Research & Innovation Services

Iain Gray: Joining Up the Innovation Landscape

TSB_LogoWhiteonGreyIain Gray is Chief Executive of the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) and previously Managing Director of Airbus UK. He received an Honorary Doctorate in Engineering from the University of Bath in 2005. Today we are talking to Iain about innovation…

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Iain, tell us how you became interested in science and technology?

“Educated in Scotland, Aberdeen Grammar School, Aberdeen University, I always had an interest in science and technology right through school. Interestingly, my father was actually an aerospace engineer and had a very strong passion for engineering and technology which kind of pushed me in that direction. When I graduated I moved down to Bristol for my first full job with British Aerospace at the time, and was mesmerised by what I saw in the aerospace business around what was the tail end of the Concorde development programme and the start of the Airbus aerospace programme. It was in 2007 after the development of the A380 programme, the large double decker programme, I started looking for what was next in my career. It was then that I joined the Technology Strategy Board”

Since the TSB formation in July 2007, has it achieved what it set to for the business community?

“The organisation has achieved a lot in its five and half years. We currently engage with about 4,000 different businesses and are seeing some real success stories. We've been on a pretty significant journey. I mean the TSB came out of what was the DTI and inherited a number of legacy programmes. To my mind one of the big achievements has actually been trying to join up a number of disparate initiatives and tools. Our role is now, quite clearly to my mind, to be the UK innovation agency. It's not just a funding body. It is about how we support business to engage with each other across sectors, to engage with universities, and I think the key direction of travel has been joining up the innovation landscape, providing the tools for companies in different parts of their own journey.”

How will the Catapults Centres add to the economic growth of the country?

“Catapult is a really exciting initiative and I think in years to come people will look in on the UK and the Catapults as being a real USP. The Catapults will help business leverage the science and research that goes on here in the UK.
The vision is for the Catapults to be a network of technology and innovation centres which host cutting-edge knowledge, expertise and equipment and are places where leading businesses and researchers can work side by side to turn great ideas into new products and services. We have identified seven areas where a Catapult centre is the right thing at the right time – areas which the Technology Strategy Board have already identified as strategically important, and with real opportunity. They focus on: High Value Manufacturing and Offshore Renewable Energy – providing access to experience and large scale equipment; Cell Therapies and Satellite Applications – fledgling industries with high development costs; Connected Digital Economy – transferring experiences from the Media and Creative Industries into other sectors; and Future Cities and Transport Systems – are all about integration..”

Most companies want to grow markets overseas. How can universities help to develop overseas markets and contacts?

“I think universities are somewhat uniquely positioned. University academics and researchers are amongst the best networked people in the world. They know their counterparts, people doing equivalent research in all parts of the world. Conferences provide intelligence and knowledge of what's going on around the world, so you know, for businesses to engage through universities effectively helps give them access to that network. Universities have a strong alumni with many parts of the world. There are challenges and issues about how we maintain and sustain that but the alumni is a very important part of this relationship. Many of the graduates who studied at Bath, or any of the universities around the UK, that have gone back to their home country and are in employment are a natural point of contact for business looking to do things overseas. I think universities play a very strong role in that regard”.

We pride ourselves on our contacts with SMEs. What more could be done to develop strong, working links between SMEs and universities?

“I think the interaction between universities and SMEs is very important. There are a couple of obstacles that just require us to work at and break down. One is language. The language of universities is not the language of SMEs and the language of SMEs is not the language of universities. How do we facilitate the conversations so people understand and trust each other? Communication is a big issue. Many SMEs are focused on very short term challenges, how do they pay their salary bill at the end of the month? So the timeframe SMEs are working to doesn't always marry with the academic cycles. Once you have broken down those barriers and SMEs can see the benefits, they actually become really strong advocates of working with universities. It's about finding the success stories or the mechanisms that allow introductions to be made and building on it, because there's great strength in building those relationships”.

The University of Bath is in the top ten for KTPs nationally. How do you see KTP development going forward?

“The KTP Programme is a long standing programme. It's got some real successes behind it. KTPs are just one part of our toolkit however and is just part of the engagement between universities and businesses. The Innovation Voucher Scheme for example is a very good way of introducing businesses to universities and introducing schemes like KTP. TSB is about business led innovation, it is about how to encourage the pull from business into universities, not just the push of universities into business. What I'd like to see is more evidence of businesses talking about the success of the KTP programme, because I think this would be a very strong message back into other businesses about the value of KTPs.”

Universities now talk about impact but what is impact from a TSB perspective?

“I think we sometimes get caught in knots about impact in statistics or a very instantly measureable, economic way. For me impact is about making a difference and having a view about how you can make a difference. To my mind, from a TSB point of view, the impact may just be the introduction of a company to a specific piece of research or technology that they go on to use in their own way. It's pretty difficult to measure. It may be the impact of introducing something that happens in engineering into a requirement that's needed in life sciences and health. So impact comes in all sorts of different guises. I do have a concern that, because of the way the funding mechanisms work, people put a very specific interpretation on impact. From my perspective impact is about making a difference to businesses and how businesses operate moving forward”.

What are the main challenges for effective university and business engagement?

“Communication, breaking down some of those communication barriers and having a mutual understanding of each other’s needs and drivers so businesses can put themselves in the place of universities and universities in the place of business, to try and understand where they're coming from. It’s sharing best practice and giving strong evidence as to where it's worked and what can be achieved. Why should a business approach a university to resolve a specific challenge and problem? It’s using examples where that has happened and businesses have seen real benefit”.

Are there any other key messages you would like to say to our readers?

“Well I see innovation being at the very heart of the economic growth agenda. I think this isn't a question of investment in science and research versus investment in innovation. This is a question of how we leverage the significant investments we're making in science and technology to achieve real commercial benefit. The UK should not be perceived as being the incubation unit of the rest of the world. We need to exploit and commercialise the things that are going on in our universities and I think the TSB can play a very strong role in helping to make those links between business and university”.