The Technology Strategy Board has a hard job. Because just about every other source of grant and fund in the UK has been systematically dismantled over the last 3-4 years, nearly every practical aspect of supporting the UK’s technologically innovative SMEs has passed into its hands. I’ve chatted with the TSB’s David Bott during this year, and – really – carrying the weight of the country’s collective startup hopefulness on your shoulders can’t be an easy gig.
Also, the way that the TSB has typically structured its grant “competitions” gets in the way, and I’m not just talking about the way startups have had to be pre-funded in order to qualify (though this was, of course, famously not the case for the Tech City Launchpad1 competition this summer). The impression I get is that in order for these competitions to be politically useful, each one has to be seen to be supporting key aspects of government policy or business-minded aspiration (most notably Tech City, of course).
However… for me, there’s something just plain wrong with this whole picture. The biggest government aspiration of all by a country mile is that startups will (somehow) pluckily drive ‘UK plc’ out of its recessionary doldrums through high-value manufacturing and the alchemical miracle of export growth. Having tried for some years now to do that myself, I can honestly say to the TSB and BIS: nope, sorry, you have basically no hope of achieving that through this kind of approach.
Might the UK’s massed cadre of angel investors be able to help with this? To be brutally honest, they currently are simply not minded to finance any aspect of manufacturing: they can see it’s something worth doing, but they’d rather not do it themselves. Almost all of them – even the ones that are clearly smart enough to know better – have bought lock, stock and barrel into the whole VC make-believe world of “scalable software apps”. That is, too many believe that investment success is merely a matter of connecting jobbing Romanian programmers with some pie-eyed social media need specified by a noodle-eating 22-year-old Shoreditch hotdesker. £65K down for silly equity and the world’s your oyster, bish bash bosh: 10x “home runs” here we come… mine’s a Bollinger, cheers. If only the world of app marketing and customer discovery were merely a viral coefficient away, all software engineers would be billionaires, right?
So… if manufacturing is the question, right now the answer is neither UK angels nor that wafer-thin sliver of government funding in the TSB’s hands punted out as competitions. But do I have a better answer?
Actually, I think I do. The TSB may not like to hear it, but my opinion is that the majority of its competitions are a waste both of their time and of government money. If the Coalition had any kind of genuine interest in seeding manufacturing in the UK, what they should do is sponsor some manufacturer hackspaces, like London Hackspace but kitted out with killer stuff for building physical things. Out goes the toy stuff like the MakerBot, but in come the 5-axis mills, the Solidworks, Rhino3d, Moldflow and OneCNC licences, the EOS direct metal laser-sintering box, the 70-ton vertical plastic injection moulding machines, the computer controlled lathes, etc. Essentially, the rapid, dynamic, capital-intensive, properly modern stuff that would let startups design and build stuff in no time at all. For what it’s worth, my bet is that full-on access to modern capital-heavy making equipment would empower people to start making stuff, and would kickstart a whole generation of world-changing physical hackers, not just the kind of effetely lightweight social tweakers angels seem to want to back.
What you’d want to do is find an integrated way of giving low-end industrial training to people who are looking to gain skills using these devices, perhaps in return for helping startups out: and to set up some kind of reasonable access scheme whereby startups can use the equipment to do prototyping and test runs but not production runs.
Also, you’d probably want to place these (two? three? four?) manufacturer hackspaces near universities, though not actually inside them. (Is there space in one of Hermann Hauser’s buildings in Cambridge? Could London Hackspace double in size?) I think it would be important to make sure that these stayed independent of the whole dismal university spin-out culture: this should be a world-changing toolkit for dangerous, practical people, not for academics per se. What the government desperately wants to bet on is that the UK still has such edgy, driven makers who will find a way of doing stuff. Well, speaking as someone who fits that category pretty damn well, I can tell you that such people now find themselves standing on air - there is nothing to support them. Nothing at all. And a manufacturing hackspace or two would be an unbelievably large, positive step in absolutely the right direction.
So, how about it, TSB? I suspect that you’re just as dissatisfied with your funding competitions as the poor saps currently reading and re-reading the applicant notes to rejig their pitches to finesse an extra 1% from the independent judging panel. Does such a process genuinely validate real development talent and ability to service customer need, or merely the ability to fill out the forms for a bureaucratically minded pitch?
From my perspective, the TSB has wearily followed this competition path more than long enough to know that it’s time for a change: it now needs to back interesting stuff that challenges the status quo and empowers new, crazy, unexpected, export-centred physical businesses. Stuff that changes the world, one good idea at a time.
So, off you go, then, TSB people. Talk with the ministerial, the great, and the good – James Dyson? Phil O’Donovan? – and find a way of setting up properly ambitious manufacturing hackspaces. Take some first steps along that road (however tentative), and I’ll be with you every inch of the way. Find a way of being brave… really, you know you ought to, and - if you just asked for it in the right way – you very probably can.