The enormous potential and importance of the Advanced Materials sector is, at last, getting recognition.
The UK Government’s 2021 Innovation Strategy recognised Advanced Materials & Manufacturing as one of seven technology families of UK strength and opportunity and there have been several high-profile investments into British materials technology firms already this year. It is now widely accepted that the transition to a net-zero carbon economy will require innovations in a wide range of materials from batteries to cement. Recently, the department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) undertook a consultation around the Advanced Materials sector and the findings have just been published (see https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/uk-advanced-materials-call-for-evidence/public-feedback/advanced-materials-call-for-evidence-summary-of-responses).
One of the common themes raised by the respondents was the difficulty of commercialising new ideas; materials technologies often require significant work to scale-up and prove-out capability and safety, which takes both time and money. This can make materials technologies unattractive to investors looking for a fast return, especially when compared to more easily scalable technologies such as software.
Commercialisation is difficult and the sector should not expect or ask government to take the lead in this area (civil servants are notoriously poor at “picking winners” when it comes to commercial enterprises). The difficult task of taking new products and technologies to market needs to be done by entrepreneurs and innovators.
Where government can and should help is in the environment around these innovative businesses; making sure that the commercialisation path is not cluttered with obstacles caused by a lack of skills, incoherent regulations and standards, unattractive investment environments, or a lack of access to supporting expertise and infrastructure.
In the UK, we are blessed with some excellent institutions and facilities to support innovation including world-class universities, the Catapult network, research institutes such as the Henry Royce and Faraday, and specialised labs and facilities including NPL, TWI, and Diamond. We also have a world-renowned financial sector that is able to attract and distribute capital efficiently and effectively.
Education and skills are, in my view, where we need to apply more effort. Whilst our top universities support excellent research, I constantly hear of companies struggling to recruit people with the right skills, attitude, and experience. In our constantly changing and technology driven world, we need to be training students to learn-fast and think creatively and critically. We need to establish a culture of constant learning and development throughout our lives, not just whilst we are young.
Effort needs to be applied uniformly across the education sector; a successful economy based on advanced technologies will require operators, technicians, and engineers, as well as the inventors. It will need managers from all disciplines to appreciate the capabilities of new technologies, even if they don’t understand the detailed physics behind them.
In the interim, whilst we train our workforce of the future, we need to encourage knowledge sharing and exchange of best practice. For my part, I’ll be attending a trade show next week to keep abreast of new technologies and will also be taking part in a careers event at a local school to inspire the next generation of innovators.
How about you?
Telegraph Materials works with growing companies taking innovative materials-science based technologies to international B2B markets – typically this involves researching potential new market areas, assessing product-market fit and readiness, defining a product roadmap, or supporting customer evaluation projects (often where the customer is a multinational and the supplier is a start-up or SME). For more information, you can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.