Strategic thinker

After years at the helm of Airbus UK, career engineer Iain Gray takes on the challenge of running the government’s new Technology Strategy Board.

Tucked away around the back of Swindon’s railway station is the nerve centre of British science. The Research Councils’ offices sit in a manicured campus of neat modern brick buildings: Polaris House, North Star House, and now the newest member of the constellation: the Technology Strategy Board.

Just settling into its new offices, the board aims to steer science, technology and business closer together. Its helmsman, Iain Gray, has experience at the highest level of engineering, but when The Engineer came to visit — on only his second day in the job — he was still looking at a steep learning curve.

Gray is one of a small band: career engineers who have risen to the top of the executive table. Graduating from Aberdeen University with a degree in engineering science, he joined British Aerospace in 1979 as a structures engineer in Airbus, a company that dominated the rest of his career.

He held positions such as assistant chief aerodynamicist and project manager for international collaborations on the early stages of the Very Large Commercial Transport project (later the A380) and the Future Large Aircraft military transport, now the A400M.

Switching to the management side, he rose to engineering director of British Aerospace Airbus and finally, managing director and engineering manager of Airbus UK. ‘I’m very proud, as an engineer, to have achieved the kinds of roles and positions that I did,’ he said.

Now Gray has left his career haven behind to take on the chief executive role at the Technology Strategy Board, which has been given a new lease of life since the splitting of the old DTI into two new departments, the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) and Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR).

Previously an advisory body within the DTI, the board is now independent and is run by representatives from different branches of industry, including executives from companies such as ICI, Pfizer, Ove Arup and IBM, and representatives from regional development agencies, capital investment companies, universities and research councils.

The board’s stated mission is to ‘promote and support development and exploitation of technology and innovation for the benefit of UK business’. Among its goals are to use technology to improve the competitiveness of UK industry; help businesses ‘with the capacity to be the best in the world to fulfil their potential’; ‘ensure that the emerging technologies of today become the growth sectors of tomorrow’; and use this expertise to attract hi-tech investment to the UK.

It’s a lofty ideal, and one governments have strived for in many ways since the end of the World War II, with varying degrees of success. The board is certainly backing it up with money: at its Innovate07 conference earlier this month, DIUS secretary John Denham announced an extra £100m for collaborative R&D projects in eight industry sectors. But how will the board’s operation differ from other attempts to commercialise UK science and technology, and how will it fit with the other UK research funding bodies?

Gray believes the novelty lies in its industry-led perspective and independence from any government department. ‘The Technology Strategy Board’ — he never refers to it by its initials — ‘represents the needs of business, looks at science and technology that is close to market, looks at how we support business, both small companies and large companies, and looks at how we can present technologies in terms of societal needs.’

This, he said, is best represented by one of the methods the board will use to promote research, which it terms innovation platforms. These are aimed at identifying social needs that could be met using technology, but where there is considerable room for development.

The board is working on three of these platforms: low-carbon vehicles; network security; and assisted living. Each of these, Gray explained, has input across government departments, so while DIUS and BERR are involved in all of them, network security has what Gray, in fluent corporate-speak, called ‘champions’ in the Home Office; low-carbon vehicles in the Department of Transport; and assisted living in the Department of Health.

With so little time to get to grips with his new job, Gray’s plans on how the platforms will work are still sketchy. ‘The innovation platform is a wrapper that can draw out technological development under the banner of that societal need,’ he explained. ‘It’s a different concept from a collaborative research programme that has a very clearly defined scope and purpose. It’s looking at the issue in a broader sense, looking at what the challenge is and how technology can play a role in it.’

Innovation platforms are one of four so-called ‘delivery methods’ the board will use, said Gray. One of these is collaborative research. ‘This is about receiving proposals from businesses and universities against key, pre-determined themes, going through a competition process, determining against a set of criteria what the right programmes are to get the best benefit back into the UK economy.’

There will be £900m funding for such projects, he said; the target areas announced this month will cover projects in materials for energy; high-value manufacturing; cell therapy; low-carbon energy technologies; advanced lighting, lasers and displays; technologies for health; gathering data in complex environments; and creative industries.

Another ‘delivery plank’ as Gray puts it, is the Knowledge Transfer Networks (KTNs) and Partnerships (KTPs). The fourth is to work on emerging technologies. This aims to identify early-stage research with commercial potential; inform businesses about it; and use government resources to cut the financial risks of investigating the potential.

So far, it is focusing on three areas: nanomedicine; smart and adaptive optics; and quantum information processing. ‘We don’t know what we don’t know in terms of these technologies,’ Gray pointed out. ‘But if there’s something out there which has potential for commercial exploitation, it’s our job to seek it out, try to find ways of supporting it or give it a home, whether that’s a home under its own banner or helping it become a sector in its own right.’

With its prioritising of near-market research that has gone through the university phase, the Technology Strategy Board shares some ground with the Energy Technologies Institute, set up late last year to identify and develop energy projects at a demonstration stage. In fact, the board is a major ETI partner, providing 40 per cent of its funding; the competition for low-carbon technologies collaborative research was developed with the ETI. ‘One of my very early agenda items is to meet up with [recently-announced ETI director] David Clark and find out how we’ll work together,’ said Gray.

He stresses the board will not only address the manufacturing sector, which accounts for less than 20 per cent of the UK’s GDP. ‘The Technology Strategy Board has to look across the whole footprint of what is providing economic benefit to the UK, and the high-value service sector is clearly a hugely important one in the UK,’ he said. ‘We need to work out exactly how we can link technologies into the creative industries, how we can link into high-value finance. These are very much on the agenda, moving forward.’

When Gray gets on to the subject of engineering, technology and their importance to the UK, however, the corporatese vanishes. ‘Never forget your roots,’ he said. ‘I think the whole aspect of being able to create something; being part of a team which can design, develop and build something is a hugely inspiring experience. That’s what drove me into engineering and kept me in an engineering business for a long time.’

It was also, however, what drove him to move on. ‘I’m proud of my career. I believe in technology and innovation. It’s about wealth creation, being at the heart of developing things and bringing ideas through into the marketplace, and I think that’s what the Technology Strategy Board is about: developing technologies that can translate ideas into business opportunities.’