University challenge

University challengeRoy Rubenstein returned to the House of Commons last week for another installment in the innovation in the UK debate. In the chair was Professor Alec Broers of Cambridge University
For Professor Sir Alec Broers, converting promising start-ups into established companies requires a key ingredient. You need to work with the leading players to get the best results. It is naive to think that you can step from the lab and compete with the likes of AT&Tand Hitachi.
It is a theme Broers returned to time and again during a recent Parliamentary session looking at innovation in the UK. Broers’ evidence follows that of such industry figures as Psion chairman, Dr David Potter, and Sir Peter Bonfield, chief executive of BT.
Broers, vice-chancellor of Cambridge University, is a rarity. Not only is he an entrepreneurial academic – playing a part in making Cambridge a leading European centre for high-tech – but for 20 years he was in the US with IBM, shaping its R&D activities worldwide.  
 
  Innovation lone ranger… Professor Alec Broers: “The best start-ups come from big companies. Unless you have the big players to talk to, you don’t know where the frontier is.”
The Parliamentary session started with the committee chairman, Conservative MP Dr Michael Clark, asking for examples of innovation successes. Broers cited Cambridge Display Technology’s light emitting polymer technology as one example: This technology, developed from scratch, is now licensed to Philips and Seiko.
What is it that is unique about Cambridge? continued Clark. After all, the Cambridge phenomenon is associated with its high quality academic institution but Cambridge is not alone in having one.
For Broers it’s a combination of a critical mass of very bright innovative people; and an innovative spirit, a consequence of the University placing few constraints on its academics. They own their own intellectual property and are relatively free to work with other organisations, said Broers.
Broers was quick to highlight concern about maintaining its future growth. While there are now a large number of individuals and companies in the area, he said, not many large organisations have resulted.
I’m very keen to draw large players; it’s very important for the region, said Broers returning to his theme.
He stressed the region and not just the City of Cambridge since developments are already being turned down by local planners due to congestion. We’ve got the same innovation, the same talent as Silicon Valley, we’ve just got further to go, he said.
Labour MP Claire Curtis-Thomas asked about the role of the Wolfson Industrial Liaison Office which is involved in technology transfer between academia and industry.
Broers admitted that the organisation is very small and very stretched and that its role is being reassessed.
Former Tory science minister Ian Taylor said he was confused: There is a lack of precision here: Cambridge is either a phenomenal success due to the work of the Wolfson Office or it is not relevant.
Two things interest me: Advanced research work with key organisations and the realisation of innovative scientific work, responded Broers. Wolfson is a mechanism for dealing with things. It may be an issue and that’s why we want to look at it.
So is there a list of key issues people should be focusing on to promote high-tech innovation? Looking at the Cam and coming up with a bright idea and a bit of kit is not enough, said Broers. The best start-ups come from big companies. Unless you have the big players to talk to, you don’t know where the frontier is.
Labour MP Nigel Beard asked Broers what he thought had happened to the UK’s physical science base. Broers gave three reasons as to why it had suffered: too much emphasis on defence, too few PhD graduates being hired and the problem of organisations training themselves; innovation death as Broers called it.
He cited defence establishment Malvern as an example, saying that during the Second World War it did some spectacular work but that over the years this had not been maintained.
The significance of attracting the likes of Microsoft to Cambridge is not just in their name, continued Broers, it is that they are at the forefront of their subject.
He returned to the example of CDT’s LEP display technology. The researchers’ initial focus was to make the displays ever brighter, after all the underlying physics is so interesting, said Broers. But then you get industry in and practical issues are brought to the fore. You’ve got to have green, read and blue; [a material with a] long life; temperature stability.
So is the key to learn what the industry challenges are? asked Beard.
The most important thing is the market, then the technology, then the people to arrange the money, said Broers.


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