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.



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Cracking the Pigeon Code

There was an article on the BBC web site a few weeks back – a pigeon had been found in a chimney – a dead pigeon from WWII – with a secret code tied to its legs.

GCHQ has looked at it but it was too hard. They talked about cypher technology – if the key was lost the message might never be found. ANd so they posted the message up on line. What wuld the whole world make of it – not even GCHQ has all teh brains in the planets.

And today it looks like its cracked… by a guy in Canada that has an old codes book and he has pieced it together and also offered to context to the message.

Its a great story – Im a sucker for intrigue – and I’m thinking three things.

1) Sometimes complex things are sometimes lot simpler than you fear – you just need the right people to help.

2) Even in the most closed and controlled environments knowledge management is a challenge – heaven help us in the diffused SocialEra world

3) Just how well the planet is connected when it huddles around a trusted influencer like the BBC

Now of course this could all be a ruse to obscure a deep dark secret – “Spin them the pigeon” could be a secret service tactic – but as it stand lets just enjoy a happy ending

The story is here.


Varsity Line: When worlds collide..sparks fly

On Friday I had a meeting down at Harwell Research Park south of Oxford which exists mostly to support the UK physics research community.

It’s the 3rd time I’ve been there in a couple weeks for various reasons, but on Friday I went to meet with Ian Tracey who works for the STFC Research Council. Ian is the guy involved with much of the knowledge networks run on campus and is developing the entrepreneurial community that helps spin out the value created in that research.

I wanted to speak within Ian on the back of the Will Hutton keynote speech at the recent Venturefest conference at Oxford. At the end of Wills speech, which was often humorous and provocative; Will lay down the challenge asking the question “How can Oxford become an Open Innovation ecosystem”.

“So what are you going to do, Oxford, to be a centre of Open Innovation and drive economic growth of the region and the UK?”

I’m a big fan of Will Hutton – in fact my thesis for my MBA is framed by the compelling message that he threw out at Innovate11 in London last year, where he spoke about the need to drive growth in the UK. Will and the Big Innovation Centre are active promoters of Open Innovation – building collaboration between firms, communities and universities to drive new business.

Ian and I spoke about how there seemed to be a difference between Oxford and Cambridge. We both shared a perception that Cambridge have got it right. They are so much more connected. But maybe the grass is always greener on the other side…

We talked about the Cabume website and how it shares all the news about what’s going on in the Cambridge technology sector  – about who is raising funding and on what the top talent is doing in the city of Cambridge. Anyone who follows the news on Cabume can clearly see what’s going on in the city – who are the movers and shakers and where the energy is being created.

In Oxford on the other hand we don’t have that central news service and I updated Ian on how I have been speaking with Cabume on what it would take to get them to come to Oxford and to replicate their service for our city.

Ian had given the “Oxford versus Cambridge” dilemma considerable thought. It seems to be that Cambridge is far more geographically isolated than Oxford. Where as Oxford is surrounded by other industrial centres such as Swindon, Reading and Milton Keynes – and how we sit above the whole of the M4 corridor – Cambridge by contrast is quite remote. Maybe this was the reason that Cambridge has a strong nucleus and focus and a strong sense of collective identity. Maybe it was the case that people in Oxford – when it was time for a change – could easily explore other options and work in other locations without uprooting the family and a whole lifestyle. As a result maybe talent in Oxford is more diffused and as a result it doesn’t have a single centralised and persistent knowledge community.

We chatted about clusters. There’s lots of academic research about clusters but people aren’t really sure whether innovation happens because of clusters or whether clusters form around where innovation happens. Certainly Tech City in London is getting a lot of press. Shoreditch oddly has been vibrant for many years – a rundown part of town, which even 10 years ago was the home to some of the most vibrant nightclubs, pubs and arts scene; and now the digital creatives have moved in and things are happening.

Gilbert and George: Shoreditch gentlemen

And from watching the news that Cabume shares I can see Cambridge is also buzzing.

Ian reflected upon how the railway link between Manchester and Leeds stimulates innovation between those two areas. If you have to drive the car over the top of the M62 – over the bleak moors – it can be a real drag. But having a train line from central Manchester Piccadilly straight into the heart of Leeds has built a connection that stimulates the flow of ideas and business connections.

If you reduce distance between two centres of innovation, promote proximity and enable face-to-face meetings then things start to move and happen.

It was interesting talking to Ian and  I got to hear about his Knowledge-Broking events he puts on – bringing in people from business and research to give six and three-minute pitches about what they’re up to and what they need. The brokering events are a great example of promoting collaboration between firms and research.

Maybe we should tell Will Hutton that Oxford already is an Open Innovation Hub and that through these initiatives innovation is being stimulated. Or maybe there’s more that we can do in Oxford. Its working well in Harwell but maybe they should be co-hosted between Harwell, Begbroke and the University locations in the city? After all the first stage of any sense of cooperation is to build a platform of inclusion.

I liked the story about the way Manchester and Leeds are connected via the rail link and on Saturday when I was scanning the news I saw mention of the Varsity line and how this might be reopened. This is a line that used to connect Oxford with Cambridge and like many other lines in the UK got closed down in the 60s as part of the Beeching review.

Varsity Line sitting and waiting…

If you want to get from Oxford to Cambridge today you can take the train – chugging along into Paddington, working up a sweat on the tube, crossing to King’s Cross – surely the most grimy and Dickensian part of capital – before grabbing another train and heading back north into Cambridge. It’s really not the most appealing of journeys and a long day out.

If you want to go by car this is also a real slog – hacking around Bicester, putting up with the frustrations crossing country past Buckingham and then getting dizzy around the endless roundabouts in Milton Keynes.

The two cities really are currently inconveniently far apart given the influence they have on research and knowledge in the UK. If the Varsity line reopens it appears to be a connection from Reading through Oxford via Milton Keynes and onto Cambridge. This connects 3 of the biggest knowledge cities in the UK outside of London.

It’s a fascinating proposition as it would really help build connections between two significant worlds and it would help lots of people to connect and form linkages. Great ideas get written down in papers that people publish and share, and through the Internet we get to watch conferences on video – but often the subtlety and authenticity of the persons message comes over far better in person – spreading the energy and sense of engagement.

It started me thinking about all the people I might get a chance to meet if I was able to go to Cambridge so much more easily. I see so many interesting events going on it would be fascinating proposition and it’s interesting that an old Victorian technology like the railway lines seems to be such an enabler of knowledge transfer and human connection. After all we’re getting excited about the digital age – these technologies should remove all barriers.

However we know meeting people in real life has got huge value.

If you could have an evening in Cambridge who would you go and meet? Whose work have you been following that you’d like to bump into casually at an event or in a bar in the city?