Innovation Funding – Don’t give us what we ask for, give us the ability to ask for better.

Politicians of all stripes claim to support science and want to make their country or region the best place for innovation.  This is then backed up by grants, loans, and other funding schemes to support local research and innovation.

Many of these schemes are preceded by consultation exercises to determine what is required (and what will be popular with voters).  The outputs from these are fairly predictable; ask a university researcher what they need and they will ask for new research programmes and facilities, ask an industrialist and they will ask for investment to support scale-up.

Politicians and civil servants are then left with the challenge of deciding which areas to support; what is the optimum allocation of limited funds between areas as different as quantum computing, decarbonisation, and biotechnology?  The resulting funding ecosystem is complex and subject to frequent changes and reorganisations in response to changes in government policy[1].

I would argue that we and our politicians could and should focus on a more fundamental question – how can we ask better questions and make better decisions?

Asking questions is a key part of learning and learning is something that we should all be doing throughout our lives; not just in our early years.

This requires a focus on education and life-skills; empowering people to challenge ideas, engage in constructive criticism, and seek improvement in every situation.

The UK is rightly concerned about its lack of productivity growth over the last decade; we have even established a research institute to understand its causes[2].  This issue will not be fixed by a series of single investments into the latest area of science or technology, but by a societal shift in attitudes to learning and the encouragement of innovation in all its forms.

As innovators, we need to upskill ourselves and our educators.  Our most passionate educators tend to go into schools or to our best universities (when have you ever heard a bright ambitious undergraduate talk about a career aim of teaching at a technical college or delivering management training?).  The reality is that we need to improve education across the board – and recognise that it is the technical skills and soft-skills training that will help us become more innovative and ultimately enable us to make better choices, both politically and scientifically.

Telegraph Materials helps growing companies with innovative materials-science based technologies to ask better questions, so that they can better understand the fit between their product and the market areas that they are approaching.

[1] Richard Jones has produced an excellent set of articles on the current UK research funding landscape at


Advanced Materials – Have we got what it takes to be successful?

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

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

Patents or Products ?

Interesting infographic showing the leading companies for patents granted… Whilst patents are important to demonstrate ownership of an invention, they are by no means the only factor that determines the value of a technology or company.  An invention is only valuable if you can commercialise it by bringing the right product to the right market at the right time. 

I work with investors and senior management teams to help assess technologies, products, and markets as they bring new materials-science based inventions to market.  You can find more information on LinkedIn or message me directly.

Will the UK benefit from the European Chips Act?

Interesting article in the Economist this week talking about the new European Chips Act, which aims to inject €43bn into the european semiconductor industry.  Quite rightly, the author warns against the idea of investing in leading-edge and eye-wateringly expensive mega-fabs to compete with those in Taiwan, Korea, and the US producing high-volume components for use in laptops, phones, and tablets.  Better to build on the competitive advantages already present in Europe in advanced materials research, chip design, and processing equipment.

We have some excellent capabilities here in the UK with particular strengths around research and development of new materials, processes, and processing equipment; especially for next generation products using photonic, spintronic, flexible, and graphene based materials.

Our challenge is to make sure that the UK remains connected with the EU semiconductor ecosystem.  The continued uncertainty around the UK’s participation in the Horizon Europe research and innovation programme is not helping the situation here – it’s not just about the access to funding (which the government has announced will be underwritten by UKRI in the event of a delay to the UK joining the programme) but more the willingness and confidence of partners to engage in projects.

The UK government is currently consulting on an Advanced Materials Strategy and I hope semiconductors will form part of this.  I encourage all my friends and colleagues working in the semiconductor industry to collaborate and contribute to this – any suggestions or comments on how to best achieve this would be welcome!

The post-investment challenge: How to move fast and not break things?

1st February 2022

January was a busy month for the technology investment community with significant investments into UK based “real-tech” companies such as Pragmatic, ONI, BritishVolt, and Nexeon.  (I’m using the term “real-tech” here to cover actual useful products that will find their way into an industrial or consumer supply chain within a reasonable timeframe).

It’s interesting to consider what happens inside these companies as they receive such a life-changing investment round.  Overnight, the nature of their business risk has changed from financial survival to operational delivery, whilst their staff and capabilities remain unchanged.  This is a real and serious challenge that the executive team need to grapple with before the champagne loses its fizz.

Organizational culture is a key issue to consider: how do you quickly bring in the new capabilities that are needed for the enlarged business, whilst maintaining the same culture that won the confidence of the investors?

The answer can lie in the strategic use of partnerships.  A good partnership arrangement can give a step-change increase in capability whilst allowing time for recruitment and skills development in the existing workforce. 

A good partner will help develop existing staff and expand their knowhow and contacts.  Most importantly, a good partner will ensure that this knowhow and associated value then remains within the business rather than being lost to an external supply chain.

The UK community is served by a bewildering array of potential partners including consultancy firms, academic networks and institutes, catapult networks, business accelerators, contract manufacturers, etc, so it is important to understand what each can offer. 

It pays to start early.  Good partnerships can be nurtured well before the investment cash lands; building relationships takes time but is relatively low financial risk compared with speculative recruitment or purchasing.

There has been much comment recently about the changing nature of business in a post-Brexit and post-Covid world.  With multiple companies competing for a limited talent pool, a skills shortage is likely.  Now is the right time to consider the partnerships that can support your future business growth.

Telegraph Materials offers an advisory service to fast-growth businesses bringing new materials-science based technologies and processes to international B2B markets.  For more information, see

A Gigafactory is only part of the answer… Let’s not repeat the mistakes of history

21st January 2022

The news today that Britishvolt has secured both government and private investment for the battery gigafactory in Northumberland is a fantastic boost for the region and the UK automotive industry.  It does, however, bring back memories for me of similar fanfare announcements around the opening of the Siemens Microelectronics plant just 15 miles away in North Tyneside in the mid 90’s.  This “megafactory” produced state-of-the-art 16 and 64 megabit DRAM memory chips, but was forced to close after less than 2 years in production.  We need to make sure that history does not repeat itself.

So, what went wrong with the Siemens factory?  It was well run1 and well supported through tens of millions of pounds of tax-payers’ money used mainly to fund training and skills development.

The problem lay in the nature of the product and the absence of a coherent UK microelectronics ecosystem.  You probably know who made the processor chip in your computer (likely to be Intel, Qualcomm, or AMD), and you may even be aware of who made the graphics processor (probably Nvidia), but I bet you don’t know who made the memory chips?  They are a commodity product; you know that you have 4, 8, or 16GB installed in your machine but will probably not care who they were made by.  The memory chip business is brutal with competition driven almost entirely by price.  In the case of the Siemens factory, the customer base for the chips was in Asia and there was no local (UK) market.  A combination of the Asian financial crisis and subsequent currency fluctuations in the late 1990’s meant that demand and prices fell dramatically.  With no local market, intense price pressure, and a collapse in demand from Asia, it was no longer viable to manufacture memory chips in the UK.

It’s the same with the battery in an electric vehicle…  you know who makes the car but you have no idea who makes the battery, so we face the same risk here if we don’t have a coherent ecosystem for the automotive supply chain.

We need an overall materials supply chain strategy; this gigafactory needs to fit into a UK ecosystem that supports not only the automotive industry, but also the numerous other industries that will need to store power as we replace fossil fuels with renewable electricity in more and more applications (transportation; domestic heating; steel, ceramics, and glass making; etc).  We can’t let this gigafactory stand alone and compete in an international commodity market where it could suffer as a result of import tariffs and market subsidies imposed by other governments or market forces that we have no influence over. 

There are several reasons to be optimistic:

  • Batteries are heavier and more difficult to transport than microchips, so it makes sense to have a local customer base.
  • Batteries do not have to be a commodity product; higher performance batteries can command a higher price.
  • We have a strong research infrastructure in battery technologies with organisations such as the Faraday Institute and UK Battery Industrialisation Centre (UKBIC) helping to coordinate and support the excellent work that is going on within the UK research community.
  • The UK is already taking a lead in many areas of renewable energy generation and the technologies needed to replace fossil fuels, which will drive demand for energy storage.

The need here is to make sure everything is joined up so that the UK can make the best batteries in the world and develop stable local and export markets.  Battery technologies, like many hardware based innovations, take time to develop so we need a materials and supply chain strategy that will stand the test of time. 

The government has made a good start with the 10-Point Plan and the Net Zero (Build Back Greener) Strategy; we now need to see these built upon with a materials and supply chain strategy.  Support for gigafactories, such as this, will form a vital part of this strategy; we will need to support the rest of the ecosystem if we are to be successful in the long term.

1 I should add here that for me professionally, the experience of working for 3 years at the Siemens Microelectronics plant early in my career was a great foundation.  I got to experience high-tech equipment selection, installation, start-up, tech transfer, scale-up, high-volume manufacturing, crisis mode cost saving, business sale due-diligence, and factory decommissioning… all within 3 years and done to German standards of engineering, professionalism, and efficiency!

Theranos: a lesson for technology investors

5th January 2022

Reading the news over the last couple of days on the demise of Theranos and the conviction of Elizabeth Holmes on four counts of fraud, I’m left with the question of why did it ever get to this stage?  (

Extraordinary claims in science require extraordinary evidence, especially in highly regulated fields such as medical technologies.  It strikes me that the investors, whilst understandably being aggrieved at being misled, need to take some responsibility for the situation; why did they not ask more questions, investigate the failure of some of the early commercial contracts, or seek more independent review of the technology they were investing into?  Did they fail to differentiate between the company’s ambitions and actual performance?

We cannot expect investors to be expert in all the fundamentals required to make a great scale-up business (technology, business model, marketing, people, manufacturing/operations, etc), they need to ask questions and seek independent opinions.  This must be done in a supportive fashion, helping the company to build its reputation and capability rather than acting as a bureaucratic or administrative drag.

At the end of the day, I suspect this case will soon be forgotten… inventors will continue to dream big and investors will continue to take risks – we need this for the entrepreneurial eco-system to thrive.  The lesson for me here is for investors to constantly challenge and ask questions, seeking independent and multiple opinions at every step of the journey; the answers found will quickly expose problems and encourage the development of solutions that will ultimately make their investment stronger.