Technology research centres face entrepreneurial scrutiny

March 13, 2014 12:01 am

Technology research centres face entrepreneurial scrutiny

By Tanya Powley, Manufacturing Correspondent

The business secretary has asked a serial entrepreneur to examine government-backed technology centres that were launched in 2011 to solve the difficulty Britain has long had in commercialising scientific breakthroughs.

Vince Cable has commissioned Hermann Hauser, co-founder of Acorn Computer, to look at how so-called “catapult” centres might be further developed.

The government has said it will create nine of them over five years with £1.4bn of public and private investment. However, Mr Cable would like to see their scale eventually rivalling overseas examples such as Germany’s Fraunhofer Society, which was founded in 1949 and employs more than 22,000 people in 66 research hubs.

“We need to get away from the stereotype of Britain that we’re full of clever boffins that aren’t very good at business,” Mr Cable told the Financial Times.

It is early days for the UK network, which employs 1,400 scientists and engineers in seven hubs, where universities and businesses work together. There have been some notable successes, however.

Aerospace giant Rolls-Royce will open a factory this year in Rotherham that will make high-tech single crystal turbine blades that were developed at the High Value Manufacturing Catapult.

The factory, which will be one of the most advanced blade casting factories in the world, will create 150 jobs and manufacture about 100,000 castings a year for aircraft such as the Airbus A380 and the Boeing 787.

The HVM centre is also working with Applied Graphene Materials, a Durham University spinout, in the international race to commercialise the so-called “wonder material” graphene.

It is this centre that has made the most progress of the UK’s seven. Over the past 12 months, it has worked with 1,087 companies on 857 projects and it employs 1,100 of the 1,400 people working across the network. It has a £218m order book.

Mr Cable will announce the review on Thursday, during a visit to the most recently opened research hub – the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult based in Glasgow.

The ORE centre aims to reduce the cost and make better use of offshore renewable energy. It estimates this could be worth up to £6.7bn a year to the economy by 2020, creating about 150,000 jobs.

The review will see Mr Hauser revisit the topic after first proposing the network of innovation and technology centres four years ago in a report commissioned by the Labour government.

Seven centres are now in operation; in high-value manufacturing, city infrastructure, cell therapies, offshore renewables, transport systems, the digital economy and satellite applications.

Two more centres – focused on energy systems and precision medicine – will open next year. For funding, they all rely on a mixture of contract income from industry, collaborative projects and state funding. They have also received £500m of government funding, meaning they could face scrutiny about how much they contribute to the economy.

According to Simon Edmonds, the Catapult programme director, a study will be published next year that aims to quantify economic benefits.

Ansty centre captures imagination

In a large white futuristic room sit rows of bulky machines that look like huge fridge freezers or props from a science fiction film, writes Tanya Powley.

They contain cutting-edge 3D printers, robotics, welding machines and other technology that scientists and politicians hope will propel Britain to the top of the league tables for high-value manufacturing.

The room is part of a factory in the Manufacturing Technology Centre in Ansty, near Coventry, one of the seven research centres that make up the government-backed High Value Manufacturing Catapult.

The success of the MTC, coming up to its third year in operation, has taken its chief executive by surprise. It has gone from just 35 employees to 290 and income of £50m, exceeding its original target of £10m by 2020.

“It’s really captured the imagination of industry,” says Dr Clive Hickman, who joined MTC from Tata Motors, where he was head of engineering in India.

The research centre, a collaboration between the universities of Birmingham, Nottingham and Loughborough and Rolls-Royce, Aero Engine Controls and Airbus UK, is working on more than 200 projects.

While it was set up as an aerospace centre, it now works for a range of sectors including medical, food and drink, power generation and automotive in technology areas, including robotics, 3D printing, machining and fabrication.

It is developing 3D printers that have already been used in a life-saving skull operation, helping to reduce the operating time from several hours to less than one.

The MTC is also involved in space technology. It is currently working on a project looking at ways of producing crash-resistant foams to protect the European Space Agency’s Mars Samples Return module from damage during re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.

But many of the most futuristic manufacturing processes being developed at the centre are kept firmly under wraps. Some are so commercially sensitive that mobile phones are taken away before visitors step into the factory area.


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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