Freesteel Blog » 2017 » September

Monday, September 18th, 2017 at 7:47 pm - - University 1 Comment »


To celebrate the upcoming move of DoESLiverpool to formerly derelict factory space, I decided to peel open the can of worms embodied by the new construction known as Sensor City — literally 8 minutes walk away.

We have a joke around the hackspace while we’re teaching one another to do epic stuff with different sensors, that they got a grant for £10million and then spent £9.999million of it on the building, leaving not one penny left for sensors.

So, effectively all the money that taxpayers were told was going to go into the goodness of high technology seems to have actually been spent on wages for bricklayers, architects and concrete mixers.

Not that I have anything on the building trade, but the whole purpose of an Industrial Strategy is to overcome the fact short term investment in buildings will always be more profitable and less risky than investment in innovation and technology, and this country seems to be run by morons who don’t know how to invest in Innovation and Technology.

Case in Point: Sensor City.

Somehow millions of pounds of national investment into this very promising emerging technology, due to its sudden cheapness and pervasiveness, got converted into an investment into a crappy building clad from ground to roof with embarrassing printed circuit board-themed glass panels.

At no point as the design passed through the hands of the great and the good of University Vice-Chancellors, Professors, Civil Servants and other well-dressed highly-paid smart people, did a single one of them probably think:

“Hey, that’s a nice piece of art. But has any one of us seen a machine that can cut real Printed Circuit Boards of the kind that can carry electronics? Maybe we should buy one for about the cost of one of these glass panels so that companies in region can get their prototypes as rapidly as those innovators in China where all such services are on their doorstep?”

The turn-around time to getting your prototypes produced and tested in the form of circuitboards that can carry surface-mounted sensors seriously drives up costs and harms innovation. In China their innovators get turn-around times measured in hours, so you can get circuits made and debugged quickly and take chances. On the other hand, it is super-slow and expensive if you need to get things right first time (they never are) and it takes up to 4 weeks to get each prototype built.

Just think. They could have easily called a meeting back in 2014 between all the companies and startups in the area and simply asked: what are your PCB design needs for carrying sensors, and which machine do you think should we get to help you out?

A plan for sourcing the relevant machinery could have been outlined and assessed, always ensuring that it was going to be available out of hours at a cost-effective level (ie practically free) for learning and training and growing the expertise among the community to do it productively.

But no, they decided on the basis of no sense whatsoever that the one thing we were missing for turning this area into a hub for sensor technology was 2500m^2 of bank-account draining swanky office space.

How did we get here?

Well, contrary to my initial guess, the bollocks was right there from the start with the government press release of 13 December 2013, £15 million boost for local business growth at universities, where the Prime Minister said:

Our world-leading universities have historically been at the heart of innovation but we need to give them the tools to be even better at cultivating the seeds of growth as well as knowledge.

University Enterprise Zones will unlock the potential of so many students who will be able to move into affordable business space and start to build their own business straight after their degree.

I want to see University Enterprise Zones help create the next Yahoo or the next Microsoft – bringing jobs and prosperity to both the local and wider economy and helping us succeed in the global race.

Interesting choice of examples to pull out of one’s arse.

Microsoft got its big break in 1981 when they closed the deal to supply the operating system for the new IBM PC — an operating system which they did not have. But the company was originally founded in 1976 in New Mexico to be near their first customer Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems. They moved from there to their current home in Washington state in 1979 owing to the difficulty of hiring top programming talent in the middle of the desert.

No mention was made of the attractiveness of the office space, which I’m sure was fine in Albuquerque.

In more recent decades, Microsoft has booked very high profits hocking their shite products and services to the UK government for billions of pounds. If that kind of money had been spent procuring superior services based on open source software over the last 20 years, we’d have a much more robust and vibrant high tech industry today.

Also, we can go look at the history of Yahoo! (links to a book called the “Chief Yahoos of Yahoo”) and how that company came into existance at the dawn of the internet when nobody in the world yet knew that the one thing that was fundamentally most important to the internet was a search engine:

By November 1994 an amazing 170,000 people a day were using Yahoo!… Yang and Filo could not expand their company without money. They still had to find someone who would be willing to invest in their new company.

And so it goes from luck, happenstance, and general communication in the community activity to serendipidy.

They found an investor in the same way that they found themselves owning a business — by doing something else. In this case, it happened during the search for a host for Yahoo!. Yang and Filo ran into Randy Adams, who operates the Internet Shopping Network. In early 1995 he was also just getting his business started. Adams introduced Yang and Filo to Mike Moritz who was the head of an investment company called Sequoia Capital.

Moritz and the other members of Sequoia Capital instantly liked the idea of Yahoo!. As Moritz jokes about it, “It was a suicide impulse on our part” because any new Internet company was a risky investment. Most of them failed within a year.

Does this sound like the attitude of any capital investors in the UK? Also, he knew about the tech and the business, not like some know-nothing flock of bean-counters.

But Moritz was used to taking risks and backing computer companies. He had already helped out Apple Computer and the software company Oracle, both of which became highly successful businesses. After meeting with Yang and Filo and liking what he had seen and heard, Moritz agreed to give the two young men a million dollars in exchange for a part interest in the new company. He also sent his business people to help Yang and Filo fend off the sudden swarm of would-be buyers.

Yes, it is possible for one member of the business community to recognize the havoc wreaked by that element of society and actually take steps to shield new entrepreneurs from its destructive impulses.

But finally we reach the relevant paragraph of this story:

Now that Yang and Filo had decided not to sell, they faced practical issues: Yahoo! might have a Web site, but now it needed a physical office as well. Yang and Filo decided on an office in Santa Clara, California, not too far from Netscape’s office in Mountain View, and started looking for employees.

So you see, kids, business location is driven by (a) the proximal location of the customer, and (b) the availability of the hirable staff.

It’s never anything to do with the “(un)affordable business space”.

It wasn’t two steps from the Prime Minister’s statement to reach this sanity check.

I could go on, but to wrap things up for the today. I have to mention the important University enterprise zones pilot: evaluation document, which explains:

Universities and Local Enterprise Partnerships come together to create a University Enterprise Zone. The UEZ itself is a partnership between actors in a specific territory. It is accompanied by: (i) funding to build office space to house start-up businesses (incubator space); and (ii) support from UKTI to create an investment proposition.

In the context of the Witty Review of universities and growth, the purpose of the policy is to get universities more involved in economic growth. A logic model is presented in the next Chapter.

The universities and LEPs have to work together in delivering this UEZ. This is meant to encourage universities to get more involved with the LEP and economic growth. The aims of the policy are: (i) increased university-business engagement; and (ii)
increased cooperation between universities and LEPs.

…which leads deeper into the rabbit hole to the so-called Witty Review of July 2013, chaired by Sir Andrew Witty, long-time CEO of the monopoly drug-supplier GlaxoSmithKline which has pled guilty in 2012 to lying about the safety of its products while bribing doctors to proscribe them. People must have died for their bottom line.

Andrew Witty, the firm’s chief executive, said procedures for compliance, marketing and selling had been changed at GSK’s US unit.

“We have learnt from the mistakes that were made,” Mr Witty said. “When necessary, we have removed employees who have engaged in misconduct.”(bbc)

So, the just the right sort of guy to conduct a review into “how universities can drive growth in their areas and for the benefit of the wider UK and to disseminate knowledge and best practice,” and to build on the Wilson review of Business-university collaboration of February 2012.

I can find nothing of interest in the Witty Review, aside from some really laughable recommendations, like:

Recommendation 5. Universities should put in place a single point of entry for SMEs that ‘triages’ their needs and directs them to the relevant part of the university. This point of entry should also look to drive up SME demand and engagement, and work with external partners across the locality, as well as within the university. University business schools should be incentivised to prioritise working directly with local businesses on workable solutions to practical problems.

Goddamnit! Do you know the kind of people who wind up at the desk of this “single point of entry”? What the hell is this? You can’t mail-order a package of innovation from the Amazon website: “I’d like an idea for setting up a billion dollar company please.”

That will be £15million, and we will spend all of it on a carbuncle of concrete and steel.

And don’t get me started on those University business schools. If I was teaching in a University business school, then Section 1 of Lecture 1 of Module 1 would be: “Let us now download and review the business plans for this University for the last ten years, for which you, the students, are considered the customers, and examine them in light of what we can see around us in the context of our hopes and dreams.”

Why do they have zero curiosity in any actual local businesses as it is?

It’s not a hard concept.

Many local businesses would be happy to open their books to be scrutinized and fixed up, just as I am happy to open my mouth at the University dental hospital where they need real teeth to practice their skills on. Business schools are the unabbreviation of BS.

Universities could arrange for their professors to go out into the community and give lectures about what they’re doing on a weekly basis. Maybe hold an open themed Unconference on their site every six months.

You have got to get the contacts flowing between the technologists who are working on the actual tech on matters that seem trivial, not set up some kind of dragon’s den scheme between their so-called leaders who do not have a clue.

The Witty Review praises several university incubator spaces, but doesn’t recommend them. For that, we look to the Wilson Review for:

Recommendation Universities, UKTI, local authorities and LEPs should work together with other relevant organisations (such as the UK Science Park Association) to develop coherent routes for the international promotion of available space and development opportunities in university-linked science and innovation parks. Further, the government, in conjunction with the LEPs, should examin the benefits of using local authority enterprise zone type measures such as simplified planning or local taxation to support university-linked science and innovation parks.

The basis for this recommendation was the following quote:

“Terman came up with the great idea that did more than anything to cause the tech industry to grow up here.” — Steve Jobs

[Steve Jobs was referring to the Dean of Engineering at Stanford University, Frederick Terman, who in 1951 created a 700 acre industrial park on university land for private companies that could commercialise the ideas of his students, now called the Stanford Research Park.]

Indeed, we forget that 1951 was during the height of the Cold War when Uncle Sam was buying huge amounts of aerospace and micro-electronics technology, which then underwent a period of revolutionary innovation.

It’s the customers that count, and the staff in the form of new graduates who didn’t have to move very far to get there> It was California.

For example, if you wanted the half billion quid engineering firm James Fisher and Sons plc to up sticks and move from Barrow-in-Furness to Liverpool, then you’d commission the nuclear submarines here rather than in Barrow. Nothing to do with the office space, is it?

Not all government purchases have to be military. For example, the UK and Local Governments have spent billions over budget procuring IT debacles in the last two decades, nearly all of it to large firms who based it on crappy Microsoft technology. That was a golden opportunity wasted which has not been acknowledged in any business innovation review I have ever read.

Can it be this bad?

Am I making this up?

Well, I couldn’t making up the story in 2007 of ULivE, company set up to commercialise research from Liverpool University laboratories which they attempted to float on the stock market at the value of £70million and might have questionably been capitalizing itself on the basis of the revenue stream known as “research funding grants”. It was wound up in 2011 with no lessons learned because it has been airbrushed from history.

Well, this time these know-nothing incurious bean-counters have created a building, which is not going to be so easy to hide under the carpet when the whole daft plan falls to pieces, on account of having no idea what innovations looks like even were it hit them like a cow. Microsoft and Yahoo!, said the Prime Minister. I mean, what is this about?

Final word goes to Professor Wilson who warned in his review:

I add a caution to the issue of measurement, especially in the context of the inevitable league tables that will follow… Measuring what exists will focus universities upon the activities being measured; it has a strong potential to inhibit innovation, not drive it.