Achievements in Research can get lost in Translation
FOR MANY YEARS NOW, the UK Government has been worrying about how to get more fast-growing high-technology businesses started here in Britain. Future wealth and employment, it reckons, depends on us using our innovative skills to develop new knowledge-based products and services which can then be successfully sold worldwide.
Like every other government in the world, it glances enviously at California's Silicon Valley, which seems to be able to effortlessly create new highly innovative technology businesses such as Apple and Google.
For the last decade, the UK Government has been pouring money into our leading research universities and, as a result, they now perform at the top of their game in scientific research. It is widely recognised that UK universities are amongst the best in the world, regularly generating new scientific breakthroughs.
However, relatively little of the new science and technology achieved by our researchers seem to result in any sort of economic benefit for British companies; and this is despite significant money being spent on 'knowledge transfer' projects in universities.
One of the key reasons for this is that universities are focused on the cutting-edge of new science, and this is rarely directly translatable into products, at least in the short term.
In order to get some insight into this situation, the last Government asked Cambridge-based entrepreneur Dr Hermann Hauser to look into it and make some recommendations. Dr Hauser, who was a founder of Acorn Computers, has since been involved in the development of over a hundred technology businesses over the last thirty years including four, such as ARM and CSR, which have gone on to become billion dollar companies. He is also a founder of Amadeus Capital Partners, the leading technology venture capital company.
His report, which was published just before the election, recommends a new type of research organisation to bridge the gap between the academic researchers and industry. He calls them 'translational infrastructure'.
Although Dr Hauser has made his career in the UK, he was born in Austria, and he has looked to examples around the world of such institutions. The famous 'Fraunhofer Gesellschafts' in Germany are identified as good examples, as are others in Taiwan, South Korea and the Netherlands. These organisations are funded by a combination of public and private contributions and concentrate on developing new technology that is closer to market than that developed at the research universities.
One of the global examples not referred to by Dr Hauser was the ITIs which were established in Scotland in 2004 to provide exactly the 'translational infrastructure' envisaged in his report. I was on the board of Scottish Enterprise at the time these new institutions were established.
Unfortunately the ITIs have not created the stream of new companies that was anticipated, and they have not been seen as a success. Last year, they were closed down as separate entities and their functions merged into Scottish Enterprise. The reasons for this are complicated but include management failures and the resistance from both our universities and the enterprise agency to their independence.
Hauser wants to call his new institutions 'Clerk Maxwell' centres, after the Scottish physicist who united electricity and magnetism under common physical laws. Given the perceived failure of our ITIs it may turn out that there will be little enthusiasm here in Scotland to revive this concept anytime soon.
We might find, somewhat ironically, that the only place in the UK that will not be setting up new 'Clerk Maxwell' centres will be here in Scotland.