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Uncovering emerging technologies

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There’s lots of interest in emerging technologies at the moment and it’s not difficult to see why. It is, however, difficult to succeed.

That doesn’t stop governments, companies and research bodies from trying since, well before the fashion or gadget era, discovering a better way of doing something gave evolutionary advantage, even if it was only a bigger stick or traps to capture animals rather than chasing them for miles.

How we identify the next big thing

At Innovate UK we have a system, honed over the last 5+ years, which brings some discipline and objectivity to the process of identifying the next big technological thing, and most importantly, to identifying where we can provide vital support to give UK companies the opportunity to lead.

The top 100+ technologies

At the core of our Emerging Technology selection process is the long list of the 100+ technologies or science breakthroughs that look promising.

To build this list, we undertake our own global, horizon-scanning activity every two years, drawing on outputs from:

  • research base
  • learned societies
  • conferences
  • foresighting organisations, among others.

In addition, we are continually developing the list by connecting with as many people as possible who have ideas and suggestions to share, including individuals from across the research base, industry and government.

Making the list

Topics to be added to the list have to:

  • meet our definition of an Emerging Technology (i.e. emerging or recently emerged from the science base)
  • have the potential to disrupt value chain
  • allow us to do something that was not previously possible

Anyone can suggest topics for inclusion but they must be able to provide evidence about how the technology meets this definition and give an indication of the expected time when the technology will make a market impact.

As part of our on-going development of the long list, we have recently transferred data held in lots of spreadsheets to a bespoke database, which provides much improved searchability and, crucially, an audit trail for decisions

How we define technology priorities

To help us distinguish between the technologies on the long list and identify the ones that are most appropriate for Innovate UK support, we have developed a prioritisation process.

The first stage of this process involves gathering data on global market size, as well as assessing the capacity of UK industry to exploit the opportunity and of our science base to research and develop the technology.

We also make a preliminary assessment at this stage of the blockers or constraints that a technology faces on its route to market, and identify where Innovate UK can add the most value through its Funding and Connect activities.

This eventually boils down to one of our bubble plots with the size of the bubbles representing the extent to which Innovate UK support adds value.

UK Capacity in emerging technology: academic and industrial
UK Capacity in emerging technology: academic and industrial

In simple terms, the opportunities in the top right are most attractive and form a shortlist for us to investigate further.

The cut-off line for the shortlist is not straight. This is because the received business wisdom is that:

It is better for a company (or country) to gain a greater share of a smaller market than a smaller share of a larger market

So we are more inclined to investigate opportunities where the UK has a stronger capability even if the global market is smaller.

Academics, industry and government working together

Before deciding to support any of these areas we need to address in more depth whether Innovate UK can add value and whether the time is right to do so. So, we meet key academics and industrialists and academics, host meetings, engage with Government Departments, in order to answer the questions:

What are the key barriers and opportunities and what type of intervention, if any, would accelerate progress?

If we believe the timing is right and we can add value through either Connect or Fund activities, we will design a programme of support.

If funding is appropriate, Feasibility Studies are a typical first phase, typically leading on to larger, Collaborative R&D programmes. Alongside, we will usually catalyse the creation of a Special Interest Group (SIG) or other network to harness the collective wisdom and insight of the nascent sector. Over the last few years, the SIGs in the Emerging Technology space have grown significantly.

The role of the Steering Group

Emerging technologies Special Interest Group membership, Jan 2016
Emerging technologies Special Interest Group membership, Jan 2016

The whole process is critiqued by our Steering Group, comprising of representatives from:

  • the Research Councils
  • Universities
  • industry
  • the investment community
  • Government Departments.

It’s not perfect but our prioritisation process gives us the ability to compare some very different technologies and make investment decisions based on how attractive those technologies look across a whole range of criteria.

We openly share the process with others and we will continue to refine and enhance it as new approaches, new data sources and improved visualisation tools become available.

In fact, our longer-term ambition is to create consensus on the emerging technologies the UK will support, encompassing Government Departments, Research Councils and others.

In addition to coherent funding this will also include supportive policies to accelerate commercialisation and better value for money.

Our engagement with the Research Councils is already strong and we are working with a number of Government Departments to harmonise processes.

Picking winners?

An obvious critique on this approach is that this is just another way of ‘picking winners’; a somewhat discredited process from the ‘70s. But, as Paul Mason mentioned in his blog, our approach is more about picking the races or disciplines from which winners will emerge.

If the UK wants to be at the forefront of at least some of the technologies which will shape our future, and from which wealth can be created, then we have to decide which to support.

Those decisions have clearly been made with Graphene and Quantum technologies, for example, with the all-important strategies and roadmaps to create a coherent and comprehensive programme to accelerate progress and ensure as much as value as possible is created in the UK.

Follow me on Twitter: @NeilNjinnov

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