Demonstrate the way; reduce the risk

Last week I was at the first meeting of the newly formed Industrial Biotechnology Leadership Forum, chaired jointly by Ian Lucas, Minister for Business and Regulatory Reform and Ian Schott, Chief Executive of Excelsyn.  The creation of such a forum was one of the recommendations to Government in a report by the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation and Growth Team back in May 2009, which argued powerfully in support of industrial biotechnology in the UK.

Industrial biotechnology is the use of biological resources such as plants, algae, marine life, fungi and micro-organisms, for producing and processing materials, chemicals and energy. The size of the prize is significant - the report estimated that the global market for industrial biotechnology could range between £150bn to £360bn by 2025, with estimates for the UK market ranging from £4bn to £12bn.

The report made 21 recommendations, but for me the most important were the ones around de-risking access to new products and technologies - including the development of an open access demonstrator facility and improving access to demonstration funds for companies in the industrial biotechnology sector.

The Government's response to the report, issued in June 2009, included a commitment to invest in building such a demonstration facility, supported by the Strategic Investment Fund announced in the 2009 Budget. This was confirmed in mid July, when £12m was committed to a new facility at Wilton in the North East of England, supported by £2.5m of funds to support companies using the facility. The project is managed through the Technology Strategy Board as part of our Biosciences Technology Strategy (published at Innovate '09 in October).

I found this first Leadership Forum meeting very positive. It made good progress against the recommendations for the demonstrator and, by coincidence, also included an update on our industrial biotechnology competition which had just closed for applicants that very morning. The competition had attracted a healthy level of over-subscription and after assessment the result will be decided by the end of the year.

The discussions during the Forum got me thinking further about the role of demonstrators, and their importance to the innovation landscape and the overall technology development process. Technology Readiness Levels are a useful way to think about this process, assessing the maturity level of evolving technologies prior to incorporating them into a system or a sub-system. These levels follow a sequence from TRL1 (basic research) and TRL2-3 (feasibility research), through TRL 4-5 (technology development) and TRL 6 (demonstration), through to TRL 7-9 which are more about system development and operation at the product level.

Although the TRL assessment tool has its origins in space and aerospace projects, the principles are now being applied across a range of technologies - from energy to healthcare. The Technology Strategy Board's collaborative R&D investments generally cover Levels 3 to 7.

Demonstration, or TRL 6, involves testing a representative model in a relevant environment. This is normally an expensive element in the innovation process - but at the same time is key to de-risking new technologies before moving forward to invest in full product development.

The Technology Strategy Board has specific demonstrator projects in place around, for example, electric vehicles, low carbon impact buildings and energy projects. Considerable work is also taking place on the Digital Test Beds concept to explore next generation networks and content.

These are all important projects in their own areas, but I am struck by the way the industrial biotechnology demonstrator at Wilton will add a new layer to the value of demonstrators - providing an open access facility for small and micro companies who would not otherwise have access to such demonstration resources.

The UK has a number of world class facilities, some in private ownership, many managed through universities, some through research technology organisations and some in public ownership. It is important that we build up a good map of these UK demonstration facilities to understand where they are and how we can use them better to achieve our business objectives.

The Industrial Biotechnology IGT's recommendations on open access demonstrators in fact have applicability across a wide range of other sectors. In my view the powerful role of demonstrators needs to be properly acknowledged and recognized with appropriate support and funding as part of supporting technology and innovation for the future.

Having said that, there are some good lessons to be learned from the approach taken in industrial biotechnology. The preferred route forward should be to build upon existing Centres of Excellence and align with other schemes and priorities across Government.

Having heard what I did last week, I feel that well-chosen and well-supported open access demonstrators do have strong potential to help the UK realise the economic benefit of the terrific science and technology research for which we are so well respected across the business world.


Last updated on Friday 24 February 2012 at 10:16

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