Funding innovation

Source: Rail Technology Magazine June/July 2013

The Radical Train innovation competition has just reached its next stage, with the 57 shortlisted entrants whittled down to eight. RTM talked to Enabling Innovation Team director David Clarke.

The Enabling Innovation Team, hosted by the RSSB but under the direction of the Technical Strategy Leadership Group (TSLG), is running a number of competitions and projects to try to tackle the ‘innovation gap’ in the UK rail industry.

The Radical Train competition is one such measure, and 57 initial bids for funding have since been whittled down to 11 and subsequently eight to be taken forward (see below).

Asked about the huge response the competition received, David Clarke, director of the EIT, told RTM: “As a new organisation, this hasn’t been done in the industry before, so we were in unknown territory. We felt we were going to get a fairly good response because of the way we’d engaged with industry, we’d held a number of briefing events and a consortium building event. We tried to reach out and make people aware of what we were doing, and we’d gone through a process where if bidders wished to do so, they could share their initial thoughts with us before they finalised their proposal.

“So we knew we were going to get maybe 30- ish entries, but to get 57 was very encouraging. It does show what we believed, which is that there’s a gap in the market. There’s pent-up innovation in the industry which, hopefully, we can help release.”

He said there’d been an “interesting mixture” of bidders, both large and small companies, universities in partnership with private businesses, well-known names and smaller concerns.

The primary aim of the competition is to help those who have a good idea that solves a need in the industry, but who find it to challenging to progress beyond the idea stage to proof-of-concept via a prototype or other demonstrator. “That’s the gap into which we fit,” Clarke said. EIT’s mission generally, of which Radical Train is just one part, is to “deal with that gap where research comes up against a block and you need to have some facility to demonstrate a prototype”.

Risk management

The eight successful applicants are not getting a blank cheque or anything of the sort.

They will be expected to take on some of the risk, and to part-fund the work of developing their ideas.

Clarke said: “In moving towards a complete rolling demonstrator, clearly that’s a major programme in terms of cost and time.

“Some of the innovators we’d be hoping to work with would find it very difficult to commit to that at the outset. Both for them and us, we’d want to take it in bite-sized chunks.”

For those entrants who haven’t made it through to the final stage, he said, it was not necessarily the end of the process.

“We envisage that this particular round of competition would be just the first. We would also probably run in parallel some other competitions to bring in other new ideas along the way. In actual fact, that might be a second bite of the cherry for anybody pipped at the post this time. We might go back to those people and say ‘your idea has merit, but needs strengthening in these areas’, and tell them which future competitions to look out for.

“In that way, hopefully the more promising out of the 57, even if they don’t go through immediately, there’ll be ways in which we can encourage them.”

Contractible propositions

The EIT and engineering consultancy Frazer Nash are now entering a ‘development phase’ with the 11 top bidders, of up to 10 weeks, where the consultancy will work with them to bring the offers up to the necessary standard to be contractible propositions.

Clarke said that asking for that level of detail earlier on was “too much of an overhead… it requires a lot of work, we didn’t want to discourage people from entering”.

Once a binding contractual offer is in place, he said, is when “we’ll be thinking about writing cheques”.

The total funding pot for Radical Train is £4m, Clarke said, but it is expected that will be matched.

He explained: “We would not fund anything 100%. One reason for that is we want the innovator to be taking some of the risk in taking the thing forward. If we have £4m, we would expect, depending on the competition, to fund 50%, so we’d expect to see around £8m worth of activity. That suddenly starts to become quite significant. The innovator’s contribution could be in cash or kind.”

Business-focused innovation

We asked Clarke how much the bidders were expected to be clear on the real-life application and potential market or customer for their innovation, or whether some were concentrating more on radical and disruptive technologies but without a specific end use in mind.

He told us: “It’s a balance. We don’t want innovation for the sake of innovation. We don’t want a bunch of solutions in search of a problem.

“Having said that, with the Radical Train, we deliberately set a very wide challenge. Part of the appraisal criteria is what the proposition will do for the whole railway system.

“We’ll be looking at the benefits versus the challenge of implementation. So we’ll take forward a portfolio, some with a modest benefit but that are easier to implement, but we’ll also want to encourage things with dramatic benefits but that are challenging to implement.

“Radical Train is an example of the approach we envisage adopting generally. We’re not looking to own the intellectual property or designs of the innovator, we’re looking to encourage them so they can create a new market opportunity for themselves. We’re trying to make sure we can see a very clear route to market.

“If we can’t see the possibility at the end of the line that there is a customer to pick up that idea, and possibly also an investor who’d take it to the stage beyond where we can take it, then that’s probably a proposition we’d have to think twice about.

“We’re very focused on trying to make sure we’re helping the innovators to create a product they can sell, and therefore they must have a customer or at least a prospective customer.”

Not the only game in town

The EIT is not the only part of the industry looking at innovation – others include the Technology Strategy Board, RRUKA, and Network Rail’s and London Underground’s own internal teams, for example.

We asked Clarke whether there may be a case for some rationalisation. He admitted that while “it can look confusing from afar”, the different groups and agencies actually cooperate closely to avoid overlap or duplicating each other’s work.

He said: “I regularly meet with people from all of those organisations, and we have a number of forums through which we make sure we’re not duplicating effort. For example, TSB have recently run the Digital Railway competition, which we’re delighted with. We’re quite closely related to that, because TSLG are cofunding that with Richard [Kemp-Harper, lead technologist for transport and energy at the TSB], and of course TSLG is my parent group. We specifically worked with Richard to make sure he was picking up some of the challenges we saw and we weren’t doing anything that would confuse the landscape around his particular competition.”

Clarke said the EIT has been trialling a new interactive tool for its website that companies can use to work out which competition or funding scheme could be best for their own particular needs, which gives out a specific person’s name and contact details.

Widespread support and engagement

Clarke empahsised the high-level support the EIT has, with the Government very keen to push UK innovation. Its own initial funding came from the Government, and transport minister Simon Burns namechecked the organisation in his speech at Railtex. “He really emphasised the importance of innovation to the Government,” Clarke said.

The EIT is also keen to ensure its next round of investment and funding is well-targeted, so has been undertaking a supply chain capability study and engagement project.

“We’re trying to make sure we as an industry have a much better knowledge of the supply chain and its strengths, and we’ll use that to help prioritise our next round of investment. If we understand what the UK is really good at – or could be really good at – and we support that, then we’re hopefully building a virtuous circle.

“So if they’re already good at it, they stay really good at it and keep ahead of the competition, and if they could be really good at it, they become so and start to create new employment opportunities, new economic growth. That’s a very important part of what we’re doing.

“We have two fundamental objectives: one is to improve the railway, the other is to support economic growth.

“That fits very well into what Simon Burns was saying [at Railtex]. Once we’re armed with this knowledge of what the supply chain is good at, and what UK railways are good at, then as an industry we can have a much more grown-up conversation with the Government about how they can help us be even better.

“This is exactly the sort of approach that other industries, like automotive and aerospace, have very successfully followed.”

There is more from David Clarke in our coverage of ATOC’s ‘Future Train’ event, where he was a guest speaker.

The eight proposals being taken forward

• A kinetic energy recovery and storage system
• A better diesel engine burn system to reduce emissions
• A low carbon regional railcar featuring energy storage
• Lightweight composite structures offering reduced production costs
• Integral wheel-motor technology
• Modelling of novel train operations to enhance railway capacity
• A novel radial freight bogie
• Active adhesion monitoring and management


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