by individual companies, but by extended UK supply chains and, ultimately by the UK as a whole.

Readers' comments (4)

  • It would be good to see Iain Gray support the innovation for Concentrated Solar Power at Cranfield University, along with Global CSP, we are one of the only countries not manufacturing products for this industry to export globally

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  • We hope emphasis is placed on using community organisations to help address the challenges because societal challenges need to engage communities where those problems exist. The best way to reach communities is through community organisations. We have created a website which enables people to search and find local community organisations they can work with. We would recommend people use our website as a free resource to engage with communities.

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  • Arising from the changes being made to worldwide agriculture,one British Innovative SME hsa developed [from a starting base of £100 in 1973]an entirely different kind of farm tractor for the new Conservation Agriculture {CA} world of Sustainable,low-carbon farming which FAO hacve been promoting for 12 years at least.In EC the ECAF organisation has realised that this new tractor concept{ from UK} is every bit as important as that
    which Harry Ferguson created for that olde fashioned {NOW} system of ploughing focused Agriculture.
    Now that TSB has focused its attention on the new kind of AG_TECH Strategy for UK it should certainly support the innovation that this NWUKSME has been developing for over 40Years with many evaluation customers in 15 different countries.
    This work ought be considered for a significant & fundamental design award and especially so when UK used to make 185000 tractors p.a., with 75% going to exports but now makes a few thousand only per,annum.
    Innovation of this worldwide market-focused orientation, which leads the great farm machinery companies of KUBOTA,Japan,DEERE & AGCO of USA.FIAT,ARGO & Same-Deutz of Italy & 3 FSU-makers ..................needs to be recognised and it ought to be a key part of the new UK,AGRI-TECH STRATEGY. G

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  • So what has happened to the commitment to consider PRT, unlike EVs & AVs, a technology that will significantly reduce congestion? In picking the race it is important to check out every potential winner & not to put all eggs on one or two baskets because it seems to be the best political solution

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