Select Committee begins inquiry into research "valley of death"

The government has started a Select Committee inquiry into the “valley of death” that is thwarting scientific research from reaching commercial levels in the UK.

The Science and Technology Committee has opened up an inquiry into the “difficulty of translating research into commercial application”, with a lack of investment cited as a driving force.

Science Minister David Willetts recently discussed the situation in the UK. Research institutes have ideas that can’t proceed without a proof of concept that would enable a venture capitalist to get onboard with further development. This is widely referred to, as Willetts mentioned, as “the valley of death”.

The government has responded to this with its recent strategy for life sciences, which aims to help medical research push research into the product stage.  For many start ups this can be the killer blow.

TechEye was told that the inquiry will, however, be a wider look into the research commercialisation environment throughout the UK, taking in the full scope of science and tech research.

Indeed, the government is all too aware of the precarious position of moving into a manufacturing and knowledge-based growth economy during the economic depression without supporting research and development. 

This has led to the recently published Innovation and Research Strategy for Growth TechEye spoke to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills which told us commercialisation is a main driver for the strategy.

Of course, as we found out at the time, the pledged amount to support research is arguably been a pittance compared to what’s needed for real change.  The laudable decision to support the development of graphene products, a prime example of the UK’s ability to innovate, may not be enough to stay at the forefront of international developments either.

Indeed, it seems that with the Select Committee inquiry following the “key recurring issue” of producing a final product there are still concerns over the UK leading on innovative products.

According to Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) managing director Imran Khan, while there is great work done in the UK there is not always enough support for great ideas – despite the clear benefits.

“There is a slight tendency in the UK to be pessimistic about our commercialisation record – we’ve actually got some fantastic companies successfully bringing technologies to market, with new ones every week,” he told TechEye.

“For instance, the Technology Strategy Board works with companies to commercialise research, generating £7 return for the economy for every £1 invested, and there are really exciting companies working on everything from new drug delivery mechanisms to clean energy.”

Crucially, Khan says, the reason this is so important is “that we’re not fulfilling our potential.”

“By most measures we’ve got one of the most productive and high-quality research bases in the world,” Khan says, “and yet compared to our international competitors we have a much smaller high-tech sector.”

Khan says that less than one percent of the UK’s economy is spent on research and development – compared to over two percent for countries like the US and Germany.

“The reason it’s so important we fix that is we really need to rebalance our economy,” Khan believes. “It’s pretty obvious that the UK’s future is not in cheap labour or natural resources, and we’ve seen how foolish it is to just rely on the financial services sector – so we need to make the most of our advantage in science and engineering and turn that into economic growth.”

And if the money is there, the UK is the kind of country that can really succeed, according to Khan: “We’re one of only a few nations in the world that could genuinely become the high-tech leaders of the coming century, and it’d be a shame if we passed up the opportunity.

“The Government needs to be putting way more funding into organisations like the Technology Strategy Board, and encouraging an entrepreneurial culture amongst the UK’s young scientists and engineers while they’re still studying and researching.”

Everyone would be a winner, Khan thinks: “If we get it right, we’re not just going to put the UK economy on a sustainable and successful footing, but we’ll also get advances like better healthcare, cleaner energy, and faster communications along the way – it’s a win-win scenario.”

The Science and Technology Select Committee is now requesting written submission from anyone who wants to give some feedback on how to improve the transition from research to commercial applications.