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The government slings Catapult Centres around a bit

February 6, 2012

The last few weeks have seen a number of developments on the “catapult centres” that are one of the Government’s centrepiece plans to bridge the gap between research and commercialisation.

Now some interesting changes have been taking place both in the funding models for these centres and in how they’re being selected.

The centres were first announced, under the name Technology and Innovation Centres, in October 2010 by David Cameron. In December they were rebranded as Catapult Centres – a makeover that attracted some ridicule but that, let’s face it, was needed.

So far there’ve been five of these centres announced with the most recent, a Connected Digital Economy centre, unveiled at the end of January. Vince Cable said at that event that the final centres will be announced “in the coming weeks”.

So, in preparation for that, let’s revisit where these centres are at so far. Here’s the roundup of what’s currently known:

Two for the price of one

Originally the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) had said there would be six of these centres created, with a total of £200m funding over 2011-2015.

Now it seems there will be at least seven, judging by Cable’s statement at the January event, though the funding remains the same.

The areas those final two will be chosen from, according to the original TSB list, are:

  • Complex systems
  • Future cities
  • Future internet systems
  • Photonics
  • Resource efficiency
  • Sensor systems
  • Smart grids and distribution
  • Transport systems and integration

According to Research Fortnight, “Future cities and transport systems and integration are thought to be strong contenders for the final catapults”.

A change in formula

The TSB’s metrics in choosing the final catapult areas have changed since the start of the programme, according to director of innovation programmes David Bott. Bott wrote in a recent editorial that the first centres, in manufacturing and offshore energy, were about shared equipment and multidisciplinary collaboration. These areas were well established research foci already, and the catapults were largely to “coordinate, extend and build upon these existing activities with new governing principles unique to catapults”.

With the cell therapy and satellite catapults, there was “a subtle evolution of the concept”. Because these areas are more nascent, Bott wrote, the catapults will be set up as single centres to encourage community to form around them and allow for a supply chain to be established.

Finally, the digital catapult, Bott said, “is different again”. It’s neither a well-established industry nor a nascent field, but rather a common threat and opportunity across a wide range of industries. “We noticed that those who learn from earlier transformations take advantage of rapid change rather than being adversely affected by it,” Bott wrote. The digital catapult is, apparently, that platform for knowledge-sharing across different business areas.

So then, where does that leave us for the upcoming centres? “Future cities” and “transport systems and integration” would seem to be the most in keeping with the model of the digital catapult – highly interdisciplinary, less about one particular technology than about a set of interconnected problems. But whether these same criteria will guide these next choices, we won’t know until they’re announced.

Shifting funding

Another change to the original catapult model has come in funding, Research Fortnight reports.

The news came in response to questions put forward by Labour Shadow Business, Innovation and Skills Minister Chi Onwurah. In written answers, David Willetts stated that the original catapult funding model—one-third public, one-third private, and one-third competitive grants (from the TSB, European Union, and others)—has been quietly tweaked. Now, he says, when fully fledged the centres should secure half of their funding from private partners.

That change in thinking may explain why the £200m can stretch to fund seven centres instead of the original six. But whether industry will step up at that rate to support these new centres remains to be seen.

More to come

In addition, David Hulme, a spokesman for the TSB, said we could expect an announcement on the location for the Offshore Renewable Energy centre imminently. “If you asked at the beginning of the year we’d have said a matter of days,” Hulme said. “We’ve decided on the leadership team, on the location, and now we’re just waiting for an opportunity for a minister to visit that area to make the announcement.”

Which makes sense, since it’ll (hopefully, logically) be somewhere a number of hours’ train ride from London.

Regarding locations for the other centres, though, we’ll have to be patient.

“At this stage it’s a bit early to be talking about where they’re going to be located and who’s involved,” Hulme said.

Images courtesy of Nathan Wells via flickr

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