Projects that this week received £60m worth of DTI R&D funding underlined the government’s ‘priority’ areas, seen as vital to the UK’s position in the technology economy of the future.
Programmes relating to the environment feature strongly, as do those concerned with advanced materials, micro and nanotechnology and new display systems.
These are some of the fields in which the DTI thinks the UK can punch above its weight on the international stage, with a little government assistance ‘to help take innovative ideas out of the lab and into the market, creating prosperity for the UK’ goes the official line.
This is a laudable ambition, and the DTI seems genuinely eager to help some of our most promising technology prospects.
A few moments’ thought about that phrase ‘out of the lab and into the market’ reveals some of the dilemmas faced by those attempting to commercialise scientific and technical innovations.
The government’s largesse will be most welcome as an aid to speeding up the development process, expanding research networks and generally keeping the show on the road. ‘Out of the lab’ is one thing, however, and ‘into the market’ quite another.
The process by which the specific market potential of an innovation can be identified is often a slow and laborious one. Even if a commercial application is obvious, determining whether it is economically viable in the marketplace it hopes to enter can be just as daunting. Can it be manufactured at the cost required to be competitive? Is it distinct enough from existing systems already in the market to justify the investment needed to launch it?
Technology programmes inside big businesses can appeal to their bosses to help them through this difficult stage. Tiny spin-outs from universities or other institutions have no such luxury, yet these are the acorns from which the mighty corporate oaks of the future are supposed to grow.
Smaller start-ups facing these issues need support from the government as a whole not just the DTI, however welcome its help may be.
Those developing a novel system for detecting drugs or explosives, for example, could find themselves the grateful recipient of a DTI cash injection. But their ultimate customers are likely to be elsewhere in Whitehall, at the Home Office or the MoD.
The US recognises this by compelling its federal agencies to support small technology enterprises. Here the enemy is often a Whitehall culture that positively encourages civil servants to avoid risk and stick with the known, the safe and the cheap. Hardly a model of joined-up government.