Prime Minister David Cameron recently made an announcement outlining the UK government’s plan to allocate £200M for the development of a series of technology innovation centres. They will be designed around the Fraunhofer model implemented in Germany with the vision of creating a multitude of specialized incubators each with a unique technological interest. The announcement comes after an address made by former UK business secretary Peter Mandelson to the Work Foundation earlier this year. In this address Mandelson made it clear that deficit reduction would not only require spending cuts, but would necessitate new modes of spurring economic growth. A top priority was a comprehensive evaluation of technology innovation in the UK. Mandelson pointed out that a “basic skeleton of an industrial innovation system” had been established in the UK, but it would need to be bulked up to increase competitiveness on the international stage and further encourage external collaboration with UK health research centres. Mandelson stated:
“Our challenge now is to build and consolidate that innovation landscape into something like the Fraunhofer network in Germany which actively connects industry and the German research base. With this objective in mind I have asked technology entrepreneur Hermann Hauser to undertake an urgent but systematic evaluation of the UK’s existing innovation network to see how Britain can best emulate the outcomes of the Fraunhofer model.”
Hermann Hauser founded the tech company Acorn Computers (broken into several operations in 1998) and is a partner with the venture capital firm Amadeus Capital Partners. It was Hauser’s recommendation to Mandelson to establish intermediate technology innovation centers in the UK similar to those in Germany. The Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft was founded after the Second World War to bring industry and research in Germany closer together to drive economic growth. Institutions within the Fraunhofer network have traditionally focused on the applied sciences but have also incorporated basic sciences into their agenda, including many areas of biology. There are well over 60 centres in Germany and seven in the United States (Fraunhofer USA) with a diversity of specializations spanning everything from manufacturing technology and advanced materials to marine biotechnology and experimental medicine.
The proposed institutions, tentatively being branded as Clerk Maxwell Centres, will encourage intensive collaboration between academia, industry, and the National Health Service (NHS), and act as translational channels to bring university-level innovations through to market. They will also act as staging grounds for start-ups providing access to equipment, lab space, and supportive expertise that would otherwise be prohibitively expensive to obtain. Another key responsibility will be disseminating information related to funding sources to ensure that industry is aware of all its options in trying to secure funding for early development.
In many ways the centres will be to the UK what MaRS Innovation is to Toronto – with a fundamental mandate of nurturing early stage innovations and guiding them forward to commercial exploitation. The primary differences, of course, being the subdivision of technological interests and national scope in the case of the Fraunhofer model. Hauser foresees a small handful of centres being developed at first, each costing in the vicinity of £50M – £100M over 10 years, and proposes that the UK leverages strengths it already has. Given the depth of stem cell research underway in Britain, an obvious choice for the first Clerk Maxwell Centre is regenerative medicine. As Hauser put it:
“It’s obvious that something exciting is happening in regenerative medicine; we produce more quality stem-cell papers than anywhere else in the world and it has the potential to completely restructure the pharma industry.”
One-third of funding for Clerk Maxwell Centres will come from industry, so the focus of these institutions will have to align with industry interests. Additional funding will come from government and be dispersed over the coming four years. A Technology Strategy Board will then decide how to stream the funds into businesses and research projects at each centre. With each Clerk Maxwell Centre focusing exclusively on one (bio)technological area, companies in industry will have the opportunity to associate with institutions that are more closely tailored to their requirements than would be a general technology hub. By the nature of the model, research and industry will be united, accelerating the commercialization process in select technological areas.
In a similar initiative designed to foster public-private relationships, the UK government plans to support a “UK Life Sciences Super Cluster” with the introduction of a Therapeutic Capability Clusters program. In July of 2009 the UK government published the Life Sciences Blueprint, an expansive document outlining a novel approach to collaboration in the life sciences industry. The integrated approach outlined in the blueprint is expected to generate the critical mass required to develop new therapeutics and “support economic growth and strong healthcare delivery”. It was from this overarching plan that the therapeutic clusters program was born.
Like the new technology centres, each therapeutic cluster in the program will have a discrete specialization. They will be composed of centres of excellence with complementary capabilities, enabling technologies, and commercial goals. Importantly, the formation of clusters will provide a single point of contact for industry through collective organization of cluster activities at one interface. The first two pilot projects, announced by UK Science Minister David Willetts on October 25th (follow link to his speech), will be a cluster for inflammatory respiratory diseases, and another for joint and related inflammatory diseases. Initially, the focus will be on translational medicine, particularly early stage clinical trials where industry has historically had strong interest in collaborating with academia. The fate of the program will be dependent on the success of these initial projects, but if they are successful, and the UK government decides to give the greenlight, it could be the world’s first large scale effort to set up clusters of this nature.
The UK’s drive for self-improvement is impressive. At the end of the day the described technology innovation centres and therapeutic capability clusters come down to public-private relationship building and a trend towards full integration to support commercialization and economic growth. With the proper execution and allocation of funds, these initiatives have the potential to profoundly impact innovation in the UK and reaffirm Britain’s role as a fierce competitor in life sciences innovation.