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Catapulting UK Innovation
07 July 2016
4iP Council talks to Simon Edmonds, Director of Catapults at Innovate UK.
Innovate UK is the UK government’s innovation agency.
Simon is responsible for overseeing the establishment of new, not-for-profit centres for innovation called Catapults. Ten Catapults, each offering specialised facilities and expertise, have opened up across the UK. These hubs foster fundamental R&D in areas such as cell therapy, digital, transport, future cities and renewable energy.
Simon’s roles prior to Innovate UK include Director of Innovation at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and Director of the Regional Growth Fund at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
How many companies have worked with Catapult centres in the UK and what type of companies are they?
Thousands of companies have passed through Catapults since the first one opened in 2012. The centres were largely conceived for SMEs because this category of business often doesn’t have access to labs, equipment and the quality of people that we employ, however, we are also heavily engaged with large companies. Rolls Royce, Airbus and GlaxoSmithKline, for example, are among the multi-national companies working with UK Catapults.
A company must be based in the UK to work with a Catapult. This doesn’t mean it has to be registered in the UK. What matters is whether there is inward investment coming into the UK. Generally, we find that inward investment tends to cluster around each site where we have Catapults.
How would you describe the Catapult model?
PolyPhotonix sleep mask for macular eye disease.
Is intellectual property an important concern for Catapults?
Yes. Projects are screened to assess whether they are viable to join a Catapult and the value of patents and patented technology is one of the deciding factors in this process, but it is not the only one. We look at the ability of Catapults to grow and create new markets because our experience is that innovative companies are most likely to generate economic growth and employment.
Innovate UK worked closely with the UK Intellectual Property Office (IPO), which developed the intellectual property framework Catapults use. If a customer comes along and asks us to help them prove that they have a good idea, the Catapult’s IP team will sit with the company. Similarly, if a consortia approaches a Catapult there is discussion over what the IP position is.
Catapults receive core funding from Innovate UK which they use to do fundamental research and often creating their own IP, which they retain, license or spin out. In High Value Manufacturing, our biggest Catapult, valuable IP has been generated. So far, this has mainly benefited companies, which is fine, as this is also a UK benefit.
Catapults are not-for-profit so any income they generate goes back into innovation.
Has the experience of Catapults revealed any essential conditions for innovation?
Catapults are a strong neutral convenor and this has proven very beneficial to innovation and the creation of supply chains. A good illustration of this is our Future Cities Catapult, which brings together different types of experts and collaborations with other Catapults. Future Cities solutions involve the Digital Catapult and the Satellite Technology Catapult as well as the Transport Catapult.
In Milton Keynes one ‘catapulted’ development is the LUTZ Pathfinder project. The innovation is an autonomous vehicle and is a collaboration between the Transport Catapult, Milton Keynes and Oxford University as well as with a small business in Coventry.
LUTZ Pathfinder project driverless pod.
Do you support arguments for a weakening of the patent system?
While the creation of IP is not always essential for work to take place in Catapults, there is a strong argument that IP is bedrock if you want to protect innovation. This is why we work closely with the IPO to make companies aware of the value of IP.
One ‘catapulted’ innovation that may interest 4iP Council followers is The Copyright Hub. This company provides a portal to copyright-related information allowing people to register and identify copyright more easily. The Copyright Hub works in close partnership with the Digital Catapult develop technology supporting its vision.
Renewable Energy Catapult wind turbine blade test facility
Has IP been important to the way investors regard catapulted companies?
Investors and VCs are starting to watch what we do and figure out how they can invest in catapulted companies. If we give a grant we believe we are de-risking the product for investors, making it easier for them to partner with companies working with Catapults.
Investor engagement tends to happen after an innovation is patented. That said, while strong IP is a great protection, it is not the only thing investors look for. They need to be able to see a market and income stream potential.
What advice would you offer inventors?
If you think you have a good idea, reach out to a Catapult. This does not necessarily mean paying to work with the Catapult. Just the discussion with the Catapult will be beneficial because Catapults have a strong sign posting value. They are helping people navigate invention and get to see a lot of data from companies. As a result, Catapults have developed a good base of knowledge about what is and isn’t already done and protected.
If you are at a very early stage, come to Innovate UK and enter one of our funding competitions. And if you have concerns about IP, talk to one of the IP advisors at the UK IPO in Newport. They have advisors specialised in a range of technologies.
The views expressed in this feature are those of the interviewee and may not reflect the views of 4iP Council or its members. The purpose of this feature area is to reflect thinking on the topic of intellectual property and enable open discussion.