Kindled Meme

– exploring the purpose of connection

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Influencing the UK’s Innovation – Collaboration with the TSB

The are many factors that compel companies to work together on their innovation programmes – learning and exploration of new markets and technologies, or tapping into each others resources and capabilities. But in the UK – when asking SME business leaders what gives them the push to collaborate – the UK’s Technology Strategy Board (TSB) and its grant funded innovation schemes is a major driver for being part of the UK innovation ecosystem.

While ‘Open Innovation’ is often cited in academic literature as being tough for SME’s  – they have a “liability of smallness” and don’t have power and influence in their industry or the resources and maturity of multi-nationals – none of that is a barrier for agile and adventurous UK SME companies – and the path to collaboration is made all the easier due to the policy choices of this UK government body.

When performing the literature review for my own research, the world of innovation and collaboration throws up lots of lessons – but when trying to pin down the academic understanding of “What drives successful inter-firm collaboration?” – government intervention was not what I was looking for.

But during 12 semi-structured interviews ‘The TSB” kept emerging. I’m all for the force of innovation and collaboration – but I found that effective macro-economic policy also plays a part in supporting the UK as a place to be ‘open’ in innovation.

Out of twelve C-level interviews, eleven of the candidate use TSB funding.

This is what they said:

“I mean the Technology, Strategy board, actually is probably a fantastic example of enabling Open Innovation in UK because of all the TSB funded projects. We’ve done one –  we’ve been involved in three big ones and we’ve got a fourth one where we are putting the final application in now.  And they’re obviously, you know, you have a collaboration agreement, you have a number of companies involved and they’re very good at getting people working together.  Maybe companies are not being as open as they could be, they don’t have to be totally open, but they do get people sitting around together and talking which is very good.”

“The TSB is picking up a large chunk of the role of the US VC fund because we don’t quite have the same investment culture here. A lot of the early-stage investors have gone away. We don’t quite have the investment culture here in the UK.”

“I must keep highlighting that the Technology Strategy Board has a key role to play – they are pretty good – they could probably do even more if they have more money – but they are a big help – the key mechanism for driving businesses to work with other businesses.”

The TSB and Knowledge Transfer Partnerships and the “_connect” infrastructure also uncover potential new markets

“We are member of a couple of the knowledge transfer networks. We are just in receipt of a confirmation letter from the TSB for a collaborative activity around an innovative use of our equipment.”

While the TSB has formal programmes these can be used to support growth in venturing too

“We have used our IP to form a new company that was done with a TSB grant. We licensed some of our IP into that new company. That company was established and we together assigned a value to the IP that we took as a stake in the company as part of the funding round.”

Working under TSB requirements also give a structure to a partnership and can set out key terms, boundaries and expectations:

“You have to start to be very careful about co-creating explicit IP and if you actually expect to create protected IP. We will do that but we have to go through more detailed negotiations. It tends to be more of the TSB funded grant where you have to make sure that everything is notified in advance. This is inconvenient but we have done it and it’s fairly surmountable and were also on an EU grant at the moment where these things have to be codified in advance.”

The TSB funding is UK-centric – the world may becoming ‘flat’ – but the stimulus is local. Yet opportunity is frames by such boundaries

“Up comes this call for TSB funding and we looked at them and thought this is just perfect for the first time ever I am looking at TSB opportunity that fits exactly what we need and we’ve managed to find UK manufacturing partners and fabricators who are willing to partner in that.”

“I think what the TSB do is fine, within the terms of their remit. The problem is they are not on a firm footing – they are bounded to support UK-only partnerships – and the industrial base of this country has been so badly damaged. If you look at the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany there are so many of them – such a fertile ground because there are just so many small family run manufacturing businesses within with an interest in innovation within Germany.”

Often Universities can be good partners – but more than that the TSB encourages this connection:

“There’s this one particular project I’m working on well with thinking of setting up a knowledge transfer partnership which would involve the University so we’re looking at a particular case because the university have access to a particular expertise that we want to benefit from.”

“You sometimes need a university when you go after aspects of different funding, you need a university partners sometimes to access the funding. If they see ‘multinational company’, ‘service company’ and ‘university’ together then they will fund it if you bring in all three parties.”

“We have had two TSB grants to work with Universities on for Cambridge and one for UCL and we have an ongoing relationship there.”

Buts its not just TSB funding –  early stage and highly innovative companies in the bio-tech, chemical, medical device and  software also tap into Research Council grants such as EPSRC ,and EU sources of funding permit partnerships beyond the UK.

In the future we see us doing more of our own in-house product development its just and we have programmes in place to do that but again these are grant funded through EU  funding that we have been able to secure –   we just cant justify the cost of doing that on from investor capitol.

Under the auspices of framework 6 and 7 programs of European Union funded activities we have developed new techniques  new service and products.

The choice and approach to funding was strategic and not just a form filling exercise – there are many stakeholders that can help drive your choices  and for those that scan the globe in search of knowledge you may build partnerships that allow you to tap into schemes such as DARPA – a practice that has been very successful for some UK businesses as these guys show here.

Understanding funding and its role in innovation is clearly a strategic capability in the UK and Europe.

While innovation partnerships are talked of as burdens on the SME (transactional costs) – leveraging the TSB with the right partners is a rite of passage for the UK innovators I interviewed – connecting knowledge, businesses and facilitating conversation and structured outcomes.

Having a government intervention is not the ideal of free-market efficiencies – but it does seem to making up for market failings – it gives the collaboration conversation some real teeth.

Business was always about scarce resources – with this funding strategy it seems the open innovators are finding what they need.

Well done TSB.




Tim Cook’s liberal use of the C-Word #collaboration

Tim Cook’s Apple is unquestionably the dominant technology firm on the planet today and whilst they hold a position of considerable power in the consumer market place, Apple couldn’t do it without a collaborative culture internally and without calling upon the expertise of other firms in their supply chain and ecosystem.

Apple is a formidable force but its success has always been built in collaboration with others – the iTunes world is a mesh of partnerships and the products themselves draw on a selection of select external partnerships. When people muse over the details of Samsung being a supplier to Apple as well as a competitor they miss the point – Apple can’t have all the smart people and smart technology in-house – they have always work pragmatically in partnership.

This belief in collaboration was communicated clearly as the world gained an insight into Tim Cooks view of the company and how it was shaping up one year on without Steve, and this “collaborative DNA” came through in his Bloomberg interview last week.

There have been some heads rolling at Apple lately. How did he see the shake down and personal changes?

“The key in the change that you’re referencing is my deep belief that collaboration is essential for innovation—and I didn’t just start believing that. I’ve always believed that. It’s always been a core belief at Apple. Steve very deeply believed this.”

Despite being very much part of the IPhone promo-video Steve Forstall took a bullet last month and the stars of Apple had to realign. As people speculated if the change was down to the muted response to the iPhone5’s non-too-radical feature set or the crashing disappointment of the maps fiasco – Tim is now framing the change in terms of a culture of collaboration.

“You have to be an A-plus at collaboration. And so the changes that we made get us to a whole new level of collaboration. We’ve got services all in one place, and the guy that’s running that has incredible skills in services, has an incredible track record, and I’m confident will do fantastic things.”

Collaboration is a mindset and a competence – but you also need to be values aligned with the guys you are working with. Like rowers in a boat – there needs to be unity, and clearly Tim has found that affinity with Brit, Jony Ive.

“I love Jony. He’s an incredible guy, and I have a massive amount of respect for him. What bonds us? We both love Apple. We both want Apple to do great things. We both subscribe to the same principles. We believe in the simple, not the complex. We believe in collaboration. We both view Apple as here to make the best products in the world. So our values are the same.”

The Jobs era was legendary –part inspired genius, part tyrant – very much in control and having the last word. But you do get a sense of changes under Tim Cook – acting as a connector of the talent rather than the master.

“Whether there’s something that I think I know really well or I don’t know at all…I always enlist other people, because the people around the table are phenomenal people. And I’ve always found even when I thought I knew the most that there was something more that could be added and make it even better.”

But what is it in the water in Cupertino… or have these guys mastered some kind of process?

“Creativity is not a process, right? It’s people who care enough to keep thinking about something until they find the simplest way to do it. They keep thinking about something until they find the best way to do it. It’s caring enough to call the person who works over in this other area, because you think the two of you can do something fantastic that hasn’t been thought of before. It’s providing an environment where that feeds off each other and grows.

“Creativity and innovation are something you can’t flowchart out. Some things you can, and we do, and we’re very disciplined in those areas. But creativity isn’t one of those. A lot of companies have innovation departments, and this is always a sign that something is wrong when you have a VP of innovation or something.”

The full transcript of Tim Cooks excellent Bloomberg interview can be found here.

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Can Space technology address Society’s challenges – Medi-Tech for an Ageing population


One of the successes of the Future Business Weekend (FBW) was in looking at the application of space technology in the use of ‘care at home’ medical monitoring. There were two teams formed over the weekend and both took a different approach – one using existing sensors and building a knowledge and data set on health at home (a pull model that ultimately serves clinicians) – and the other taking a DNA screening and using it as a basis to offer advice on lifestyle and preventitive medication – a relationship/trusted adviser approach that pushes value to the ‘customer’.

There is a lot of talk in the press this week about energy bills and tariffs. People have payed their bills unquestioningly for too long and as Rick Smolans talk at SVCO this week uncovered we are now going to be Smart Metering our consumption to validate the costs. Shouldn’t we be ‘Smart Metering’ our health too?


It might seem arbitrary to take ‘space’ and push it into ‘medical’ but in the UK we have two things going on. The UK Space industry contributed over $9bn to our economy last year and current policy choices hope to see this grow – in the UK we are good at this and much value is capture in the ESA IP that the FBW event used – and secondly we have an ageing demographic that needs a fresh, scaleable approach to healthcare service. The UK demographic profile looks like ‘a pig in a python” – there is a huge bulge showing we are getting older and we can’t all expect to fit into the traditional model of hospitalised health care.

This week in the UK the Technology Strategy Board is looking at this issue – there is a programme of digital conversations going on around an event in Liverpool and insights are being swapped.

This stuff matters and this report captures the scale of the problem and highlights 20 cases across Europe that are taking interventions. It also does well to frame the ‘actors’ involved – it is both a ‘State’ problem, an issue for society  and also a problem for the individual. But its also a commercial opportunity as the above report shows – its not a problem to dismiss with gloom – this can be ‘fixed’. Its not just a UK issue – this is pan-european, global – afflicting Japan and knocking very, very loudly on the door of China’s population too.

Today the UK is being shaken up by changes to healthcare commissioning – this is expected to make service more locally responsive but it also has the effect of fragmenting the supply of services and it levels the playing feel for the medical entrepreneur. Being locally responsive, innovating to learn and understanding GP commissioning problems and somewhere there will be an unmet need that the giants of Siemens and Philips just arn’t nimble enough to serve.

If I hadn’t attended the Future Business Weekend event I wouldn’t have been in the position to be connecting these dots. It shows that its always valuable to get out and about and swap these ideas – we might get sucked into just framing these situations as a business model but it has social impact to.

This stuff matters.





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Blooming Lawyers

When we look at what matters and how the context around us keeps changing I despair when people talk about protecting an offering through IP. Protecting todays offering because its ‘ours’ – its full of sweat and emotion and its so valuable.

‘Legalites’ will talk about building a fortress of IP – ensuring appropriability of revenue to you as the worthy owner. But is anything truly enduring and change-proof that its worth the cost, time and energy to defend. In the entrepreneurial context I don’t think so.

If we put in efforts into building a defensive moat around us we become internally-focused, and enterprise isn’t about *us* its about them – the customers. Our Heroes.

Ive actually met some really cool patent attorneys – they are not all bad – but they need to understand where growth comes from in innovative firms – often its form being faster, more creative and better learners than other firms.

The IP is not ‘the end in itself’ – blooming lawyers are a complementary asset to innovation – the ones that understand that and help are the ones that will be the most sought after.




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Innovation jibber-jabber – is it useful?

Ive been wrapping up my dissertation this week and been reflecting on the use of language –  and especially academic language in the innovation field.

There’s lots of research out there on innovation but is tucked away inside EBSCO and ProQuest and not everyone can get access to it, and when they do get access to it it’s written in a way that many people in business would find incomprehensible – full of jargon.

A classic one in the world of innovation is the term ‘absorptive capacity’ – what on earth does this mean?

It’s all about when you work with other people, how you absorb their knowledge, see the significance in what you find and then transform it into some kind of meaning that you can take back into your own firm and see it used. Seeing it ‘used’ means seeing it applied to build some kind of value – a commercial offering. People get romantic about innovation but it’s only innovation if it’s got use and has a commercial or societal outcome.

But in a world thats becoming collaborative, it’s not just about sucking in other people’s knowledge but also sharing your own knowledge, and so the academics come up with another term  -‘desorptive capacity’ – the skill of communicating what you have so others can take it on board. It all makes good sense but the terms in themselves are obscure.

Easterby-Smith puts this in a much clearer way he says: “Good teachers make good learners, and good learners make good teachers”

People who can communicate a message, build a connection, amplify ideas and initiate some action. And it’s the action that is really important in absorptive capacity – compelling people to crack on and get things done and make things happen.

I had a conversation at Henley recently and heard about a guy from McKinsey who had recently started at Apple. The guy was a high performer and in McKinsey had been “The Man”. But when he initiated his first project at Apple, pulling together various experts from around the business, he became aware he was sat in a room with people who really didn’t need him – who were more than competent, understanding the significance and more than willing to crack on and get things done. He was asking “what am I doing here these guys are way more capable than I am?”

He ran his first meeting and people understood what was needed of them and what the vision was the project – even as he packed up his notes from the session he started seeing e-mails flying around as people left the room, picked up their actions and started to make things happen. This is a bit of absorptive capacity which is really key – when people really know how to get their shit together.

It’s not the process, it is not in a procedure, it’s in the culture – its in ‘the way things are done around here’. Apple might be a big company but from this guys experience it hasn’t forgotten what was that made it great in the early years. From my own research I can see there are many small companies in the UK which are just as focused and practical – with the need for speed and action coded into their DNA.

But does the term ‘absorptive capacity’ really help people in the real world understand what it is that researchers are finding inside these great companies?

It’s been great having the ‘obligation’ to be a researcher for a few months –  jabbering away about tacit and codified knowledge and social ties and relational capital – but now I have got to transform that learning in a way that means something to other people – through a language that’s accessible. This stuff is great but its only useful if it gets used.

You know what I mean?