Travels in the West

In a previous blog I wrote about the importance of partnerships with the regions and devolved administrations in delivering our objectives. This last week I visited Wales and had an opportunity to see how it is working there, and what business is thinking about the effectiveness of this relationship.

The Welsh Assembly is going through a process of identifying Wales’s own key R&D and innovation strengths; their priority areas will, I am sure, align very closely with our own accelerated funding priority areas of the low carbon economy, the digital economy and health, as well as building on Wales’s leading aerospace, defence and automotive advanced engineering and manufacturing technologies. There are already good examples of collaboration between the Technology Strategy Board and the Welsh Assembly Government, with some £20m of our collaborative R&D grants going into Welsh companies and some 77 of our Knowledge Transfer Partnerships involving Welsh universities and businesses.

Our visit started in North Wales with a visit to Airbus at Broughton. We and the Welsh Assembly Government already work closely together in supporting Airbus technology projects, including the Next Generation Composite Wing programme. The factory at Broughton is always impressive to see and the sheer size and scale of the A380 wing facility and the wings themselves are awesome. It is important not to lose sight of the importance of large aerospace projects in pulling new technologies through across a number of different underpinning technology disciplines.

The A350 composite demo box is a clear commitment to developing state of the art manufacturing processes to support the assembly of future large civil aerospace composite wings - but already technology discussions need to focus on the next generation of technologies to meet the environmental challenges of aircraft beyond the A350.

It was a very different type of partnership at Aberystwyth University, where we got the opportunity to meet a number of small businesses at a local Business Network event. Talking to Vice Chancellor Noel Lloyd about developments at the University, I was particularly impressed to hear about the IBERS (Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences) and its work around food security. This aligned closely with the recent discussions the Technology Strategy Board has had with BBSRC and DEFRA; there is a good opportunity for further alignment between our priorities and those of the Welsh Assembly in this area.

A long drive over the Welsh mountains down to Swansea took me to see another type of business/university relationship, which fits well with both the Digital Economy and the changing shape of our manufacturing strategy. This was the Welsh Centre for Printings and Coatings, where Dr Tim Claypole gave an inspiring presentation of the opportunities arising from new e-printing technologies. We were joined by two small companies at the forefront of e-printing technologies who are working closely with the Centre: Gwent Electronic Materials and Tectonic International Ltd. There was appreciation of our involvement in the ACCUFLEX R&D project (under our technology priority area of plastic electronics, materials process and systems integration), with those present recognising fully the role it had played in moving the businesses forward. These companies had, however, been unsuccessful at the EOI stage of the recent massively over-subscribed competition for funding in High Value Manufacturing - raising questions in their minds about why we seemed to have moved away from the narrowly focused calls like Plastic Electronics to broader topics. I was impressed with Gwent Electronic Materials’ disposable glucose sensors printed on biodegradable material, and wonder how we can help make the link between the end customer (health authorities) and small companies like this; there is no doubt that these new e-printing technologies present opportunities to shape the future printing industry.

Another way in which the Welsh Assembly Government supports and promote innovations in small companies is through the Technium centres. There are some 13 such business incubation centres in Wales and they are well positioned to provide networks and acces to the different types of business support available. A more mature company, but one leading the development of world-leading medical implant technologies, is Zarlink Semiconductor. Zarlink is a global company with its UK design and manufacturing centre based in the Caldicot Electronics park (Mittel). Its work is particularly focused around medical in-body antenna technology; principal customers are device manufacturers such as Boston Scientific. The company is also focused on developing energy-harvesting technologies in such devices, converting energy from the heartbeat into power for implanted medical devices. Zarlink have benefited from Technology Strategy Board funding and are well placed to raise some challenges about our programmes, such as how big university budgets can skew funding available to small companies, or how difficult it can be to get calls timing right in line with market requirements.

My Welsh visit finished off with meeting David Grant, VC of Cardiff University and a member of our Governing Board, who is well placed to see what works best in our Welsh relationships and what needs to improve. David encouraged close links to the Welsh Assembly and good business networking links with companies in Wales. He also highlighted the Knowledge Transfer Partnership between Las Recycling of Lampeter and Cardiff University looking at waste management, which had won the KTP Wales award. The KTPs are an excellent example of a national programme delivered locally; in Wales as elsewhere they are looking at increasing the number of KTP programmes, and are well advanced in piloting voucher-based schemes for short KTPs. For me, these visits reinforced the importance of the partnership between the Technology Strategy Board and the English regions and devolved administrations. I came away feeling that there is strong alignment between the Welsh priorities for innovation and those of the Technology Strategy Board, and conscious of the practical issues we need to address to further enhance our contribution to companies’ chances of global business success.

 

Last updated on Friday 24 February 2012 at 10:35

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