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Giving technology the right strategy: Interview with Myrddin Jones, lead technologist, TSB

The Technology Strategy Board (TSB) has hundreds of success stories of all shapes and sizes and, says Myrddin Jones, it is hungry for more. Tim Fryer reports.

The TSB is best known for funding collaborative R&D projects, but as the agency has developed since its formation in 2007, it has cemented its role as a vital cog in British Industry, particularly when it comes to exploiting innovative ideas.

Jones explained: "We are between the blue skies thinking and industrial development – we help companies with the bit in between." The help typically comes in the form of the Collaborative R&D projects that may, for example, consist of a an SME with an innovative idea, a larger customer who might be the customer, and a university who has the enabling technology, or the ability to develop it, already in house.

In 2011 an evaluation report, commissioned by the TSB and conducted by PECEC, was conducted to see what impact these projects were having. It showed that since 2004 (the projects predated the formation of the TSB) the projects would have created 13,350 additional jobs, and while this represented a cost of £36,000 pre job the total additional revenue generated was in the region of £2.9bn. Or to look at it another way, for every £1 of grant then £5.75 in value add was created.

Clearly it is a successful system, and as a consequence the budget for the TSB now sits at £440million for the financial year 2013, with £300m of that specifically aimed at the Collaborative R&D projects. Jones added: "We are funded by BIS and I guess in the three letter acronym we are responsible for the Innovation bit, and our primary focus is industry. EPSRC is responsible for funding academia. We are responsible for funding companies. Everything we run will be lead by a company even if it has a university in the partnership. Our main focus is to exploit innovation that is coming out of industry, or to take great ideas that companies have had themselves that they want to take on to a higher level of technology readiness."

The starting point for a Collaborative R&D project will be a competition, of which there have been 75 in the current year. "Usually the competitions come out of the companies, the trade associations or the Knowledge Transfer Networks (KTNs) telling us we need to be doing something," said Jones. "Then we need to check if we go ahead with something if there is a large global market for it? Is there a good know-how in academia to base this on? Does the UK have the ability to exploit the technology? Does the technology exist in the UK – if it doesn't there is nothing to exploit. And is the time right to make the investment?"

The KTNs are an important device within the TSB to enable it to fulfil its remit as they provide a means to find suitable partners across the industrial and academic sectors. In fact, reverting to the PEMEC report, 84% of participants believed one of the main benefits had been that it had 'strengthened collaborative activity'.

In terms of current competitions, there is one looking to support feasibility studies on 'emerging imaging technologies', which will cover 75% project costs up to a value of £150,000. Another competition called 'technology-inspired innovation' is for smaller studies of up to four months and £33,000 in value. Jones points out that another major competition is just getting underway: "The most important one we have got for the electronics sector is 'manufacturing electronic systems of the future' to help companies improve their manufacturing processes in electronics. It came out of the ESCO report from last year which identified this need for the UK. It is a £4.75m project so we hope to fund 15 to 20 projects of different sizes."

All competitions will give examples of the potential projects – printed electronics and chip-on-chip techniques are quoted for the manufacturing competition – but they are not intended to be prescriptive. Companies or teams can come up with their own ideas within the objectives of the competition.

An additional type of project, particularly aimed at small and micro companies is SMART. "In SMART we can fund proof of market, proof of concept development and in this case we would fund 60% of the cost of the project. So for a company with a great new idea but without the resources to fund the project, we can make it happen. Funding this year for SMART is £40m and there have been some great successes this year. It makes such a difference to smaller companies." One key aspect about SMART is that they are open all the time, companies don't need to wait for relevant competitions to be launched."

So does Jones believe that there remains a huge amount of untapped potential both in UK companies and in the academic base? "Absolutely, and it is connecting those two together and getting them to do important things together and exploit the outcome of those collaborations, that we are working on. I used to work for Hitachi in the 'mainstream' of electronics and I never realised how many amazing electronics companies there were in the UK – as a mainstream supplier we dealt with the top few and I never realised the breadth and depth of what these amazing companies were doing in the UK – and those are the guys that we help the most at the TSB."

And for those who have an image of the Technology Strategy Board as an organisation for big business Jones concluded: "It is interesting that when the TSB was set up in 2007, 25% of funding went to SMEs. This year it will cross the 50% threshold."

Myrddin Jones
Following R&D roles at Racal Research, Jones worked for Hitachi both in Europe and Japan. From 2003, he was General Manager of Hitachi's European display components business, delivering solutions for industrial, computer, automotive and telecoms markets. Jones is now Lead Technologist at the Technology Strategy Board responsible for Electronics, Sensors and Photonics.

Author
Tim Fryer

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