How our Manchester model can underpin new UK innovation agency
James Baker, CEO of Graphene@Manchester, welcomes the momentum behind UK government plans for a “blue-skies” science research agency that will focus on delivering cutting-edge technologies – regardless of risk. As the think-tank Policy Exchange publishes a report calling on ministers to move rapidly to establish a “UK ARPA”, citing the Graphene@Manchester ecosystem as a model for this pioneering national agency, James explains how the Manchester philosophy can help Britain innovate its way to success.
In recent days we’ve seen a renewed impetus to establish a UK research and innovation catalyst that would take “blue skies” science and translate it into applications and marketable products – without fear of failure. That approach dovetails with our philosophy at Graphene@Manchester and I believe we can serve as a home-grown model for such an agency.
The think-tank Policy Exchange recently published a report entitled ‘Visions of ARPA: Embracing Risk, Transforming Technology’ (28 Jan) featuring contributions from two former science minsters in Jo Johnson and David Willetts, plus leaders from The University of Manchester and the Henry Royce Institute for Advanced Materials Research.
The report calls on the government to expedite the formation of a “UK ARPA”, a revolutionary agency that would be modelled on the US-based Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). It reads: “An effective ARPA pursuing high-risk, high-reward transformative research has the potential to make a significant contribution to the UK’s scientific and economic performance.”
The timely ‘Visions of ARPA’ study coincides with a Financial Times report (1 Feb) that Kwasi Kwarteng, the UK’s new business secretary, is pushing forward with plans for Britain’s advanced research agency. The FT states that ministers will draw up the required legislation “within weeks” and that this body would answer to the Department for Business, Energy and Industry Strategy (BEIS), with “the independence to experiment with new funding models to back cutting-edge, high-risk, high-reward science here in the UK”.
The long commitment to innovation
Over the past year the UK government has repeated its proposed commitment to invest £800 million into a UK ARPA project. Pledges were first made in the March 2020 budget, then in the Government’s UK Research and Development Roadmap, and again in last November’s Spending Review.
In the US, ARPA (and its military successor DARPA) have been hugely successful innovation catalysts and are credited with developing breakthroughs in robotics, for creating an early version of the internet, as well as delivering GPS and stealth technologies.
It has achieved this through a brave attitude to risk that accepts “failure is normal”. I believe this bold philosophy has real merit and I would like to see this more widely adopted by UK government to empower scientists and researchers.
Manchester model for UK agency
As government and policymakers look to make a UK ARPA a reality, I would urge them to look at our Manchester model of innovation, which is primarily being applied to our industrial partnership work involving graphene and advanced materials.
We have brought the “don’t be afraid to fail” philosophy to the Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre (GEIC) – the £60m graphene commercialisation facility based at The University of Manchester.
Essentially, while designing the GEIC’s business operating model, we took inspiration from a number of sources – including DARPA, the UK’s Catapults programme and the German Fraunhofer network – to create a unique but effective innovation catalyst. The GEIC is now working to commercialise graphene and other disruptive 2D materials – and we are accelerating lab-to-market applications in advanced materials.
I believe our approach in Manchester is setting us apart and the University’s own leadership has highlighted the Graphene@Manchester ecosystem as a model for a UK ARPA. In the Policy Exchange report they explain: “Manchester is heavily engaged in building an innovation ecosystem around graphene and other 2D materials, partnering with key infrastructure providers such as the Highways Agency (to produce roads resistant to potholes!) and companies in the construction, water and energy sectors.”
This creative platform for innovation can be traced back to the Friday night experiments led by graphene pioneers and Nobel laureates Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov who, almost by accident and motivated by sheer curiosity, first isolated graphene at Manchester with a combination of ingenuity and a roll of sticky tape.
The fail-fast approach
Up until now, the UK innovation strategy has tried to pick potential winners and then construct large and heavily funded “too big to fail” research projects to deliver on expectation.
The alternative is to run a series of more agile, relatively low-cost pilots in places like the GEIC. If a project is going to fail, fail quickly and learn from your mistakes. Like a game of snakes and ladders, you can go back up the Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs) in a ‘science supply chain’ to locate and fix any glitches. This approach has helped the US drive incredible advances in post-war innovation and bring new, game-changing technologies to the world.
The crucial thing to remember is that this is a private-public sector approach, a symbiotic relationship that underpins a successful entrepreneurial nation and requires continued support from government through initiatives such as those included in the new roadmap.
In the early 1960s, ARPA gave money to some of America’s own world-leading universities: Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Berkeley (University of California) and Stanford. I would suggest if the UK government does something similar and cuts the bureaucracy across the UK’s higher education sector to empower academics to embark on more visionary work, we could produce world-beating results.
I believe that Graphene@Manchester is an exemplar of that empowerment. We are supporting our own graphene-based ecosystem – which we call Graphene City – and I see no reason why other UK regions cannot support their own, bespoke innovation theme, led by a local research university. Together, as a like-minded network with the support of the UK version of ARPA, we could create the conditions for science to lead the way to economic recovery.
Find out more about our capabilities in advanced materials engineering at the GEIC website.