Competition, innovation and picking races

The Iain Gray Blog

The chief executive of the Technology Strategy Board reflects on the results of the poll to pick the subject which will benefit from the £10m Longitude Prize

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.