Concentrating facilities and expertise

The Iain Gray blog

The ‘Catapult’ concept of concentrating facilities and expertise in fast-growing sectors is beginning to bear fruit, as the chief executive of the Technology Strategy Board explains

The news from the Treasury that the network of  specialist ‘Catapults’ is to be expanded is a recognition of the contribution these centres can make in stimulating innovation in this country.

There are currently seven of these technology and innovation centres which have been set up by the Technology Strategy Board over the last couple of years.  They are physical centres or hubs where the very best of the UK’s businesses, scientists and engineers work side-by-side on late-stage research and development – transforming proven ideas into new products and services to win business for UK plc.

Each focuses on a sector identified as a priority for the UK, yet which also has global market potential. The first was dedicated to high-value manufacturing and since then cell therapy, offshore renewable energy, satellite applications, the connected digital economy, future cities and transport systems have all been given a multi-million pound resource to stimulate greater innovation.

The Catapult concept can work across a wide range of technology areas and the Technology Strategy Board has been discussing with Government where the next priorities lie. The Treasury noted at the time of the Spending Review that Energy Systems and Stratified Medicine are prime candidates for investment.

Catapults have a unique contribution to make in addressing the big issues facing society. By providing a physical focus for activity, they can bring together business, the research base – and indeed Government – to work on large projects, which may require specialist facilities and equipment.

While innovation is no respecter of company size – many of our largest businesses have a proud record in supporting and delivering R&D – there is clear evidence that SMEs provide a crucial element in the mix. Catapults help to bring them fully into the heart of the process. Whether providing the specialist equipment and facilities normally out of reach to smaller innovators, or enabling them to engage with larger operations on collaborative projects, these specialist hubs of innovation harness the creativity of SMEs and link it into the wider supply chain for their sectors.

Satellite imagery can help provide early warnings for the agriculture sector

In some instances, the Catapults can open up opportunities for businesses to progress an idea and develop it into a product or service. The Satellite Applications Catapult in Harwell runs a regular series of events entitled the #Apps in Space Hackathon. One recent winner was an ingenious application called WeatherSafe Coffee.

WeatherSafe is a remote information and management tool for agri-food supply chain stakeholders, which provides early warnings and suggestions based on climate, weather, Earth Observation (EO) and plant pathology (pest) data, aimed at improving agriculture management practices and environmental risk response time. This helps agriculture decision-making and investment planning, improves crops and final products quality, yield and profit throughout the entire value chain, from the farmer to the end-user. 

The Cell Therapy Catapult, a centre of excellence for regenerative medicine, is working with GlaxoSmithKline plc (GSK) to explore collaborations in a range of areas relevant to the development of cell therapies, from research projects to technical and regulatory strategy. The Catapult has also recently announced an agreement with stem cell group ReNeuron to work together on therapies for stroke and for critical limb ischaemia. In a further development, at the end of May, the Catapult signed a collaboration agreement with Canada’s Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine for joint work on the commercialisation of cell therapies and regenerative medicine.

The first Catapult, for High Value Manufacturing, was established in 2011. By the end of this year, all seven of the ‘first wave’ will be operational. Chairs and CEOs for all have been appointed – the most recent being Andy Green who becomes Chairman of the Connected Digital Economy Catapult – and the location of all have been confirmed except the Transport Systems Catapult which will be announced in the next few days.

The Glasgow-based Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult has recently announced four Pilot Projects which will seek to drive cost reduction and innovation. The four are concerned with: development of a Marine Farm Accelerator, the technology of offshore cables, issues of standardisation and, finally, improvements in performance and reliability. In particular, the initiatives will consider how further advances in these four areas can be made through fuelling innovation, promoting competition, lowering technology costs and accelerating market growth.  The first two projects will be led by the Carbon Trust with the National Renewable Energy Centre (Narec) leading on the other two.

The Catapults sprang from two key reports commissioned to Government which took into consideration how other countries had concentrated facilities and expertise as a means to drive forward their own innovation programmes. We know the approach can work; the question is whether it can be applied to advantage in this country. While the UK may not have been the first to deploy this kind of support – Germany for example has its Fraunhofer Institutes – the Catapults have been designed to support our own strengths and potential markets.

It is early days yet but we are making rapid progress in creating our own network of technology and innovation centres. These Catapults will help give the UK a strategic and competitive edge in our chosen fields. They are not the only weapons we have in our armoury to deliver world-leading late-stage R&D, but they have a special place as we position ourselves as the best place in the world to innovate.