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Technology, innovation and UK business 

Rob Young | BBc radio 4 | 22 september 2016

Listen to Alan's Radio 4 Today interview here

PA’s CEO, Alan Middleton, is interviewed by BBC Radio 4 Today Programme on the state of UK innovation. As part of a special series on technology, the BBC visited PA’s Cambridge Technology Centre to talk to Alan about PA’s work in technology and innovation and why the need for scientific and technological innovation has never been greater. Alan also talks about why the UK has a poor record of turning ideas into marketable products and businesses.

From PA’s ‘bunker’, where new technologies are tried and tested, the BBC presenter introduces Alan and PA. He discusses the importance of coming up with ideas, beyond smartphones and software, which can make a big difference and are worth big money. The presenter explains that PA is a business which is innovating all of the time.

The presenter asks Alan about a 3D printer which is printing a pair of spectacles. Alan says that while there is lot of hype around 3D printing, he wants to look at some of its very practical uses. He explains that “3D printing is real, it’s here to stay and it’s going to change business and the supply chain.”

Alan goes on to say: “3D printing is different to the type of disruption that is commonly talked about today, such as Uber. And it is this type of disruption, using innovation and thinking about new business models, which can create significant revenue streams for new technologies.” 

Alan takes the BBC presenter from the bunker through to PA’s machine workshop. He asks Alan if this is “the Q branch of your operation like in the James Bond movie”. Alan goes on to talk about one of the projects PA recently completed for the UK MOD.

He says: “We needed to develop a response to improvised explosive devices (IED) and developed a ground breaking unmanned vehicle-based detection system that to this day is saving lives.

“We used obsolete ‘Snatch’ Land Rovers to solve the problem. These vehicles were already owned by the MOD but weren’t being used. We found the best people in the world to automate these vehicles and these new unmanned, remote control vehicles are in the field saving lives.” 

The presenter goes on to ask Alan how good he thinks Britain is at innovation. Alan says: “In the UK, we are renowned for being good inventors but there is a difference between being inventive or innovative and delivering great business.”

Alan goes on to give the example of James Dyson who has taken a brilliant invention, built a business around it and has retained the value created by this in the UK. He also explains that the UK is very strong at certain segments such as fast moving consumer goods, life sciences and food products. Alan also mentions that our universities are also a key strength for the UK.

The presenter asks Alan whether government should be picking winners, explaining that the Prime Minister Theresa May has been talking about adopting an industrial strategy. He asks Alan how far this should go. 

Alan explains that he believes that picking winners is important but that the government already does a good job of that today. He goes on to say that industrial strategy and Catapults are working well: “Rather than fixating on the negative, we need to spend time focussed on our areas of brilliance and making more from them, rather than trying to invent areas where we want to be brilliant,” says Alan.

The presenter and Alan walk to the clinical area of PA’s Technology Centre where they discuss PA’s health patch. Alan explains: “The health patch is the size of a 10 pence piece and only costs thirty pence to manufacture. It can be stuck onto the body like a plaster and lasts for a number of days. It can then remotely monitor critical health indicators such as heart rate, blood oxygen level and lung condition. The patch enables patients to monitor themselves but also communicates its data via bluetooth, enabling health professionals to constantly monitor patients remotely from home.” 

The presenter explains that when it comes to improving productivity, it is devices such as the health patch that could play a key role. He asks Alan what he thinks British businesses can do to become more productive. Alan concludes that the key is investment in innovation: “When you look to other nations, their investment in research and developing and pushing products forward is immense.”

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