Wednesday, 22 October 2014
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Giving a push to good ideas

The stereotype of an entrepreneur is that of a highly motivated individual driven by a desire to create something of their own, to make a mark in their field and to generate ever-increasing amounts of money. The reality, of course, can be very different.

At a debate I chaired at the Royal Academy of Engineering this week, the suggestion was put to me that only one in four small businesses have any interest in growing and that government efforts to expand the economy by supporting new technology firms would always be limited by the calibre of the people involved.

I’ve no idea if it’s an accurate assessment but it’s certainly true there are plenty of businesses out there content with continuing in their own little world. Then you have the serial entrepreneurs who love starting companies but rarely stick around long enough to see them grow.

Equally, however, it’s never hard to find someone with great ideas and dreams who just can’t get the financial support to make them happen. When this time last year I wrote about the need for greater aspiration among Britain’s startup firms, we received numerous comments from readers stuck in this exact situation.

From today there’s a new funding opportunity for small businesses, as well as large firms and academic researchers. Horizon 2020 is the EU’s latest research funding programme, an €80bn (£65bn) pot of money up for grabs over six years for those who put forward the best proposals for international collaborations addressing the biggest problems in science and industry.

The UK tends to do pretty well from European research grants, receiving around 15 per cent of funding in the last three programmes, more than any other country except Germany. A huge number of the projects we cover on The Engineer tend to have some money from FP7 (the most recent programme) involved.

It’s far from a perfect system, as anyone who has grappled with the EU bureaucracy could tell you. I‘ve encountered some fascinating and wildly impressive projects from FP7, but also some that left me thinking: ‘You spent three years and half a million pounds on that?!’. Some telehealth and robotic projects that I’ve encountered, in particular, have produced results that I struggled to believe anyone would ever use, especially when compared to the products created by the private sector in the same time frame.

Still, for some companies, Horizon 2020, which the EU claims comes with a much simplified application and review process, could provide a fantastic opportunity to expand their business.

The organisers of the programme are keen to stress that it’s not for those who are only looking for money. The aim of Horizon 2020 is to enable research and development with commercial potential, but it should be seen as an investment, a way to de-risk good ideas, create access to international partners and improve the skills base, not just as a cash pot to help take a product to market.

There are bound to be problems that will emerge as more and more people apply to Horizon 2020. The organisers have already indicated they are worried about a flood of unsuitable applications from European academics who’ve had their national funding slashed. And some companies, especially more established ones, will still struggle to justify joining a project that doesn’t provide a clear way for it to make a profit.  

But for anyone with a good idea that needs some help, some extra expertise or a way to make investment less risky, Horizon 2020 could be the tool that starts a new era for their business. And we need as many of those as we can get if we really want to grow the economy through technology.


Readers' comments (14)

  • Here's a comment from Canada to illustrate my point - that bad ideas are an eye-watering waste of investment dollars/pounds/Euros. Even BAD electricity storage (new transmission line to PHS) is BETTER than fossil fuels + CCS. Therefore NO government funding, and certainly none from Horizon 2020, should be channeled into the Rd&d of CCS. Naturally the same goes for fracking.

    All we have to do is to IDENTIFY which ideas are bad, and do it at the Proof-of-Concept stage.

    "My province of Saskatchewan could have done this with Manitoba. Instead we have a fossil premier who is pouring public money into a CCS project costing $1.2 Billion and will generate a whole 110 MW using 30% more coal."
    http://climatecrocks.com/2014/02/04/transmission-allows-wind-storage-in-canada/#more-17743

    What a bitter irony. Sir Terry Matthews has close associations with both Canada and Wales, yet his reluctance to spend money on Rd&d (with no immediate prospect of a ROI), will condemn both to missing out on the green economic renaissance.

    That's what you get from 'business-led' innovation policies.

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  • Dear sir,
    We from under developed countries have to work for money from opening eyes to closing eyes daily.So person cannot give more time in innovation though they are interested.Still I have submitted some ideas for patent in my country Nepal .Govt,public,financial institution an even friends/relatives/family members don't support for innovation though we have mortgage guarantee.
    These are my thinking:
    Sun moon engine
    Tai chi engine
    Vertical axis engine
    Over head rescue copter
    Semi natural thermal plant.
    Can be seen in you tube channel.

    How to get loan for experiment or where can I do experiment.

    Regards

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  • David S
    No you do not really understand. To even compare with the 2003 review highlights this. I am talking about PROVEN new technologies where proof exists it works and can save money or add value. A centralised resource that innovators can place their innovative technology to be assessed as described. In government this enables being the “intelligent customer” and encourages others to be active in seeking new ways.

    As for a time frame real technological innovation to reach market readiness is unlikely to be less than 5 years more like 10! Ask any big company with huge resources! To succeed you need resilience, belief and determination and the Innovation Exploitation Hub would support innovators and their backers as a meaningful target with clear conditions to help cross that exploitation chasm. It levels the playing field for the Tech SMEs and will ensure unhealthy domination by big vendors is always challenged

    We MUST address this vital issue. I agree spending all the money on R&D with current failure profile is senseless. It needs joined up thinking and action across government with objectives to create even just one new global prospect per year would deliver significant return to UKplc? The current “spend budgets” by those organisations mentioned just encourages wasteful spend!

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  • Dear Editor, I appreciate your response, but let's be honest, you haven't actually answered my question. . . .

    My far from concise comment on the article, "Giving a Push to Good Ideas" asked you to, "Please edit as you see fit". You decided to censor it all. Why? (not PC, in your view?)

    Perhaps 'The Engineer' could reconsider, with an open mind, and allow your readers to decide for themselves whether my post was "accessible" or not, whatever that means? I will send it again, in case you deleted it.

    As I've written, many people, in reaching decisions, would rather rewrite history, than change their fixed ideas on politics, equality of rights, or design convention. We need change more than ever, given the problems we face today.

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  • You answered your own question when you described your comment as "far from concise".

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