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Ashley Evans, chief executive, Electronics KTN

As the Electronics KTN evolves, it will face a new set of challenges. Graham Pitcher talks with chief executive Ashley Evans.

It's three years since the Electronics KTN was established, a move strongly recommended by the Electronics Innovation and Growth Team's (EIGT) 2005 report.

One of the findings in the EIGT's report was that SMEs comprised some 95% of the UK's electronics industry. Ashley Evans, the EKTN's chief executive, said: "We picked up on that straight away and made sure that we discriminated positively in their favour."

The EIGT report also pointed out the large gap between the work being carried out by academia and the needs of SMEs. Evans: "The gap needed to be closed and that's another area on which we've been focusing. But it's not just inventions that the UK needs; we also need entrepreneurs."

Evans likened the state of the UK electronics industry a few years ago to a school dance. "The girls were lined up on one side; the boys were on the other. When the EKTN started, it was an empty hall; now, the music's playing and they are beginning to dance."
But how is the EKTN's effectiveness measured? Evans pointed to two key parameters. "We're measured by the collaborations we encourage and by their output."

Another interesting parameter is the number of companies engaging with EKTN. "We've now got 3,500 member companies and 80 new people are registering a month. The EKTN brand has developed and we now have a vibrant agenda which is relevant to the sector. We've also made the sector far more visible to Government."

Mindful of the wide range of the UK's electronics industry, the EKTN elected to focus on three areas: HF/radio; embedded systems; and communications. "HF, because of the UK's academic and industry strength, embedded systems, because there is a huge shift towards software and IP, and communications, because it's an area which will have a huge impact – such as near field communications," Evans explained. "We have started to pick up companies in these areas and are increasing our membership."

He also noted that the EKTN isn't all about technology. "We've started to focus on bigger issues, particularly around innovation management. How do you get small companies collaborating with large companies?"

One way is brokerage – another growing part of the EKTN's operations – where it is facilitating meetings between interested parties. "We recently brought a delegation from IMEC together with a group of companies from the Cambridge area," Evans pointed out. "They have already built a strong relationship and business will follow."

The EKTN's mission has been helped by the development of the Grand Challenges. "We have to give credit to Professor Steve Furber for developing the Challenges," Evans admitted. Alongside the Grand Challenges, EKTN is championing the development of the Square Kilometer Array (SKA).
On the face of it, the SKA doesn't seem to match the EKTN's ambitions. "When you look closely," Evans said, "it's a project which helps us to focus on what's best about electronics and which also gets us engaged with academia through an international programme."

EKTN is pushing terahertz technology within its HF/radio focus. "This could solve some pressing Government issues," Evans noted, "and create a platform for a global market. We have already run three successful terahertz technology events, which got international attendance. People are now realising that there's something important happening in the UK."

But change is looming. While there are some 23 KTNs today, that number will be slimmed significantly. A 'super KTN', being launched on 1 July, will bring together the EKTN, the Sensors KTN and the Photonics and Plastic Electronics KTN as the ESPKTN.

The new name will bring a new outlook. The KTNs are funded by the Technology Strategy Board and it is pushing them towards addressing a range of societal challenges, such as assisted living. "How can technology help to solve them?" Evans asked, "and what are the opportunities for the companies in our network? Addressing the societal challenges is good because it involves local delivery. Assisted Living solutions and infrastructure opportunities, such as Digital Britain, should be available to UK companies."

When it starts, the ESPKTN will probably have more than 10,000 member companies in five key areas. "It will be a true 'network of networks'," Evans believes, "but the EKTN will still be there. It will be funded differently, but it will be challenge led."
Will the move lead to a loss of momentum? "We're conscious that it might," Evans concluded. "But when I look at the people involved in the ESPKTN, I can see a lot of passion and a group of people who want to make it work."

Graham Pitcher

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