Can private money bridge the industrial/academic gap?
Last April One Minute Briefs commented on attempts to bring the scientific and engineering resources of Britain's universities to the aid of her manufacturing industries. Experts on both sides of the industrial/academic divide are currently hoping that the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council will triumphantly succeed where its predecessors relatively failed. But EPSRC operates at a national level. What about the local level, or industrial level? Shouldn't there be a multiplicity of agencies aiming to marry research and its application, some of them acting with the benefit of local knowledge and wholly financed by the private sector?
John Searson, of Brook Corporate Finance in Birmingham, clearly thinks so. Come the spring, Searson hopes to be marketing a prospectus, prior to flotation, for the newly formed Birmingham Investment Trust which was set up for just this purpose. Birmingham is still a great industrial city and possesses a clutch of universities with tantalising research potential which might be harnessed to sharpen the competitiveness of local industry. It is proposed that the trust should support particular projects with private money, while the royalties paid on intellectual property licensed to manufacturers will generate a return to investors. A local industrialist will chair the small board, which will be advised about suitable projects by a panel including at least one 'very senior scientist'.
A couple of institutions have already expressed interest. However Searson is under no illusion about the difficulties that lie ahead. Private investors in Britain have generally shied away from the high risk and long timescales implicit in even the most exciting technological developments. Even manufacturers who have used university departments for contract research, and cultivated close working relationships, have their reservations. Dr Harold Hayward, founder of the Redditch-based Cirrus Technologies, is in favour of backing academics ('universities need research to train the next generation of PhDs') but not if you want results in a hurry. 'I would want to see an end-product two or three years away before putting my money into that kind of research.' Bill Brown, director of Baronsmead Investment Trust, ran a venture capital fund invested in high technology companies in the early 1980s. Almost to a man they failed to deliver to their potential. 'You would need to be absolutely certain that one (of the projects) is going to work ... My gut feel is that you would need 20 or so projects to get that one,' says Brown.
Searson is more optimistic. His target is to raise £15-20 million ('although £10 million might be enough') to help fund one longer-term research programme and two or three that could come to fruition in as many years. The programmes to be considered include work on nanoscale physics at Birmingham University. (Aimed at controlling individual atoms, nanoscale physics could have enormous implications for optical, chemical and electrical technologies in the next century.) Professor Richard Palmer, who heads the new nanoscale physics lab, has a two-phase programme in train. In the short term he plans to exploit the market for scientific instruments used in nanoscale physics research. In the longer term, with help from the trust, he hopes to have two types of product to offer to industry, gas sensors and optical displays.
Professor Mike Loretto meanwhile is working on improving the performance of materials. Within two years, he claims, he will be in a position to 'guarantee success or failure' of a programme to develop an improved material for heart valves, with backing to the tune of £1 million and agreement with manufacturers.
Palmer and Loretto belong to a new generation of scientists intent upon breaking down further the barriers between academics and the world of commerce. 'To run a successful research group in science you have to be an entrepreneur,' says Palmer. Universities have come a long way since they began to earn their keep. The question is whether they have come far enough; also whether manufacturers are going far enough to meet them. If this gap were to be narrowed the universities might play a useful part in the industrial resurgence of Britain, and Birmingham Industrial Trust could spawn a host of imitators. If not, then UK investors are likely to remain turned off by high tech.