Cameron looks to network of UK technology centres

David Cameron today confirmed plans to create a UK network of technology centres to help turn more university research into commercial products.

The UK prime minister announced the funding as part of the government’s new National Infrastructure Plan, also confirming up to £60m to develop the UK’s ports and a total of £30bn in transport projects over the next four years.

Speaking at the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) annual conference, Cameron said he wanted to unlock £200bn worth of public and private sector investment while focusing on bridging the gap between innovation and commercial success.

Technology and Innovation Centres could significantly increase R&D activity

‘The fact is that we are not as good as some of our competitors in turning great ideas on the drawing board into prototypes in a laboratory and actual goods and services people can buy.’

He said the government would spend more than £200m over the next four years on Technology and Innovation Centres (TICs), which are likely to take inspiration from the Fraunhofer institutes in Germany.

Details from the National Infrastructure Plan show that by 2014-15 the government plans to spend £200m a year on supporting manufacturing and business development, including the TICs.

Patent and trade-mark firm Withers & Rogers said the TICs could significantly increase R&D activity and encourage more businesses to capture the commercial value of their inventions, creating wealth and jobs.

‘The number of international PCT patent applications filed by German companies is many times higher than that filed by UK companies, according to the latest statistics published by the World Intellectual Patent Office (WIPO),’ said patent attorney Adrian Tombling.

‘By mirroring Germany’s focus on support for innovation, it is possible that we could see an upturn in filings here in the UK.’


PraxisUnico, an organisation set up to help commercialise university research, said it continued to welcome the proposal of TICs with certain conditions.

Speaking earlier this year, PraxisUnico chairman Prof David Secher said scientific developments had the ability to create demand and investment should not just follow the existing market.

‘To build a knowledge economy we need, not a reinforcement of old industries, but an industrial base that is aligned with our research potential; that can build on the success of university knowledge transfer; and that fosters a demand-creation agenda.’

The original idea for Fraunhofer-style centres in the UK came from home-computer pioneer Hermann Hauser, who compiled a report for the previous government on the best way to capitalise on the UK’s research base.

Speaking to The Engineer last month, Hauser said each centre should cost between £50m-£100m over 10 years, identifying regenerative medicine, renewable energy, future internet technologies, plastic electronics and advanced manufacturing as sectors that would benefit from their own centre.

‘It’s a question of focusing down on things we do really well here, where it’s appropriate to invest on that large a scale,’ he said. ‘Although it is £10m per centre per year, which isn’t a huge amount.’

Cameron also confirmed several major projects that George Osborne announced were safe in last week’s Comprehensive Spending Review, including the £220m Centre for Medical Research and Innovation and a £1bn Carbon Capture and Storage demonstration plant.

He outlined plans for rail investment, including the high-speed speed rail link from London to Birmingham, Crossrail, the Thames Gateway, the Mersey Gateway and major improvements to the East and West Coast mainlines.


Tom Foulkes, director general of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), said the introduction of the UK’s first National Infrastructure Plan was a victory in itself.

‘This long-term plan demonstrates strong political commitment and carries huge potential in ensuring decisions on the UK’s infrastructure development are not made in isolation but based on the long-term needs identified across all the sectors,’ he said.

‘It also paves the way for the private sector to take a lead role in delivering sustainable funding for future infrastructure – £200bn over the next five years.

‘This welcome commitment and momentum from government must now continue in order to really build investor confidence. We will also be looking for strong lines of accountability and transparent decision-making as the plan is implemented.’