Friday, November 25, 2005

innovation strategy
Businesses to be offered a bigger role in shaping innovation strategy
By Clive Cookson, Science Editor
Published: November 24 2005 02:00 | Last updated: November 24 2005 02:00

Business has an unprecedented opportunity to shape the government's innovation policy, including the distribution of £200m a year in technology grants, the head of the UK Technology Strategy Board says today.

The days when the Department of Trade and Industry decided the policy with token industrial consultation - and then offered funding to companies on a take-it-or-leave-it basis - are over.

Graham Spittle, the board's chairman, launches its first annual report today and a separate "call to action" for companies to become more involved in the strategy. The business-led board, set up a year ago, has already put some of the elements in place but much of the strategy is still up for discussion.

"We are pleased with the way companies have taken part in our competitions [for grants] so far but we need them to be engaged with us in driving the strategy forward," says Mr Spittle, who runs the IBM Hursley Laboratory, the US computer group's main software development centre in Europe. "We want to hear from our 'customers' so that we can solve real problems rather than push new technologies for their own sake."

The technology programme is shaping up so far with two prongs. Most of the early funding is going into "key emerging technologies": electronics and photonics; advanced materials; information and communications; bioscience and healthcare; sustainable production and consumption; energy; design engineering and advanced manufacturing.

But Mr Spittle is keen to develop the second prong: "innovation platforms" where a range of technologies can be integrated and co-ordinated with government policy and procurement, to improve public services and "the ability of UK business to provide solutions".

The board is committing £10m each to two pilot "innovation platform" projects, in "network security" and "intelligent transport systems/services", and it expects substantial contributions from other government departments, particularly the Ministry of Defence, the Home Office and the Department for Transport. "We went first for the platforms we could start quickly but we probably have another six to eight that are worth looking at," Mr Spittle says.

In the past, DTI technology grants have been distributed between too many small projects, the board has decided. In future there will be fewer competitions with larger grants, aimed particularly at projects that integrate several technologies, for example combining medicine, diagnostics and IT to treat more patients at home.

Although two of the six business members of the board come from the life sciences industry, comparatively little of its budget has been directed to the biotechnology and pharmaceutical sector, which carries out 38 per cent of all corporate research and development in the UK, according to the DTI R&D Scoreboard.

But Mr Spittle says he is happy with the broad balance of spending across different sectors: "We want to help companies in areas where the UK is already strong, such as pharmaceuticals and aerospace, but we also want to go for new areas."

The CBI, the employers' organisation, whose annual conference next week will have innovation as a theme, is happy with the way things are going. "The board is right to focus on creating the right environment for strategic technology development," says John Cridland, CBI deputy director-general. "The criteria they have adopted are sound and the TSB is well placed to work right across government and make the strategy happen. Now we need to see it deliver."

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