How UK agency aims to foster tech innovation

The Technology Strategy Board is chasing economic growth through collaboration...

The Technology Strategy Board is chasing economic growth through collaboration...

The Technology Strategy Board aims to boost UK technology innovation

The UK government wants the Technology Strategy Board to boost economic growth through tech innovationPhoto: Shutterstock

The Technology Strategy Board (TSB) was spun out of the Department of Trade and Industry just before the economic downturn hit in 2007, with a remit to help the UK become a world leader in technology development and the home of innovative business.

The main way the TSB is aiming to achieve these objectives is by promoting and investing in the use of technology in a rapid, effective and sustainable way so that it can create wealth but also improve the quality of life for people in the UK.

The TSB was subject to the same level of cuts as other public sector bodies as a result of the 2010 government spending review. However, the addition of new responsibilities - announced by universities and science minister David Willetts in December - attracted extra funding that actually left the TSB with a slightly higher annual budget of about £280m.

silicon.com recently spoke to the TSB's head of digital Nick Appleyard to find out about the agency's role and how it's making use of taxpayers' money.

Bringing business and tech together

According to Appleyard, one of the TSB's main activities is to get industry organisations together to discuss problems they all want to overcome rather than working independently, which results in competing technologies.

"Some of what we do is about financial support but actually quite a lot of it is preparatory work - talking to people, getting them around a table, getting them to talk to each other," he said.

Appleyard said tech developers have a tendency to go their own way if left to their own devices - as shown in the mobile industry, which has developed competing standards and operating systems that make collaboration a challenge.

"We're trying to think what it is that companies can't solve for themselves and therefore where there is a role for public sector intervention of one kind or another," he said.

An example of the TSB facilitating discussions in this way is BT, Cisco and IBM coming together to determine the role technology could play in the development of smart cities in the future development of urban agglomerations. By discussing and comparing product roadmaps, tech companies can work out where they would be competing with each other and where they can help others to their mutual benefit.

With the skills, expertise and academic work present in the UK, the TSB aims to get the tech and business sector to work together to make the UK into an "innovation powerhouse".

"We spend a lot of time out and about. Most of the time we're out giving meetings with businesses and with government players and with universities, understanding what everybody is doing, where they're going with it, how those things can coincide, who might benefit from meeting one another," Appleyard said.

Knowledge transfer networks and partnerships

The TSB also runs some formal programmes to further encourage organisations and individuals to collaborate on technology: knowledge transfer networks (KTNs) and knowledge transfer partnerships (KTPs).

Many companies first start to engage with the TSB through KTNs. As the name suggests, the members of the KTNs share and exchange knowledge as they look to develop technology in particular fields.

There are 15 networks each with thousands of members covering...

...different subject areas, including photonics, media and ICT, which have thousands of members each, according to Appleyard.

KTPs are a way for graduates to work with businesses on particular projects to develop their technology skills. The partnerships are also designed to forge links between universities and businesses which will be maintained as students move on.

Information, education and competition

The TSB not only facilitates these discussions but is also able to contribute and support organisations in the form of information and research gathered through discussions with non-tech businesses.

The organisation is involved with the East London Tech City intervention announced by Prime Minister David Cameron in November 2010 to transform parts of East London into the UK's version of Silicon Valley, using government-backed investment to encourage established firms and tech start-ups to locate there.

Although the TSB wasn't involved in setting policy for the Tech City plan, it's working to help businesses take advantage of the new market opportunities the initiative presents and support those that want to get involved and help reduce the risk of getting involved.

"Sometimes it's about building community spirit and understanding between different communities. Sometimes it's about getting people over some kind of hump in the road, a barrier which is standing in the way, which might be technical or it might be a lot of stuff that they're dealing with in the digital economy," Appleyard said.

An example of the TSB creating opportunities is the recently launched Tech City Launchpad competition in which individual businesses or consortiums can compete for up to £100,000 of funding from a pot of £1m to develop a particular business idea.

By encouraging businesses to work together to secure funding, the resulting trust and sharing of knowledge could lead to further business relationships and potentially fuel economic growth as a result.

Small-business research initiatives programme

Another way the TSB is exposing member organisations to opportunities is through its small-business research initiatives (SBRI) programme in which the organisation launches competitions for small tech companies to respond to a particular need set by a government department.

For example, if the government had an issue with its G-Cloud project, an SBRI could be launched to see if an answer can be found from the private sector.

Education is another key element of the TSB's work and the organisation teaches businesses best practice, what problems need to be solved and where to focus attention through a range of workshops.

The idea is that this kind of work benefits the whole business community as it allows UK businesses to solve issues first - such as implementing cloud - giving it an early-mover advantage in the global market, something that is particularly important in the online world.

And the TSB is looking at future market opportunities for technology as well as existing ones. These include the future of energy production and sustainability and the issue of an ageing population.

"By looking ahead to see where those market opportunities are going to be five, 10 or 20 years ahead, we can then track back and say, 'Well, what technologies are needed? Who should be working on them? How can we make sure that when these market opportunities are there, UK businesses are able to take advantage of them?'," Appleyard said.

Another way in which the TSB is trying to improve the information available to businesses is...

...the work it's doing with linkeddata.org.

Essentially, the project is about making progress with the data the government is now publishing on its data.gov.uk website and "trying to stitch all that together", according to Appleyard. The data released is hard to make sense of for most individuals and organisations because it's hard to navigate, indexed differently and in a variety of formats.

The TSB is helping to clean up some of the data and make it usable for businesses. The hope is that the project will soon get to a point where the developer community can use the data resources to make useful applications.

IC Tomorrow competition

Another new way in which the TSB is aiming to help innovation flourish is the IC Tomorrow programme.

IC Tomorrow essentially provides a test bed for companies and organisations to put their technology in front of a pool of 1,000 members of the public who give feedback about the products in question.

The participants try out software via an app store environment and their feedback allows developers to respond to issues with the technology and tailor it until it's right and suitable for a larger scale trial.

The organisations taking part in this programme are generally small and the TSB will work with them to develop business relationships with the incumbent companies to help them progress and solve issues in areas where they might lack expertise.

"It's quite hard for small companies to get in through the door of big companies, to establish a relationship. So we're providing a lot of help with that kind of stuff. We talk to the big companies about what their future directions are, we talk to the small companies about what their ideas and their innovations are, and we try to match them," Appleyard said.

Technology Innovation Centres

One of the new responsibilities given to the TSB in December was the development of six to eight Technology Innovation Centres. These centres have attracted £200m of public money which will be spread out over the next four years.

These collaborative centres will provide businesses with access to kit, knowledge, resources and interaction with useful individuals and organisations, according to the TSB.

Although all the topics that these centres will focus on have yet to be confirmed, the first centre will be for developing cell therapy. The TSB is already consulting about the scope of activity and management of this centre.

Half the funding for the centres will be public money from the TSB and research grants and half from private sector investors. The core budget for setting up and running the centres will be between £5m and £10m per year with a similar amount coming from public sector grants. The same again is expected to come from direct investment from industry.

More than 140 submissions have been received which propose priorities for the first centre, and it has already attracted further investment from AstraZeneca and GSK.

It remains early days for the TSB. Since it's only four years old, many of the projects with which it has been involved have only just reached fruition. It's therefore difficult to quantify how much the organisation has contributed to the UK economy so far.

However, the TSB is clearly working hard to achieve its aims and only time will tell whether the various threads of the organisation's work will make the UK into a world leader in technology.