The UK should greatly increase the number of Catapult centres over the next 15 years and ensure that they improve their links with universities, according to technology entrepreneur Hermann Hauser.
In a review of the innovation networks, Hauser suggests that up to 30 centres should be operational by 2030—up from the seven in place today. His report, commissioned in March by business secretary Vince Cable and the then science minister David Willetts, was published on 5 November. In 2010, Hauser wrote a report in which he recommended that the government create the network.
His report, written 4 years after the launch of the catapult programme, recommends that the centres should develop a stronger, more coherent way of working with universities at home and abroad. Hauser said that the main method should be the secondment of researchers. Some catapults, such as the Digital Economy Catapult, already accept researchers funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council on secondment.
“It does not have to be the professor who leads the group who has to go to the catapult,” Hauser told journalists at a briefing, adding that tech transfer occurs when a researcher with “black magic” or unwritten knowledge moves into the relevant catapult.
The two reasons why this personal method is the best, says Hauser, is that the researchers take their knowledge to the catapult and when they return to their research groups, they take their personal relationships back with them. “So if the group continues to produce world-class work, that finds its way back to the catapult.”
However, the idea is not without problems. Hauser himself admits that secondments can damage a researcher’s career because publications are so important. “When you go into industry, your publication record suffers,” he says.
This problem will have to be addressed if the catapult network wants more secondees, say Kieron Flanagan, a lecturer in science and technology policy at the University of Manchester, and Paul Nightingale, deputy director of the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex. Nightingale says an academic who curbs their pace of publication through a secondment can be committing “career suicide”.
Research Councils UK is also concerned. In its submission to the Hauser review, RCUK said it was “not sure that there were sufficient incentives in place to encourage catapults to work with the research base”.
Hauser’s review doesn’t mention the role of university-based technology transfer offices in these relationships. Although he says they’re “reasonably effective”, he argues that because they’re funded by universities, “They try to look good at the end of the year so they’re beginning to overvalue intellectual property terribly.”
One role he sees for universities is as incubators of research groups and industrial partners working on projects in a similar model to how the catapults work, with a view to working out whether this could develop into a full catapult centre.
Hauser’s other recommendations include: maintaining support for the catapults over the long term; protecting the funding model that each is tasked with (achieving an equal balance of funding from government, competitive grants and industry); establishing one to two catapults a year up to 30 by 2030 with core funding for the network of £400 million; and doubling the budget of parent body Innovate UK, formerly the Technology Strategy Board, to £1 billion by 2020.
“We have seven catapults at the minute,” says Hauser. “The thing that feels right is 20 by 2020 and 30 by 2030. If you multiply that with roughly £10m per catapult per year you end up with £400m a year, which feels right for UK plc compared with other nations. At the minute we’re well below that, at £90m.”
Hauser’s report also called on the catapults to do more to address wider barriers to commercialisation and innovation, including a shortage of skills. Flanagan says there aren’t enough high-quality people with the right skills for the catapults to be able to expand into this kind of work. “There’s a danger that they would hire a load of third-rate tech transfer professionals,” Flanagan says. “The danger is the catapults don’t end up doing something distinctive and filling the gap in the UK system.”
Indeed, this was a concern raised in many responses to the consultation for the Hauser review. PraxisUnico, a not-for-profit organisation that helps academics commercialise research, RCUK, the University Alliance and the Association for University Research and Industry Links all mentioned their concerns. PraxisUnico said the catapults should resist getting involved in other aspects of technology development and should “be careful not to be too many things to too many people”.
A final recommendation from Hauser is that the catapults and Innovate UK should develop better ways of measuring the work of the network. Flanagan thinks there should be no measurement at all for at least 10 years. “Micro-managing them in the early years, looking for impact now, is a mistake,” he says. Nightingale says that Innovate UK needs to decide on the main measure for the catapults. “One really useful metric could be the number of jobs and tax paid by those new jobs,” he says.