Multi-billion pound funding for innovation and what the UK Government is looking to invest in
Podcast transcription - 3rd october 2018
Alan Cowley: Welcome to another Invested Investor podcast. I'm sat opposite Nigel Walker, who is head of innovation lending at Innovate UK. I'm just going to roll straight in with it and, Nigel, if you'd like to introduce yourself and give a little bit of your background, please.=
Nigel Walker: Yes. I'm Nigel Walker, head of innovation lending at Innovate UK and also, actually, a director of Innovate UK Loans Limited, which we'll talk about further on. My background? I trained as an accountant, spent some time working in investment banking, had some fun times all around the world including spending some time in the Cayman Islands, working in places like Russia and India, Croatia, Turkey. Doing interesting, difficult to do deals but learnt an awful lot.
Nigel Walker: I then spent some time working for GE Capital, initially around export and project finance, then around acquisition integration, process improvement. If you work at GE, you have to get onboard with Lean Six Sigma and process improvement, change management. I spent some time working in a leverage buyout team where we were taking those GE tools and techniques of process improvement, of business growth, of leadership development, taking those ideas to businesses that we were lending to in the leverage buyout market. Helping the leadership teams of those businesses to improve and grow, hopefully so that they would come back to us to lead their next round of financing and their next leveraged buyout.
Alan Cowley: Okay.
Nigel Walker: Which gave me a nice broad range of understanding in the financial services industry, in commercial lending, but also in business operational activities and a lot of the softer side of change management, leadership, etc.
Alan Cowley: How long have you been with Innovate UK and when did you transition?
Nigel Walker: I've been with Innovate UK for the past eight and a half years. Working in the leverage buyout market in the late 2000s wasn't a good place to be. The market closed. My role was no longer required so I found myself out of work, looking around for something to do. And I came across a job description of an unusual role in this strange organisation that I'd never heard of based in Swindon.
Alan Cowley: How long had they been going?
Nigel Walker: They'd been going for a couple of years at that point and they were looking for somebody to help them define a strategy for engaging with the financial services industry. So I worked to finalise that strategy to set up a knowledge transfer network, specifically to look at issues like systemic risk and value creation and value transparency in the financial services industry, trying to get financial services businesses to collaborate, to work with the research base.
Nigel Walker: So not providing necessarily any funding, but trying to help them to collaborate more in order to address some of the key issues in the financial services industry, probably before people were really talking about FinTech. Certainly nobody was mentioning blockchain at that point. So I did that for three years. That was enough, we thought. We felt that the industry was doing perfectly well without us. There wasn't really a need for public money to go into that sort of activity at that time.
Nigel Walker: So then I moved on within Innovate UK, working more with the smaller businesses that we support through our grant funding programs to help them connect and engage with follow-on investment, particularly from early stage equity investors from venture capital firms, from business angels. And helping those businesses also to improve their business capability. A lot of the businesses that we work with are really, really good at technology. They're perhaps less engaged around the commercial side of things. There's often a background from a technology engineering science base. They don't necessarily have the full set of commercial skills, so we were trying to help them around that.
Nigel Walker: And then for the past couple of years I've been working specifically on developing an innovation loans program, which we're now piloting. And that's about trying to help make public sector funding go further and work harder while still getting our fundamental remit of stimulating business led innovation to drive growth in the UK economy.
Alan Cowley: Does Innovate UK do any mentoring, or?
Nigel Walker: We don't. For a while we engaged with the Business Growth Service, or what used to be called Growth Accelerator, trying to encourage more coaching and mentoring, and even offering some entrepreneurial skills training to businesses. Government changes in approach meant that that wasn't continued. Budget constraints meant that we didn't continue it. We still very much believe that it's a good thing to do, but perhaps not for us to fund.
Nigel Walker: We do have one activity through the Enterprise Europe Network, which is one of the networks that we provide funding to, that has a program called Innovate to Succeed. And it's about enhancing the innovation management and commercialisation of that innovation in small and medium size businesses. And that's delivered in part through coaching, through training. And they're also piloting a scale-up program which, again tying with people like The Scale-Up Institute and with service providers, can offer coaching and mentoring to enhance that commercial capability in what are often quite technology led and therefore perhaps not quite as commercially savvy businesses.
Alan Cowley: Okay. So how many businesses have Innovate UK helped over the years?
Nigel Walker: Over the past 10 years we have funded something in the order of 11,000 projects carried out by 8,000 unique organisations.
Alan Cowley: Wow. Just in the UK?
Nigel Walker: We're just focused on the UK. So it's Innovate UK, we cover the whole of the UK, England, Scotland, Wales and northern Ireland. And we work with businesses both large and small. We try to help those businesses connect with science-based and with research organisations, as well as bringing together large businesses and small businesses, and supply chains and value chains are being transformed.
Nigel Walker: So those 11,000 projects carried out by 8,000 businesses have between them received in the order of £3.75 billion of funding. £2.2 billion of that has come through Innovate UK, the rest from the businesses' own resources or from other sources. And the important thing is not that we, on behalf of the taxpayer, have put £2.2 billion of money to work, or that in total it's £3.75 billion that's been put to work, but that the growth in the economy as a result has been £16 billion in gross value add.
Nigel Walker: And that works out at, for every pound of taxpayer money, there's an increase in the value to the economy of up to £7.30. So that return on investment for the taxpayer is growth in the economy and creation of jobs. So those businesses between and over the past 10 years have created something like 70,000 jobs.
Alan Cowley: Wow.
Nigel Walker: We're very proud of those numbers, obviously, but almost more proud of the support that we offer to the people at the sharp end. Those businesses, the entrepreneurs and often larger businesses who are doing that value creation, that economic growth creation.
Alan Cowley: So a couple of questions. One is at what stage do you help the businesses? What stage are they usually? And two, can you name some of these companies for the listeners, please?
Nigel Walker: We help businesses at all stages, from pre-startups all the way through to the largest PLCs in the country. We do that in different ways. For the smaller businesses, often they come direct to us with a specific proposal for grant funding to carry out a particular research and development project. And that can work very well alongside angel investment or early stage VC investment, or founder's own funds very often. And that grant funding in early stage can really help them to start their growth journey.
Nigel Walker: Working with the very largest businesses in the country, there often it's a case of them wishing to engage with new businesses that are coming into a supply chain. So an organization like Jaguar Land Rover, for example, it's motivated to innovate in order to look to the future. So the automotive industry is changing significantly. They need to access technology around batteries, for example, or around lightweight materials. So for them to work with universities, to work with other research organizations, to work with new businesses in a developing supply chain that's transforming as the industry transforms. That bringing together and collaborating is very important.
Nigel Walker: It's not always natural for people to do. It's not always easy to do. Therefore, a grant can really stimulate that collaborative activity, get people to do something that they wouldn't otherwise do or to do more quickly perhaps. In terms of some names of businesses, we were talking just before we started on this about how a number of businesses that we've supported have been mentioned on previous podcasts in this series. So SwiftKey has being mentioned, Vantage Power has been mentioned, Healthera has been mentioned. Improbable. Those are some examples of businesses who have had grant funding support at one time or another in their journey of growth to become very successful businesses.
Alan Cowley: You've talked a bit about where the money goes. Can you elaborate a bit more? So in terms of Jaguar Land Rover, did you help with the new accelerator program at all?
Nigel Walker: Not specifically around that program. With Jaguar Land Rover, an example of a project that they've worked on was around reusing the scrap material. Using scrap and recycling aluminium so that they could improve the quality of the cars that they produce, reduce the cost of production using new technologies to do that, and working with other businesses in their supply chain in order to do that. Or in another example, working with researchers and small businesses looking at an electric hybrid variant of their established Range Rover models, for example.
Nigel Walker: And that could work equally in the aerospace industry as in the automotive industry. Often happens in healthcare. That collaboration between perhaps a more nimble, more out there, early stage, smaller, innovative, research intensive organization bringing in ideas to the larger organization. That gives the larger organization access to perhaps ideas that they might not get to ordinarily. But really importantly for the smaller businesses, it gives them an opportunity to position themselves in the supply chain of the future so that not only are they doing something really clever but there's a potential customer.
Nigel Walker: And as again has been said, quite often on those podcast series, innovation is all very well, R&D is all very well, but if you haven't got a customer then investors aren't going to be as interested. And we at Innovate UK, we want to see that commercial outcome. We want to see economic growth coming as a result.
Alan Cowley: Yeah, we've heard quite a bit, and particularly from another podcaster, Andrew Gaule, that talked quite extensively about that. You talked about working alongside angels and VCs. Can you elaborate on how you work with them and kind of the differences between yourselves and angels?
Nigel Walker: I think a fundamental difference is that Innovate UK provides funding, part of the funding, to a project. So we invite people to define a specific research and development project which may be in response to a particular scope of competition that we're running, so there may be a very defined area. They carry out that project. We will provide grant funding, effectively to reimburse some of their project costs. Which helps to de-risk it, which helps to encourage more of it to happen.
Nigel Walker: But it's very much project-based. An angel investor, any investor, will be looking at the business as a whole. They will be focused on the management team, the commercial opportunity. So the two activities, I think, are coming from different perspectives but are very complimentary. And whilst an angel investor may be thinking that they want to see a company succeed, they want to see some value creation that leads to a successful exit and a lot of money, our perspective on behalf of the taxpayer is to look at it and see how does the economy grow? Are jobs created, is industry transforming so that it's fit for the future?
Alan Cowley: So how do budding entrepreneurs and new founders or large corporations engage with Innovate UK?
Nigel Walker: There are two ways. One way doesn't actually involve money. One way involves engaging with our networks. So we have a Knowledge Transfer Network that we provide funding for. They are thematic specialists. They're really good in a wide range of technology areas, of knowing the right people and making connections to transfer knowledge. That might be two small businesses talking together about a specific area of technology. Graphing, for example, or nanomaterials more generally.
Nigel Walker: Or it may be putting a business together with a university where there's some specialist expertise that needs to be transferred so that some innovation can progress. Or it may be that they put together a large company with smaller companies so that they can collaborate and bid into one of our funding competitions. That's the Knowledge Transfer Network. They're a very, very good resource that people should engage with. And because they're funded through the taxpayer, through Innovate UK, they don't have to pay for that, those connections to be made.
Nigel Walker: There's also the Enterprise Europe Network. They're locally based but have international activities, global activities. They're part funded by the European Commission and Innovate UK in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and closely aligned with Scottish Enterprise which delivers it in Scotland. The Enterprise Europe Network actually is a network of innovation and delivery providers. Not just in Europe but actually in something like 60 countries around the world including North America, South America, all across Europe, in China, as far away as New Zealand.
Nigel Walker: And they're very good at helping businesses that are looking to innovate, or that are looking to do new things in research and development, to make connections with businesses in other countries that are looking to do similar things so they can have brokerage activity. They can also help those businesses to improve their innovation activities and they can help businesses to apply into European funding such as the Horizon 2020 funding programs to get access to grant funding at a European level. So those two networks are really good ways of engaging with people and finding how to make the connections that can help businesses to succeed.
Nigel Walker: We also provide funding for the Catapult Centres around the UK, and those are physical centres of technology and innovation. They cover areas such as digital, future cities, cell and gene therapy, high value manufacturing. And in those facilities you can go along to, for example, to the Manufacturing Technology Centre just outside Coventry and get access to some really cutting edge machinery, to the thinking around the factory of the future, so to speak. And through that way people can make connections, again between the most cutting edge research and forward thinking businesses, and make those connections to collaborate and grow.
Nigel Walker: That's one way of engaging with us, is through our networks and through those centres. The other way is to come to us and seek funding. And we do that, again, in a couple of ways. The most simple way for probably relatively earlier stage businesses, smaller businesses, when they have just something that they want to do where they want to research and develop more with a commercial outcome intended, is to apply to us for a grant. We run competitions. You apply online. There's an application form where businesses that need to demonstrate that they have a really good idea, that there's a really good market, that they can deliver a project, that they need public sector funding support and that they're not just doing it for fun.
Nigel Walker: Those applications are assessed independently with technical and commercial experts, and the best opportunities are provided with funding. They will carry out their research and development project, which might be something as early as a feasibility study for which they may get, say, 70% of their costs funded. Or it may be a proof of concept or industrial research, which may be slightly less funding, probably around 60%. Or it could be developing a prototype or what's called an experimental development, which for a micro or a small business, a business with say up to 10 employees or up to 50 employees, could be around 45% of their project costs would be funded by us.
Nigel Walker: They carry out that project. There's a monitoring officer to help keep the project on track. And we hope at the end they will be successful, that they will go on to exploit and commercialize the results of that research and development activity. And that's how the economic growth comes that we're looking for.
Alan Cowley: Do you find any constraints at all?
Nigel Walker: I think the key constraints are firstly ensuring that an application is within the scope of the competition. I think the other constraint is that our process is quite rigorous. We have to be transparent, we have to be fair because we're managing public money. And that means we need to be quite disciplined. And we do require people to complete an application form, to give full details of the finances for their project.
Nigel Walker: And because it's a competitive process, we can't fund everybody. So we will look to fund the most innovative activities. When the scores come back from the external assessors, we will look at those, we'll rank them in order and we will draw a line. And we'll say above this line, we think it's a really high quality innovation and worthy of funding. Below the line we'll say it may well be very good but it's not for us to fund. So that can be a constraint. That can certainly lead to disappointment. And it can be sometimes that even once we've drawn that line, we may not be able to fund everybody that's above that line of quality because it's a competitive process and because our funds are limited. Even with £2.2 billion over the past 10 years, it's not a bottomless pit of money.
Alan Cowley: So what sort of strategic challenges do you address at Innovate UK?
Nigel Walker: We work with government, we work with industry, we work with researchers. We're part of UK Research and Innovation now so we're working currently together with the government around the government's industrial strategy. And we contributed to the development of that. And in the overall industrial strategy, what government has done is identify four key areas where there is a significant societal or economic challenge where the UK has really strong capability and where there's a real opportunity in global growth markets, and where the time is right for government to intervene in a financial way.
Nigel Walker: So those four areas that have been defined by government in the industrial strategy are artificial intelligence and the data economy, the future of mobility, clean growth, and the aging society. And those, because they're big challenges, they also represent big opportunities. So if a business can address that challenge of an aging society, for example, it's not just about improving the quality of life of people as they get older or helping them to have more independent living, reducing the cost to the NHS and improving quality of life. There's also a real business opportunity for a good technology led service provider, for example, to use data analytics, to use internet sensors to change the way in which healthcare is provided, and a business opportunity to do that.
Nigel Walker: And that's not just for the UK. Globally, the world's population demographics are changing and therefore it represents also a global market opportunity. So within those challenges in the industrial strategy, the government has asked UK Research and Innovation, and with Innovate UK leading, to come up with an industrial strategy challenge fund that brings together funding in key areas for additional research, for centres for collaborative research and development, and for demonstrator programs. And we've operated that in waves.
Nigel Walker: In the first wave of those industrial strategy challenge funds, we had funding available for things like the Faraday Battery Challenge. The UK is great at battery technology. To commercialise that in the future vehicles, particularly as vehicles become more electric rather than internal combustion engines, we have an opportunity not to lose around battery technology. So the Faraday Battery Challenge is about addressing that and getting the opportunity through delivering the technology. Other areas are around autonomous vehicles, around the next generation of affordable lightweight materials, which obviously impacts on clean growth and the future of mobility.
Nigel Walker: And there was one challenge particularly around robotics and artificial intelligence in extreme environments. And the idea being that if you can come up with a robotic solution that will address issues in somewhere extreme, like a nuclear power station or a really deep mine, then those robotics could be used much more easily in more benign environments in the future. So it's sort of the New York, New York challenge. If you can do it there, you can do it anywhere.
Nigel Walker: And then in wave two of those challenges for the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, we've looked at things, or we are looking at things, like the audience of the future. The UK is fantastic around the creative industries. Virtual reality, augmented reality, those things are changing. There's an opportunity and there's great British technology and innovation, and bright people, creative people, who are going to be able to address that.
Nigel Walker: Things like transforming food production, so agricultural technologies all the way from the farm through to food production combining with satellite imagery, for example, data analytics, the Internet of Things, sensors in fields or the Internet of Cows, for example, that I've seen presentations about. And I'm sure some of your angel listeners have heard presentations about things like that.
Nigel Walker: Also some pioneering areas. Things like quantum technologies that are very difficult but have fantastic future opportunity. And, indeed, an area that sort of ties back to when I first joined what was then the Technology Strategy Board, looking at next generation services. The UK has a very, very strong service industry or service-based economy. The financial services industry, the professional services industry in the UK is really strong. But it's changing significantly. Artificial intelligence, machine learning, data analytics will transform the way in which professional services are delivered.
Nigel Walker: And the UK professional services industry and researchers, and the digital techies of this world, need to be working more together so that augmented intelligence can be used so that the routine of legal services or of accounting services, for example, or in architecture, the routine is taken out and done by machines. But the added value of the augmented intelligence of the professional service providers are what people will be paying for in the future.
Nigel Walker: We need to make sure that the entire professional services industry is thinking in that direction in order that they're not left behind and that a key part of the UK economy has the opportunity to prosper and compete with other economies that are doing exactly the same.
Alan Cowley: So are there any other ways which you're engaging with businesses for funding?
Nigel Walker: Yes. We're currently running two pilot programs, one around innovation loans and one around an investment accelerator. The reason for that is that we still want to drive economic growth. That's our core remit. We're there to encourage innovation in order to drive economic growth. When a business opportunity or a technology opportunity is somewhat de-risked, then we can shift our emphasis from the project to the business and try to make government funding, taxpayers' money, work a bit harder and go a bit further.
Nigel Walker: So we're running a pilot at the moment around innovation loans which are for later stage research and development. So more about developing a prototype, for example, with a clear route to commercial success for small and medium sized businesses that are highly innovative but also constrained around their ability to access finance. So we're offering loans for specific projects on terms that we believe are affordable, flexible and patient. So with an interest rate of only 3.7% and without charging any fees or backend kickers, we think that's extremely beneficial terms. We could lend for as long as 10 years, which is probably be the exception rather than the rule, but again that's extremely patient compared with standard commercial terms for a loan for an innovative activity.
Nigel Walker: We'll offer loans of between £100,000 and a million pounds, and these are loans, they're not grants. The benefit in the low interest rate is the equivalent of a grant, but it is a loan to the business. We hope that the project will succeed, but if the project fails it's still a loan to the business and they will have to repay us. So we need to look at the quality of the innovation and the suitability of the business to be able to pay interest each quarter when it falls due, and to make repayments in the future when they fall due.
Nigel Walker: So we've set up a team. We've brought in a couple of people from the British Business Bank. I'm a third part of the team. We've hired a couple of credit specialists. And working with the Innovate UK competitions process to attract good applications. To assess the quality of the innovation, we then look at the suitability from a lending point of view and then we're able to make loan offers. We have this pilot program. We have up to £50 million to commit from Treasury. We have about two years to do that. We're aiming to run five competitions, aiming to make about a hundred loans, so on average about a half a million pounds each, in order really to find out whether this works. Whether there really is demand, whether we can cope with the process, whether we can make some sensible credit decisions and show that we can continue to grow the economy, but also make that public sector funding work harder and go further.
Nigel Walker: The other area where we're running a pilot at the moment is around Investment Accelerator, which is about putting together grant funding, because we can understand the quality of innovation in a project, with equity investment where early stage investors, VCs or other early stage investment funds, possibly angel syndicates going forward, would be able to look at the quality of the management team and the business. And if both of those align, then putting in the funding, part grant, part equity, that will help businesses to get forward more quickly but also bring forward some of that equity investment. Encourage those investors to come in perhaps at a pre-seed stage rather than just at the seed stage, maybe to put in a little bit more money than they would have done otherwise or to put that money in more quickly. And from that accelerate that growth in the UK economy.
Alan Cowley: Are these specific locations, or?
Nigel Walker: Across the UK. In the Investment Accelerator, the first pilot that we ran was with seven VCs looking at infrastructure systems projects, and looking at projects in health and life sciences. So we worked with some specialist investors in those areas, as well as some generalist investors in early stage businesses like IP Group, for example, like Mercia Technologies and in the healthcare space with some specialist investors. They're going forward.
Nigel Walker: The next program of Investment Accelerator is going to be focused around precision medicine, a very specific area, and we've invited proposals from early stage investors to put themselves forward to work with us. Once we've agreed the group of investors that we will work with, then we will go out and invite businesses to submit proposals that we will look at in terms of the innovation for potential grant funding. The investors will look at in terms of are these high quality growth businesses that fit with their investment criteria. If both of those work, they'll go together and we'll invest together and hopefully grow those businesses. And hopefully make it easier for those businesses to attract follow-on funding in the future.
Alan Cowley: So what's the most interesting innovation you've seen lately? Within the last year?
Nigel Walker: Within the last year, one that I'm very pleased to look at because it was our first recipient of an innovation loan is a business that's involved in connected transportation. It's a business called Ashwoods Lightfoot, or Lightfoot. They started off manufacturing electric engines in order to reduce emissions. They tried it out in a trial program in London and found that despite the quality of their technology, the emissions weren't being reduced because it was all about not just the engine but the behaviour of the drivers.
Nigel Walker: They put them into white vans and white van man floors it, to put it crudely. So they realized that not only did they need to work on engine technology, they needed to understand behaviour. And therefore they developed not a telematic solution but a connected car solution that connected to the engine diagnostics to understand where the engine sweet spot was. And they were able to reduce emissions in standard white vans through changing behaviour more than through changing the technology. And they've worked with the fleet market to prove that it works and that the emissions reduction happens. They've worked with some insurance companies because they've seen that driving more efficiently not only is cheaper but it also reduces the risk of accidents in that fleet market.
Nigel Walker: I'm so impressed that they have never once used the word gamification, which is typically in any buzzword bingo that there might be. And what they're now trying to do is to take that technology and see whether it will work in the consumer market, and also to connect the data into city systems in places like London and Exeter where they're based. So what they're doing isn't necessarily really, really, really complicated. There's still plenty of technology in there but the way in which they're using it and understanding whether there's first of all a business to business proposition, then whether there's a business to consumer proposition, how they can grow their business, how the management team is growing, understanding how to deal with the changes from half a dozen people around the table, to 50 or 60 people outgrowing an office in Exeter.
Nigel Walker: Those sorts of real life challenges I find fascinating. And I really enjoy watching entrepreneurial teams develop in that way. I've been talking to the company for a year or more. They're now receiving an innovation loan. I very much hope that they will be successful, that they'll be able to repay that loan and grow their business and grow the economy in a new area.
Alan Cowley: So where do you see Innovate UK going in the next five to 10 years time?
Nigel Walker: I think the industrial strategy is really important. Assuming government maintains that particular course, and that's clearly out of my hands. But the idea of identifying those key societal and economic challenges, and helping to address those, that gives an opportunity for businesses to make money and to grow using innovative ideas. I think Innovate UK will continue to do that, at least I hope so, because I think we do well. I think we have got evidence of the economic growth.
Nigel Walker: I think we want to improve our processes. We want to be smoother, easier for businesses to deal with when they're applying. I hope that sooner rather than later Innovate UK will be using machine learning and artificial intelligence. Helping us with our decision making, for example. I think we should be innovative as well. Whether we get to that, we'll see, and I hope we do. I think the other area in which I very much hope that we will work more in the future is engaging more and better with the angel community. We are about taking on innovation risk. Angel investors, early stage investors generally including VCs, are about taking early stage business risk and often backing the capabilities of founders.
Nigel Walker: Those two go very, very well together in my view. And I hope that we continue to work well together in that area, that government continues to allocate capital that is particularly focused around patience, that is particularly focused around innovation as a way to growth. That the British Business Bank's improved role will work together with us, together with the angel community, so that businesses that have a real future, but that are very risky, can be supported so that they do grow and the economy grows.
Alan Cowley: Well, maybe we will see you as an angel as well.
Nigel Walker: I'd need some money first.
Alan Cowley: All right, Nigel, that was absolutely fantastic. I know our listeners will learn a lot and future entrepreneurs, angels, VCs to work alongside Innovate UK.
Nigel Walker: Well, I've just given a quick overview. We're online. We tweet a lot. We're on LinkedIn, we're on Facebook, we're on YouTube. Innovate UK now has a podcast as well. I'm sure it won't compete with the Invested Investor. I'm sure it will compliment it. So if people want to find out more, they'll find us on social media very easily. And hopefully engage.
Alan Cowley: Brilliant. Thank you.
Nigel Walker: Thank you.
Peter Cowley: Thanks for listening to another Invested Investor podcast. You can subscribe to all future podcasts via our website, investedinvestor.com, or via a number of podcast platforms online. Remember, you can order our book online. And be sure to follow us on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook to get the most up-to-date, interesting and insightful content from the Invested Investor.