Thinking about emerging technologies
It’s a hot topic, emerging technologies. Companies, academia and Government in the UK have spent considerable time in the past few years considering the subject. Which early stage technologies are the most important? What are the implications? What should we do about it? Here are my own reflections on the subject.
Technology shapes our daily experiences
When I think about our world I find it to be full of the most amazing things. Many of these are the product of nature’s glorious processes. And many are entirely man made, and are based on technology. These manmade products, processes and services shape our daily experience of life.
The medicines that treat our diseases, the energy that keeps the lights on and warms our homes, the devices on which we watch movies or communicate with friends, the modern farming practices that produce the food we eat. They have one thing in common. They all used not to exist.
Emerging technologies disrupt markets
By an emerging technology we mean a technology that is just emerging from the research base, or has only recently emerged; and that allows you to do something you couldn’t do before, or could only do in theory. Because of this it creates a completely different value proposition, and as a result it disrupts markets.
I’m thinking about technologies like the silicon chip, the mobile phone, the digital camera, medical imaging, batteries, optical fibres etc. The things we take for granted today, like being able to make a long distance phone call, watch TV or check the health of an unborn baby used not to be possible. And then, at some point, the technologies that underpin them emerged from the science base. They were emerging technologies themselves back then. And now we use them everyday. And our world is better because of it.
It’s the scale of technology uptake that counts
Of course, our world is not better just because these technologies emerged from the science base. It is better because they became available at scale. The world isn’t better because one person has electricity in the home. It’s better because billions of people have electricity in the home. This is important, because it is usually companies that make things available at scale.
Of course, Governments have an important part to play. For example, they can set regulatory and standards frameworks, and in the UK they provide the framework and funding for the NHS. But Government itself doesn’t make the medicines we take. Companies do that.
Investing in the future of the UK
So to make an impact emerging technologies have make the transition from interesting science experiments to industrial products (or processes or services) made available at scale by companies. This is the process of innovation, and accelerating innovation is the reason Innovate UK, where I work, exists and why we have an Emerging Technologies and Industries programme. We are investing in the future of the UK.
UK academia is a fertile source of emerging technologies
The UK has one of the best research bases in the world. We are 0.9% of the world’s population, and we provide 3.2% of the world’s R&D investment, but we product 15.9% of the world’s most highly cited research publications. In fact, the UK’s 194,000 academics (and 539,000 post-Docs) publish around 140,000 papers per year. This means that UK academia is a fertile source of emerging technologies.
The question for those investing to accelerate economic growth is to determine which have the potential to become the new industries of the future.
We have to make choices
We simply do not have sufficient resources to invest in all of the early stage technologies coming forward. We have to make choices. There is a phrase that comes to mind whenever this topic comes up, which is that the public sector shouldn’t “pick winners”. Personally, I don’t see why we shouldn’t. Businesses do this everyday of the week, and as the world is full of successful companies it can’t be impossible to do it if you manage the process properly and allow for the fact that some of your judgements will be wrong (something you can only ever know with hindsight).
Picking the races from which the winners will emerge
Perhaps the most successful businesses are those that are best at picking the winners and then implementing successful strategies around them. Anyway, we have to decide where to invest so we don’t spread our resources so thinly that we have no impact at all. When we do this we evaluate all the early stage technologies we come across, and build national programmes only in the areas with the highest potential. If we don’t pick winners, we certainly pick races!
Deciding where to invest
How do we decide? Well, we use four criteria to help us. Firstly, is there likely to be a large worldwide market in 10 years? Secondly, does the UK have the capability to succeed in that market? Thirdly, is it right to intervene now? Fourthly, can an Innovate UK programme add value?
We have an Advisory Board that helped us to design the evaluation process and stress tests the results.
Supporting early stage technology areas
As a result of this work, we have identified 8 technology areas that are still at an early stage and that have the potential to become multi-billion pound industries in the UK over the next decade. They are synthetic biology, energy harvesting, energy efficient computing, novel imaging technologies, non-animal technologies, graphene, quantum technologies and biofilms. Not all of these will succeed. But if we wait until the market does exist, so we know exactly which are best, it will be too late for us to be in the lead. The ship will have sailed and others with have taken the commercial advantage. We don’t want that to happen, so we make some of our investments early. Small ones initially, but growing in size as we see whether or not our assessment of the early promise turns out to be right.
Personally, I shouldn’t be surprised if as many as half of them fail. But even if that does happen, the UK will still have £3-4bn of revenue in the new sectors – a good return for an investment of a few tens of millions per annum.
Some commercialisation challenges of emerging technologies
Once we have decided which technologies we want to invest in. What do we actually do about it? Well, one thing we know about commercialising technologies is that it is a long and complex process. It is always harder, and always takes longer than you thought it would. Technologies often end up being successful in areas you didn’t anticipate at the beginning.
It also turns out that technologies often need to be brought together with other technologies to make commercially viable products work. (For example, a mobile phone isn’t really one technology, it contains at least half a dozen technologies – LCD display, optics, photoreceptors, data storage etc.). And since you don’t know at the outset which of the various target markets will gain traction, you don’t necessarily know at the beginning which companion technologies you will need access to later on.
And when you enter a new market, you don’t know how the existing producers will react to your presence. And sometimes you don’t really understand the value/supply chains, and where the money really accumulates. This information tends to be kept confidential. We also know that, while significant investment finance is available in the UK, if you can’t explain what your innovation is for no-one will fund you and your business will die.
After all, no-one really buys technology; they buy what it does for them. So whilst success is absolutely not guaranteed, we also know that if you don’t at least try, then failure is.
Addressing these challenges
We have designed a suite of activities to address these challenges. At the outset we build communities (Special Interest Groups) where people with an interest in the area can convene and work with like-minded individuals to identify and overcome the barriers. Identifying what needs to be done; collaborating to make progress faster; people on the demand-side explaining to those on the supply-side what the technology really needs to do.
Then we make small investments, working with colleagues in the research councils and across Government, to help companies take their first steps with the technology. These feasibility studies are relatively inexpensive, and allow people to explore in a range of possible applications, which really might be viable. Later on we fund larger projects to accelerate to market new products, processes or services in areas where there is more confidence of success. In some areas we also help the industry to grow faster by establishing, with our partners EPSRC, an Innovation and Knowledge Centre (IKC) – bringing together expertise and equipment to further develop the technology and help nucleate the emerging industry.
Articulating a vision and having a strategy
Sometimes we work with the emerging sector to build national roadmaps that articulate a vision for the new sector and lays out what has to happen to achieve it. We have done this in synthetic biology and stratified medicine, and are shortly to publish roadmaps for quantum technologies and non-animal technologies. You can view our Emerging Technologies and Industries strategy. Taking a strategic view is really important.
Most people underestimate just how long it takes to commercialise a disruptive technology. To give just one example, Kodak demonstrated the first digital camera in 1975, but it wasn’t until 2003 that sales of digital cameras in the USA overtook sales of 35mm film cameras. That is 28 years later. If the UK is to succeed in commercialising emerging technologies it will only be through patient hard work and deploying sufficient resources over the longer term. Not promising too much too soon, and not giving up too early. This is one of the reasons we produce strategies in each of our major investment areas.
Throughout this, the creation of ‘demonstrators’ of various kinds is essential. They come in all sorts of different shapes and sizes (not just late stage, demonstration at scale). You can demonstrate that something works at the laboratory bench. You can demonstrate to a potential customer, however clumsily, that the technology might work in their application. You can demonstrate to company management that it could be a fit in the existing product lines and so on. Work at the IfM at Cambridge University has shown that demonstrators are an essential part of accelerating emerging technologies, and investing in demonstrators is a core part of our own strategy.
From emerging technology to existing technology
In conclusion, commercialising early stage technologies is a really difficult thing to do. It takes a long time, and is fraught with risk of failure. So why are we so excited about it? Well, just take a look at our world with its optical fibres, photovoltaics, portable entertainment devices, semi-conductors, software, gyroscopes, cancer therapies, synthetic diamond, batteries, digital cameras, catalytic converters, flat panel displays, ink jet printers, and medical imagers (including MRI, ultrasound, tomography and X-ray). They were all emerging technologies once.
What’s exciting is to imagine what the next ones might be, and then to try to do something about it.
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