Into the valley of silicon rode the twenty (and helpers)

It is often easy to identify the moment when an idea crystallises but then to forget all the half-formed ideas and blind alleys that led to it. As we get close to the actual Clean and Cool Mission, I was explaining its history to a colleague and realised what an interesting story it was, so thought recording it might have value. (Imagine this scrolling up across your screen as in the beginning of Star Wars…)

For the record, it was about 8 o’clock in the evening on Tuesday 29th September and 4 of us were a mohito into a discussion of WebMission 09, which is where the story should start.

Late in 2008, we got a request from the London Technology Fund to provide a speaker at short notice for their annual awards ceremony. Ian Pearson had been called away to a parliamentary event but they wanted a link to Government. Iain Gray was already committed so I agreed to go. This was in the days when asking who in the audience had heard of the Technology Strategy Board and being disappointed was quite normal, so I gave our elevator pitch before talking a bit about the need for recognition and support for early stage companies and then handing out a prize or two.

A few days later, I received an e-mail from James Lawn of Polecat about WebMission. Although the open invitation was to speak at the launch of WebMission 09, there was an implicit offer to join the sponsorship of the mission itself. I met with James and his business partner Bronwyn Kunhardt a week or so later and agreed both to speak and add to the funding. More importantly we agreed that Zoe Lock, our lead on Information and Communications Technology, would be one of the judges and actually go on the mission to meet the 20 companies and better understand where they were in commercial space and what we could do to help them. The actual mission took place at the end on March and we got real value, both from the UK companies we went with and the US companies and organisations they interacted with. This was the second WebMission James and Bronwyn had run and we became firm fans of the approach.

Meanwhile, at the end of 2008, our Governing Board had probed us very hard on how we would adjust our general approach to supporting UK businesses in the light of the economic downturn. We analysed our then current portfolio of funding, and our plans for future competitions and activities and tried to identify those areas that might be hit quite hard during the recession but which we believed would (and could) need to come out of it strongly. One area that fitted this set of criteria was what was commonly known as “cleantech”. This covered everything from our work on low carbon vehicles and low impact buildings, through our support in the area of energy generation and supply to that in increasing resource efficiency. We discussed our analysis with the Governing Board in January 2009 and refocused our programme for that year into these areas, together with life sciences and the digital economy. Through 2009 therefore, we were very aware of the business opportunities that were emerging in the cleantech area and making connections to a thriving community of companies with great ideas and real potential. All they needed was support and connections to the markets - both those that were in the doldrums because of the recession and those that seemed to be holding up well.

These two threads of thinking and experience came together that evening in September 2009. After discussing and celebrating the success of WebMission 09, we came on to discuss what to do next. James and Bronwyn started by saying that they thought the WebMission process was now established and could effectively be franchised to the sponsors and were considering applying the same approach to another area. We all thought that clean technologies (in the broadest sense) would be a suitable focus for such an approach and we (the Technology Strategy Board) agreed to be the anchor sponsor.

The next day we set out on the path to make it happen. The collaboration with UK Trade and Investment and Enterprise UK that had characterised the two WebMissions was quickly established. We were also fortunate that John Elkington of Volans was willing to join the team. Early on we discovered that there was going to be a Cleantech Forum in San Francisco at the end of February 2010 – which meant that we had a month less to make it all happen. We were organised enough to launch the process at the London Stock Exchange on 17th November, and rode a very supportive wave of media interest to get the word out to the various communities we were targeting. Although we did not have a lot of time, by the time the competition phase closed in mid January we had 138 entries to consider. We assembled an independent assessment panel and carried out the difficult task of getting down to 20 companies. We announced these on Monday 1st February.

That evening, at BP Alternative Energy’s headquarters on the 5th floor of County Hall, we heard from 15 of the successful companies what they did and why they wanted to go on the mission. It was an awe-inspiring evening. The breadth of the company’s market interests, their passion for their product and the enormous sense of fun and commitment were palpable. Iain and I took the train back west afterwards still fizzing. Since that evening, we have lost one company, but have been working hard to finalise the details of the week in San Francisco, the housekeeping issues and the plans to keep everyone up to speed with the activities the companies will be going through in the US. We have little doubt that the companies that are going are globally competitive, that there will be many opportunities in the US for them to meet potential customers, potential backers and definite competitors. The mission, which sets out on Saturday 20th February, promises to be a blast in many ways and I am mildly saddened that I passed up the opportunity to go. Maybe next year?

PS You'll be able to follow the progress of the mission at


Last updated on Friday 23 July 2010 at 12:32

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