Bringing ideas to market

11th November 2011


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Elisabeth Jeffries on a system to help make green technologies developed in the UK a commercial success

Salter’s Duck was an early prototype for wave power extraction. It was a device 30 years ahead of its time that could have revolutionised British energy. It surfaced in the late 1970s but was snuffed out by a combination of government policy and the interests of big business.

Several decades on, the mood has shifted. The government is now more favourably disposed towards renewable energy and, even if it is never perceived by industry as enough, provides more grants for research into, and the development of, new ideas. These can, if they make it as products, stimulate green growth.

But there is a snag: although British inventors are good at coming up with ideas, the UK needs to raise its game in terms of commercialising them in comparison with some other EU countries and the US.

Technology centres

It was with this perceived flaw in mind that the government this year launched a series of new centres aimed at strengthening the nation’s innovation performance. Technology Innovation Centres (TICs) have received £200 million in funding and, in part, are modelled on the robust, well-established network of applied research centres – the Fraunhofer Institutes (FIs) – that play a major role in driving innovation in Germany. Several TICs are proposed to promote greater innovation in environmental technologies.

These include the high-value manufacturing TIC, which supports businesses developing biotechnologies for biofuels for instance, the offshore renewable-energy TIC and the resource efficiency TIC.

Technology transfer is the ultimate goal – getting some of the ideas generated at universities into manufacturing plants in order to develop new products, processes and companies.

“Universities are not the best place for technology transfer ... they have a tendency to sit on intellectual property [IP] and wait for someone to buy it off them,” says Mike Oldham, programme manager at the Technology Strategy Board (TSB), the UK’s innovation agency.

The new TICs are to act as a bridge between the universities and industry, helping commercial managers and investors disentangle themselves from the abstract and sometimes restrictive concerns of some science departments, which can hold back product development.

“Universities’ reason for existing is education and research. It’s a different mindset to take that into the industrial base with a delivery ethos. Part of that is a dedicated team of the right people with the right mindset – not just a move to the next area of blue skies research,” explains Oldham.

TIC managers will be expected to triple the government’s initial funding injection through client fees and other sources of income.

Commercialisation in the UK of university IP has, perhaps, been haphazard and uneven in the past. It was in an effort to create a coherent, structured network of innovation centres that Dr Hermann Hauser, founder of Acorn Computers and author of a 2010 review on innovation, recommended the TICs. The policy is a deliberate attempt to learn from the FIs in Germany. These consist of 60 centres, each specialising in a different sector or technology, with a strong engineering theme.

The FI network, explains Stephanie Jung, manager of strategy development at its Munich headquarters, is “a non-university system” but the director of a centre is a university professor who is also a shareholder. Typically, the FIs work as far as the prototype stage, following which they either create a spin-out or find a partner. Some FI centres compete in the same industrial sectors, losing staff if they don’t come up to scratch.

The regime is tough: “If a customer doesn’t like the results of the project, they don’t pay us,” explains Jung, describing the control of research and development topics as “demand driven”.

Comparing them with UK centres of excellence, she says that the industry sponsorship model more common in the UK is not always satisfactory. “Sponsorship money goes into the system or into R&D somehow and sometimes there’s some output,” is how she views it.

Clearly, the UK infrastructure emerges from a different culture and will not be a replica of the FIs. But the client-based structure accompanied by core public funding, added to the creation of independent stepping stones between business and science, takes something from the FI model. It is a model that is worth considering because, as Europe’s biggest individual patent producer, the FI is a very successful organisation.

The environmental sector

Environmental companies could benefit considerably. For one thing, the TICs could contribute to speedier commercialisation and cost reduction for emerging sectors, such as wave and tidal power, by providing facilities that smaller companies cannot themselves afford. The Offshore Renewable Energy TIC, due to start operating in the summer of 2012, would bolster that process, as there are still many problems to solve in both tidal, wave and offshore wind power.

As Neil Morgan, energy manager at the TSB explains, innovation will help offshore wind become more affordable over the next few years.

“The largest capacity is 5–6MW per turbine in offshore wind. To drive down costs we need to get to 10MW at least and to do that we need bigger wind turbines. A 10MW turbine would need massive blades of 100m in diameter,” he says. Achieving that goal means improving existing composite materials and perhaps inventing new materials.

Since 70% of the cost of offshore wind power comes from the foundations, connections, maintenance and engineering, there are also opportunities for innovating in these areas. For instance, researchers could develop lighter foundations and materials for them. Cutting out the need for a gearbox would also make turbines more efficient and reduce costs. One Edinburgh-based company, Artemis Intelligent Power, has done just that.

An increased innovation rate could mean the emergence of a more robust wind power supply chain based in the UK. International market players such as Clipper, Gamesa, Mitsubishi and Siemens are all developing wind farms around the British Isles or building manufacturing centres in the UK.

The proximity of suppliers would obviously cut their costs, too, and help build an industry cluster – another characteristic of successful innovation.

Morgan points out that UK companies are also at an advantage for another reason: “We know more about the UK sea bed than anyone else does about their local sea bed because of the North Sea oil and gas industry.” This could give local companies a head start when developing offshore solutions.

Tidal power has similar problems, but is at an earlier stage still; arguably, the industry has yet to settle on the best way of generating energy from tidal power equipment. In its early days, the industry used knowledge from the wind turbine sector to produce a horizontal axis design, and transposed it to an underwater environment. There are many that dispute this logic, though, and are testing other designs.

Only one company, Marine Current Turbines, has succeeded in running a commercial operating turbine for several years. Its 10MWh SeaGen turbine, sited in the waters at Strangford Narrows, Northern Ireland, can deliver 6,000MWh a year to the grid. The firm’s next step is to develop its first array.

If this is to become commonplace in the industry, and tidal power is to make a significant contribution to cutting CO2 emissions, there may be a need to change some features of turbine devices. This is because a tidal array may provide a different set of challenges from a single turbine. In addition, researchers in the UK – and all over the world – are testing different device prototypes such as vertical axis turbines. All these ventures are risky, but stimulate innovation.

A new strategy

There are already several renewable-energy research centres operating across the UK, so what difference will the new TIC make? The most significant missing ingredient, as identified by the Hauser review, is coherence. Hauser called for the creation of a coherent network of innovation centres that strategise innovation – embedded into the economy as the rail and road infrastructure is. The new TIC may take the form of a new centre or, perhaps more likely, a kind of control tower strategising research efforts and helping promote knowledge transfer across industry.

Perhaps this is particularly important in the relatively young field of renewable energy – and it certainly is for tidal power. The UK’s marine power research centres are, of course, quite small, geographically scattered and at an early development stage.

Neil Kermode, managing director of the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC), says more collaboration and interconnection is needed. “The TIC would enable the UK to make sure its offering to help get devices into the water was coherent; not a set of different sites attracting people to go to different places,” he says.

Much of the innovations at EMEC come about through the repeated process of testing devices in the water, and are very practical in nature. In one case, tests helped companies redesign equipment to make it easier to remove it from a lorry – a problem that had not been foreseen. Following tests, companies produced a second and third, suitably improved, device. Inventions that cut the costs of underwater turbine installation – an expensive and risky business – are also urgently needed.

A successful TIC would take this further and ensure it is coordinated and commercialised. It would also help ensure some ideas are shared. “The focus is to research issues that would benefit more than one developer, even where it is being dealt with by only one party,” says Kermode. Bob Smith, CEO of tidal turbine company Pulse Tidal, points out that some of the most significant issues to overcome are to do with infrastructure – such as permitting, access to sites and grid problems.

That aside, the sector needs to solve important technical problems relating to the devices themselves. Smith also says that the removal of the gearbox from devices on both horizontal and vertical axis turbines is a priority. “We need a simplification of the power train in a cost-effective way that’s robust and reliable,” he states. As with wind power, increasing the size of the turbines is another problem he describes as “a huge challenge” without which the device wattage cannot be raised.

Centres such as TICs have existed before, so some experts are sceptical, particularly given the closure of regional development agencies, which ran and helped fund innovation and business incubation centres. Some of those funds may be recycled into TICs. In the late 1980s, the then UK government launched the Faraday centres, a series of innovation hubs with a similar aim, while specialist institutes also existed in the 1970s.

John Bessant, professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at Exeter University Business School, takes a positive view of the centres’ potential. “The TICs aren’t a bad idea, not least because it’s good to have focal points around particular themes,” he says, drawing attention to the complexity and sheer volume of knowledge in modern economies, which particularly justifies the need for these kinds of hubs.

“The knowledge created in university spin-offs is just a small piece of the puzzle,” he argues. “They produce all sorts of knowledge, new products and processes. It’s a long frontier with a lot of traffic. Skills are increasingly about knowing where to get knowledge from, so having these centres is a good idea.”

Hopefully, they will breed a new wave of Salter’s ducks, and ones that this time actually fly commercially

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