Harvard Business Review published an article last week on How Innovative Companies Get Their Best Ideas from Academic Research, something that was tacked by the UK Parliament’s Science & Technology Committee on Tuesday. As the HBR article points out but “the most important thing driving America’s success has been its unparalleled scientific leadership.”
While the Committee was very interested in the relationship between Bluestone Global Technology and the University, and why nothing was patented for years , the key issue for me was the almost insurmountable barrier for SME’s to work with Universities and exploit the UK’s excellent science base.
Part of the problem stems from the way that new centres such as the National Graphene Institute are funded. According to the evidence presented at the inquiry it seems that there is government cash available for infrastructure while the University is left to scrabble around for running costs so that some work can be done. After years working in large organisations such as the European Space Agency I’m only too familiar with the inflexibility of budgets and their unforeseen ability to act as a brake on development when the cash was intended to do the opposite.
The result is that engaging with research institutions requires a substantial financial commitment from SME’s that can run well into six figures. Combined with the effort of bridging the cultural divide between a results driven project and an academic’s area of interests it can be an insurmountable barrier.
Grant funding is one way to overcome this, and one I have made good use of in the past. But with the Innovate UK budget for graphene cut to £1.5 million over the coming year, something that may be split between a dozen companies, it won’t make much of a difference. For an organisation with an enviable track record (for a government body) of stimulating innovation and helping high growth SME’s it is incredible that everyone in the organisation tells me that budgets are still under pressure.
As I opined on BBC Radio 5 Live’s “Wake Up To Business” program on Wednesday the commercial application of 2D materials are only just getting going, and the UK needs to up its game if it want to be competitive. Simply chucking money at buildings won’t make any difference, especially in the light of the UK’s very poor science funding record.