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Happy Birthday, KTN!

Posted on 07/04/2017

A perspective from Chris Warkup, CEO of Knowledge Transfer Network Limited

This week marks the third birthday of Knowledge Transfer Network as a single KTN, providing innovation networking for Innovate UK (and other funders) and connecting people to accelerate innovation.

A lot has happened in those three years. Creating a single KTN has, in my opinion, proven to be absolutely the right decision – we are achieving a great deal more with fewer resources and delivering a degree of connectedness never before seen.

Gestation

To get the full perspective, you have to look all the way back to the 1990s and the origins of Faraday Partnerships as a means to improve connectedness between industry and the research base – a longstanding challenge for the UK. Faraday Partnerships were transformed into KTNs just before they transferred from the Department for Trade and Industry of the time to the new Technology Strategy Board (now Innovate UK). The most recent chapter of the story begins in 2012, when Innovate UK initiated a review of the 15 Knowledge Transfer Networks — some market facing and others technology based.

This review was completed after the summer of 2013, with the announcement that a single KTN — with a very wide remit — was the right way forward.

 

Birth

The process to create a single legal entity to take forward one KTN was completed by 1 April 2014, with the amalgamation of 112 staff of former KTNs.

There were many reasons for the decision to ‘merge’ the activities of 14 of the former KTNs (activity of the Financial Services KTN was stopped), but high on the list was acknowledgement that many of the exciting opportunities for innovation were at the interfaces of technologies and markets, but also at the interfaces of industries and technologies. There were great examples of KTN’s working together on these interfaces, such as in Special Interest Groups, but this was patchy, and performance across the KTNs was far from uniform.

 

Baby steps

Our first year was one of making sure we didn’t drop the ball on any of the projects inherited, and a process of articulating and embedding new and consistent ways of working – keeping the best bits from the ways of working of the different KTNs.

The driver for the change was to make sure we were fully focused on the key challenge for innovation in the UK. Everyone knows how strong our science base is, but we remain relatively poor at capturing the value from our science and creativity, so the KTN mission is to deliver economic growth. We connect people to speed up innovation, solve problems and find markets for new ideas. We bring together businesses, entrepreneurs, academics and funders to develop new products, processes and services.

In our second year, we expanded our teams and took on all of the competition briefing and brokerage events for Innovate UK. We all got better at leveraging our cross-sector strength, based on our depth of technical and market understanding of the sectors and technologies we work with.

It is that combination of breadth and depth that is so valuable. One of my favourite stories of connecting the ‘not the usual suspects’ is the academic who approached us with a heat exchange technology he thought had application in car air conditioners. He ended up with a collaboration on food refrigeration after an introduction by KTN. So much of what we do is about matching needs and capabilities.

That year, we also conducted our first significant user survey, which resulted in a striking take-home message: that KTN could turn every pound of grant into a public and private investment multiplier of £12.50. The estimated value of these projects 5 years in was over £50 per £1 of grant.

And then, like the child catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, came the Comprehensive Spending Review.

The terrible twos

The CSR meant significant cuts to Innovate UK’s budget and a more than one-third cut in the KTN budget. Some tough decisions later, we are leaner and more focused on what we do, but still retain our full breadth – deliberately wider than the priority funding areas of Innovate UK.

An awful lot else also happened in 2016/17. We did our bit for the ‘Simplification Agenda’ of the Dowling Review by rebranding our core project to be more identifiably part of the Innovate UK family and refreshed the website you are reading this on. Innovate UK Fund and Connect and KTN is a large part of that Connect activity, along with our partners in the Enterprise Europe Network.

And then—as little as 12 months after the cuts of 2015, came the Autumn Statement of 2016 and an unprecedented increase in innovation funding. We were asked in late December to organise a series of engagements for the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund — to be completed by the end of January! Some 2500 expressions of interest and eight workshops across the UK later, the job was done.

Despite the incredibly tight timescales and short notice communications, the quality of the engagement we were able to marshal, working with Innovate UK and RCUK across all industries and the research base, was satisfyingly impressive and in its own way, another demonstration of the value of one KTN. As a consultant we work with put it, “From where I’m sitting there isn’t another organisation in the UK that can mobilise quality engagement events, at scale, with the right participants.”

Much earlier, I mentioned Special Interest Groups. These have existed for years before one KTN, and we inherited quite a few and created some more. They represent concentrated Connect activity where KTN convenes across sectors with an innovation purpose in mind. They are a way of injecting extra energy into timely opportunity for knowledge transfer to support economic growth through innovation.

As Machiavelli once said, “never waste a good crisis.” We took the opportunity of the cuts to create a new process for prioritising the SIGs we have and the many more we could have. Some older SIGs are ending or becoming business as usual in KTN; some are adapting – for example, our Robotics and Autonomous Systems SIG will broaden, as in the ISCF, to become Robotics and Artificial Intelligence – and we have exciting new SIGs in Additive Manufacture, Compound Semiconductors (supporting the start of the new Catapult), Sustainable Aviation Fuels and Immersive Experience. Watch this website (and do sign up for our newsletters if you have not) to see events and news related to these SIGs.

Now we are three

On our third birthday, our remit and responsibilities grow, with KTN taking on the team responsible for facilitating and supporting Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTPs). In addition to nurturing and extending the reach of KTPs, this team will bring a regional and research base-facing aspect to KTN’s work.

Not only will this extend our overview of the innovation landscape, and hence our ability to connect across, it will also create an improved ability for technology pull from industry out of the excellent UK science base – helping capture more value and impact. As we head into the creation of the new UK Research and Innovation, that seems like a very timely capability to incorporate into the UK’s Innovation Network, aka KTN.

The year ahead will undoubtedly be busy – not least with helping engage (more) businesses into the excellent opportunities available via the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund. ISCF is a very welcome investment of taxpayer’s money into moving us up the innovation league tables. The UK ranks a disappointing 17th in the January 2017 Bloomberg Innovation Index. For all our futures, we really must do better than that.

In KTN, we enter our fourth year in good shape to do an even better job of connecting people to accelerate innovation. We have, I believe, a peerless overview of the UK innovation landscape – of who is doing what with whom. And we are also getting better at joining the dots across.

What do they say about three year olds? They are normally:

  • Easier to understand
  • More responsive
  • Better at communicating
  • Have a clearer understanding of their place in the world and
  • Are growing in agility

I am confident that as we pass our third birthday, KTN is all of these things and we can claim also to have addressed all three Government change objectives—simpler, cheaper and better.

As John Henry Newman said: “To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.” There will be plenty more change as we grow and extend the economic value we add through innovation, and I look forward to the growth and development ahead.

 

Chris Warkup, CEO
Knowledge Transfer Network