David Willetts has begun working on a venture capital fund to support some of the eight great technologies he identified as science minister in 2013.
Willetts, now executive chairman of the social policy think tank the Resolution Foundation, announced the fund at a major lecture at EuroScience Open Forum 2016 on 25 July. He said that the British innovation ecosystem was hindered by an aversion to high-risk projects among the UK’s venture capital funds. This in turn was due to a lack of technical expertise of fund managers. “In the United States, if you are seeking funding for a robotics company, you find yourself talking to someone with a doctorate in robotics sitting in a venture capital fund, who actually tells you that you need even more funding,” he said.
David Bott, the former director of innovation programmes at the Technology Strategy Board, agreed that risk aversion existed, but that it was just “a reflection of the immaturity of the British venture capital funds” compared with those in San Francisco, which have accumulated decades of expertise since they were established in the 1950s.
Bott agreed that building a team covering all relevant scientific backgrounds will be necessary. “Willetts will need a mixture of scientists and business people,” he added. Bott recalled that in setting up the Biomedical Catalyst, a partnership between the Medical Research Council and Innovate UK, the final analysis of the project was done by two academics, two clinicians, two businessmen and two investment managers.
But Bott said that a fund for the eight great technologies—or for even just a few of them—would lack focus, and would inevitably end up specialising in a few profitable and already well-supported areas, such as the biosciences or artificial intelligence, whereas others such as agricultural technology would be more difficult to fund.
Stian Westlake, director of policy and research at the innovation agency Nesta, agreed. “The eight great technologies are a very big ocean to fish from,” he said. “Even a fund for just one of the technologies may well be too big in its own right. It would be a good idea for [Willetts] to narrow that down.”
To achieve critical mass, Willetts would have to raise a large amount of money, Westlake said. But the fund should also help innovators build relationships with potential acquirers, for instance large pharmaceutical firms. “That is a big challenge, and something on which Willetts might end up being a real asset because he is well connected.”
Willetts’ eight great technologies include synthetic biology, small satellites and robotics (see related article).
This article also appeared in Research Fortnight