Technology and Innovation Centres: In conversation with Dr Hermann Hauser
Authors: Dr Benjamin Reid
13 September 2010
The UK must develop a better system for transferring world-class science and technology into commercial enterprises or it risks falling behind many competitor nations. So warned serial entrepreneur, CBE for his services to innovation, doyenne of the Cambridge Cluster – and the first European to build four separate $1bn companies from scratch – Dr Hermann Hauser , who was in conversation with Will Hutton at The Work Foundation event.
Dr Hauser suggests that without a more integrated, business-led group of semi-public institutions for commercialising cutting-edge research, the UK will not be able to compete with the targeted and effective state support for innovation provided by, among others, the integrated technology transfer organisations in Germany, Taiwan, and South Korea.
The solution? While Dr Hauser was keen to stress that there is no magic bullet, he sees the creation of a small network of Technology Innovation Centres as a crucial building block for improving the UK’s capability to exploit technology research. His ideas for these Clerk Maxwell Centres – named after 19th century Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell – were articulated in a report for former Business Secretary Lord Mandelson, and have been enthusiastically taken up by the Coalition Government. The ideas were mentioned specifically in recent speeches by both Universities and Science minister David Willetts, and Business Secretary Vincent Cable.
Dr Hauser, an arch-venture-capitalist, is a firm advocate of private financing for most businesses. But he nonetheless sees a crucial gap in the UK’s funding infrastructure for new technologies which have a commercialisation time-frame of over ten years. It is here he believes public funding must step in to maintain the UK’s competitiveness in certain areas of technological innovation.
The new Clark Maxwell Centres cannot just be a re-badging of existing provision, Dr Hauser warned. He was adamant that the UK must learn from its mistakes in the 1980s. Contrary to Dr Hauser’s recommendations in an earlier report to the Thatcher government, the UK ‘threw away a lead in the semi-conductor industry because of a lack of both government support and a national strategy’.
He also sounded a note of caution against repeating earlier crude attempts to simply ape other national approaches, which resulted in the unsuccessful ‘Faraday Institutes’ of the 1980s, and the 2000’s more fragmented approach to institute development. In the latter case, more than 24 separate government-funded nanotechnology institutions were established - far too many to deliver effective results. Instead, as the Business Secretary noted in responding to the Hauser report, the UK should look to ‘drive this number down and establish well-funded centres with long-term vision, focussed on areas of clear technical leadership and commercial promise’.
Questioned as to whether the Clark Maxwell Centres approach amount to ‘picking winners’, Dr Hauser instead championed the cause of public investment in key sectors which had great commercial potential in the very long-run, and where the UK already had an advantage in science and technology research.
On a final note, he argued that - far from being something which should be left purely to ‘market forces’ - a government which wasn’t a) picking what it saw as winning sectors or technologies to invest in b) identifying areas of technology-leadership to hold and defend for UK plc, and c) nurturing an integrated innovation eco-system for commercialising research, was 'abrogating responsibility as a national government'.
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