Aiming for the target

The Iain Gray Blog

As the time for setting budgets approaches, the Technology Strategy Board’s chief executive explains how the TSB’s new action plan was developed

It’s ‘that time of year’. The move into April is typically characterised by budget reconciliations, target-setting, planning for the coming year and – certainly for many larger organisations, the Technology Strategy Board included, launching a new annual delivery plan.

The process of developing our delivery plan for the coming year involves a meticulous assessment of our achievements against our commitments and, in terms of setting targets and objectives for the coming year, a careful analysis of emerging technologies, opportunities for innovation (whether in production or processes) their growth potential and how well placed the UK is to exploit those opportunities.

While that annual assessment and refocusing give us an important opportunity to review how we’ve supported the UK’s innovation ecosystem over the previous year, the sheer pace and volume of work we undertake generally prevents us from taking a further step back and appreciating the volume of support we’ve provided, over several years, to innovators keen to realise the commercial potential of their innovations. 

A limited roll call includes: several thousand projects funded; around twenty overseas trade missions completed, helping growth stage companies to gain a toehold in overseas markets; supporting  and helping to develop new technology clusters across the UK; the role we’ve played in helping to open up access to government procurement market through the Small Business Research Initiative; establishing seven catapult centres, with a cell therapy manufacturing centre and a graphene applications innovation centre due to come on stream soon.

But that look back doesn’t capture the practical, day-to-day reality of what that support has meant for companies up and down the country. I’ve always understood the importance of submitting myself to the ‘warts and all’ candour of companies busy developing their innovations. So, in addition to speaking to dozens of company representatives at our events, such as the incredibly successful ‘Collaboration Nation’ and our annual ‘Innovate’ conference, I’ve also prioritised speaking to as many of the companies we support as I can, in order to hear a more comprehensive, candid assessment of the difference out support programmes have made.

”The consistent message I’ve heard is that our support – often, but not exclusively, financial — has acted as the lever SMEs have needed to exploit the commercial potential of their innovations

The consistent message I’ve heard is that our support – often, but not exclusively, financial — has acted as the lever SMEs have needed to exploit the commercial potential of their innovations. Companies like Versarien, who have developed a revolutionary foamed metal with impressive thermal management properties and multiple potential applications described Technology Strategy Board funding – in particular our Growth Accelerator programme, as the ‘lucky break’ they needed. Encouragingly, we now feature heavily in Vesarien’s business plan, given the innovation-rich phase of their company’s commercial journey, something i hope to see become the norm amongst UK companies striving to commercialise their innovations.

versarian

I was pleased to hear from TWI, lead partners in a Technology Strategy Board-funded consortium exploiting a revolutionary additive layer manufacturing, or ‘3D printing’ technique, Selective Laser Melting, that though our financial support was important, it was our role as a catalyst for a consortium of companies spanning manufacturing, materials and software, along with academic expertise – in this case from the University of Exeter, that made the biggest difference. It’s feedback like that that reinforces my view that our strong focus on sponsoring collaboration – between companies and between companies and the academic research base is right.

Setting out our high level plans and broad strategic priorities for our support of innovators across all sectors is a crucial task. Critically, those plans must be informed by a sense of the longer-term journey to ensure that as the UK’s innovation agency, our support programmes are relevant and effective and by those incredibly valuable insights, gained directly from companies busy developing their innovations on the ground.