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Innovation and sustainability.

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I started the week with a trip to the office in Swindon, with the bonus of catching up with the boss on the train journey down. The main job of the day was to hand over the portfolio of roughly 50 resource efficiency projects to Mick Ciotkowski, the Lead Technologist for the programme now.

I then met with Di Gilpin of B9 Shipping to talk about their wider plans to transform the shipping industry using low emission (biogas engines and sails) ships, built in the UK and renewable energy powered sites using closed-loop materials. The wider project is too complex to fit neatly into our calls so far and is a good example to shape our thinking for how we support such interesting projects. With the calibre of companies that are interesting in being part of this new business system and the effect it could have towards regenerating the Portsmouth area it is certainly the kind of project we should support.

The next day I travelled south to Shrewsbury where I met with TBL Group (TBL stands for triple bottom line) and talked about how we support sustainability-driven innovation. Being a Welsh-based business I connected them with the programmes in Wales.

I then caught up with Shoothill who have one of the Solving Business Problems with Environmental Data projects; it was the first to start and will be first to finish. Shoothill had previously worked with Environment Agency data to provide the FloodAlerts service. The project we supported is to use river gauge data to produce RiverAlerts - of great use to river users as well as those with infrastructure affected by river levels such as rail companies. With the terrible floods around Christmas and into the New Year, the Environment Agency was under a lot of pressure to make more data available. Thanks to Shoothill already working on this project they had the APIs in place to enable them to do so! It was fantastic to be taken through the project and see progress so far as well as learn about their work in advertising campaigns and other data visualisation projects.

Wednesday and Thursday I spent at my home office working through plans for the next Clean and Cool Mission, updates to our Horizons tool, circular economy strategy and lots of phone calls I don’t usually get the time for. Happy Easter break!

Other topics discussed this week: Bernie Ecclestone and Smurfs, hayfever, and Samsung Surface.

Mike Pitts


I spent Monday catching up on various jobs including judging a UKTI competition for small cleantech companies to attend Cleantech Europe. I also joined a seminar on our forward communications plans aimed at improving how we are understood as an organisation.

Tuesday I had the pleasure of driving through my native North Wales’ glorious scenery to attend a project close out meeting with a company called C-Cure. They had received a Smart Proof-of-Concept award from us to run field trials of a solution to metal waste contaminated sites that are affecting the surrounding environment. They expect legacy mines to be a key market and one test site tackled such a problem. The other was an old Ministry of Defence site used to destroy tonnes of expired World War II munitions. The dump was in a remote part of the Welsh countryside and in some ways an ideal test for their solution. Typically such a site would be dug over and possibly sealed with concrete to make it safe. This wasn’t an option for an unspoilt part of the Snowdonia National Park with tiny single track roads to reach it. The C-Cure solution involves a specialised charcoal made from an agricultural waste product that binds leached metals cutting the levels in groundwater dramatically and encouraging growth of plants that help reduce erosion and stabilise the site allowing nature to play its part in breaking down the pollutants.

After the meeting (at a lovely Natural Resources Wales site – picture above), we headed to the test site to see the evidence of the regeneration the treatment enables. With the ground loaded with munitions waste the water that runs over the site causes the nearby stream to shoot past Water Framework Directive limits right downstream into a river and out to the estuary (zinc is the main issue). Not only do the treated sections (see pictures below) have considerable growth with deep roots, the water passing through them has over 95% less metal content. You can see how sterile the site is from the pictures and the test sections with little or no growth are controls for comparison. C-Cure were able to model the site using laser scanning to predict erosion and in the project developed a close relationship with the ‘client’ – Natural Resources Wales who own this problem, and many more like it! The project has also led to a partnership with a supplier and investment and was transformative for the business.

Wednesday I took a long train ride to Middlesbrough to visit Augean, a leader in hazardous waste management. We learnt about the company’s different but related divisions and their evolution from a landfill company to one that buries as little resource as possible. A tour of the site revealed how they treated nasty wastes such as cutting and drilling fluids to recover value (and noted the lack of seagulls). We also heard about the successes and challenges in a project we funded with them on recovering metals from portable battery waste and discussed other challenges they faced. I was particularly taken with the idea of closed-loop soil.

Thursday was London and started in a meeting with 2Degrees on where we could collaborate more. Given they help major corporate work with their supply chain to understand and act on their sustainability procurement requirements there is a strong overlap with our sustainability and resource efficiency activities. The benefits of suppliers engaging with the programme are increased access to the procurement teams and bottom line improvements as they adopt new technologies and practices. I was intrigued to learn GSK have now joined 2Degrees to work with their supply chain.

I then met up with Kate Harris from MWH Global to talk about our Clean and Cool Missions. Kate was on our last one to Colorado as a fantastic VIP advising the Mission companies. Her help was invaluable and we talked about her joining the next mission as well. Kate is one of those people who connect well between business people and technical people and can help entrepreneurs to put their brilliant ideas into a language investors get excited about and tell the story. We also talked at length about the UK water sector and how important the energy-water nexus is becoming.

I finished with a meeting on how the Design function in the Knowledge Transfer Network can support our Resource Efficiency programme and Sustainability theme with Beatrice Rogers. We are always keen to bring design thinking into what we do given the natural approach of designers to ask questions such as: Who is this for? Why will they use it? How will they use it?

I rounded off the week following up from all the meeting this week and last, chatting with people we are making big plans for the coming year with. All very exciting and as ever, you’ll hear about it here first!

Other topics discussed this week: mountain biking, noise cancelling headphones, chocolate and character profiling.

Mike Pitts


A big theme this week was downloading knowledge from my brain. Monday I went to our Swindon office to meet with several colleagues all picking at the proverbial grey matter. First was how we could use Horizons in the roadmapping process we will do on quantum technologies. Then a long meeting to codify how we currently approach and plan our Entrepreneur Missions. These are where we take high-growth potential small businesses with scalable solutions to overseas markets to meet potential investors, partners, suppliers and customers as well as developing their message and learning what it takes to do business there. We have run these in health, digital and clean technologies in the past and have plans for four this year. It is a good time to review the process and make sure we’re getting everything right. Having run one of the last missions and thinking about another put me in a good position to outline what we did (and learnt).

After the mission meeting I sat down with our Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN) manager who wanted to understand what we needed from the new cross-cutting them on Sustainability in the new organisation which kicked off this week. This activity will mirror some of the work I do and help us scale our support for businesses to think about environmental and social drivers for their innovation. Having previously worked for a KTN I could also give him some perspectives and we talked at length about how things might work from here.

After a quick discussion with our monitoring team on project issues I raced into London for a long overdue catch-up with Jamie Burdett on all things circular economy. A bonus we were joined my Mr and Mrs Shayler. As always a very stimulating evening.

Tuesday was a full day at Forum for the Future. First was a discussion on better understanding how users work with our Horizons tool and how we can make it easier to interact with and gain useful outcomes. I then had a very long session with the team helping us understand barriers to circular economy business models. We are shaping our support for companies to work at a system level to provide a user need with greater conservation of resource and value: making more money selling less stuff. The main aim of the meeting was share how all this might work and what we have been learning on the journey so far in our Resource Efficiency strategy and project portfolio.

Wednesday I popped into Sustainability Live, largely to hear from the water sector on how they think privatisation has gone over the last 25 years. There seems to be a growing acceptance that not all problems can or should be solved by pouring concrete and that water bill increases are affecting the acceptance from customers. The main disappointment though was to hear the Chair of Ofwat respond poorly to a question on innovation. It was clear it was regarded as solving today’s problems a little differently rather than any vision of challenges 10 years away or who they should be working with. I then travelled on to Swindon and spent the evening writing a blog post on UK cleantech and planning resource for the financial year.

Thursday brought the Funder’s Panel for the Supply Chain Innovation towards a Circular Economy competition where we authorised the 11 projects selected at the assessment panel. The project leads should all have heard. I look forward to seeing these projects in action and also to following up with those strong scoring projects that were unsuccessful to see how else we can help them. The proposals we saw have helped shape our thinking for future competitions and support. I used the chance of being in the office to catch up with several colleagues about plans for this year which is certainly looking exciting!

Friday started with a few phone calls before a review of the last year with my line manager Richard Miller. We talked through the plans for the coming year and what we are trying to achieve. I’m pleased to say we have some excellent support for sustainability-led innovation in the pipeline. What this space...

Other topics discussed this week: burritos, teenage rebellions, harems, haircuts and systems versus ecologies.

Mike Pitts


Monday was dominated by hosting an inward mission from Brazil at the BIS Conference Centre in London. The group was led by the Science and Innovation Network team that helped us when the Clean and Cool Mission was in Sao Paolo last year and featured a couple of investors and companies largely in the chemicals and materials sector. We had representatives from our HVM Catapult and Chemistry Innovation KTN as well as colleagues in UKTI and BIS to help them group understand the UK innovation landscape and potential for working with UK companies.

Tuesday I was back in London for two meetings which fed off each other thanks to some true serendipity. The first was with our IC Tomorrow team who want to run one of their contests for digital entrepreneurs targeted at sustainability challenges. These contests are shaped by patron companies that are facing such issues who can define the need and host a trial for the winning idea. Given my second meeting was with a group of blue chip organisations to discuss common sustainability business model challenges the obvious people to be involved could be asked the same day!

That meeting took place at the impressive Unilever House in Blackfriars and included a chance to reflect on how we (as sustainability managers in our organisations) can drive change internally. I was reminded how important it is to take colleagues with you and build the picture together rather than presenting a finished solution and having all the answers. The importance of a solid business case was also a common theme.

Wednesday brought a quick trip into Swindon to talk with UKWRIP about water innovation before returning to London for the Environmental Sustainability KTN event at the House of Commons. Always a great event for networking, I took the chance after to catch up with sustainable design dudes Mark Shayler and Charles Ross.

The rest of the week was spent at the computer! Thursday was spent doing lengthy updates to Horizons (our sustainability tool), in particular new ‘nudge’ questions to help you think about each environmental and social factor in relation to your business. I’m also still working on material to help colleagues present Horizons to applicants in our competitions. I took a quick call with one who used it in the briefing day for applicants in his latest call. The feedback was great but crucially they needed a chance to play with the cards in a facilitated session. This could be hard to scale so we have more thinking to do.

Friday was mainly spent catching up on emails and preparing documents for a Funder’s Panel next week. This is where we sign off on decisions made by our assessors taking into account all parts of our operations to double check projects are viable. Given the range of different (and exciting proposals) I decided to include a few pictures to help my colleagues understand what each project was about. With Resource Efficiency we have projects across all sorts of sectors – a wonderful result!

Other topics discussed this week: green beer, Hoxton pubs, dastardly moustaches and remanufacturing.

Mike Pitts


I began the week in London meeting with The Great Recovery team as we continue to understand the barriers to changing business model systems for companies. We are reasoning that for many of the companies keen to test new ways of delivering value to customers that use less primary resources the challenges of changing internal and customer attitudes dominates. Sometimes this can best be done outside the business with its long established, and hard won, supply chains and long-term contracts. However those that stand still are ripe for disruption from new innovative companies. Trends are changing in what consumers want from their ‘stuff’ and this week I read an article on 'commitment-phobe Millenials' driving a move service-based business models, which are highly compatible with a circular economy.

After that meeting I caught up with 100%Open who we have used to help us get different groups of experts talking together and fully describing joint problems. We talked about using them to help us with a review of our water strategy this year. They have worked with some water utilities already.

Tuesday brought news of the American Chemical Society’s campaign to highlight ‘endangered elements’. The topic of scarcity/decreasing availability of some parts of the periodic table is something I’ve been involved with for the last 7 years. The highlight might well have been an exhibit in the Design Museum in 2009 that really started to capture people’s imagination and led to several articles on the topic (Chemistry World and The Chemical Engineer). It was one of these that David Willetts highlighted as best explaining the challenge to him when questioned by the Science Select Committee (picture below). I recalled this image when I saw the one of David Constable holding up the ACS version on a T-shirt and loved the mirroring of the image...

The rest of the day was spent updating project portfolios (tracking around 60-70 live projects) and preparing slides for an inward mission from Brazil next week.

Wednesday I travelled to Cardiff and met with the innovation team at the Welsh Government to talk about how we can work more closely, particularly on sustainable development which is being placed at the heart of Welsh policy via their Future Generations bill. We had a fantastic discussion about how these aspirations should be translated into business opportunities and drive innovation support. I introduced Horizons to the discussion and we’ll look at ways to use it as soon as possible. I’m excited by what might follow and the opportunity to connect up policy and sustainability-driven innovation.

I then headed to Swindon to meet with EPSRC and compare notes on Resource Efficiency portfolios and forward plans. I finished with some catch ups in our office including hearing exciting plans for Innovate14.

The next day I was back in the office as we ran an assessment panel to finalise ranking of the proposals for our Supply Chain Innovation towards a Circular Economy competition. There was plenty of healthy debate and more great projects than money so more tough discussions ahead when the selections get signed off at the funder’s panel in a couple of weeks. During the meeting I heard about the Commons Environmental Audit committee’s session on Growing a Circular Economy asking for evidence. Great to hear this is happening.

Friday was largely spent on the phone talking with the team and those who help us run things, and working through paperwork that comes with the year end.

Other topics discussed this week: triplets, ScienceGrrl, bad train journeys and respecting the chemistry.

Mike Pitts




I was back to work Monday and started with meetings at Chemistry Innovation covering our Materials Security work (do look at the website for some great information on funding, Europe and case studies) and how we will manage Sustainability in the new Knowledge Transfer Network from April.

Tuesday I waded through emails and calls I had missed during my mini-(honey)moon in Scotland. Part of the trip saw us staying at a purpose built lodge in Angus that was a great example of sustainable building techniques. Heated by groundsource, solar power and a wood burner the site also featured a 17kW wind turbine and was the best insulated building I have been in. It certainly assuaged the guilt of using the sauna and hot-tub! Emails were broken up by a quick Skype interview with a Loughborough student on circular economy in the mobile phone industry. I can’t quite understand the focus on developing a shifting new models rather than providing a quality service for that sector and trust his dissertation will shed some light.

Wednesday was spent in London starting with a quick catch up with the boss before a meeting with Forum for the Future’s Nicky Conway, James Goodman and CEO Sally Uren on how we are working together and shared areas of interest. We were clear that we needed to integrate our work on energy and food better and noted both organisations’ strategies looking at systemic challenges.

I then (after some mix up over venue) met with Policy Connect who manage several parliamentary member groups to look at overlap in interest. Again energy was a big area of common activity as well as building energy efficiency and resource efficiency. The day was rounded off catching up with Guy Pattison of Long Run Venture to have initial discussions about the next Clean and Cool Mission.

Thursday I travelled into our Swindon office to meet with Professor Richard Owen to discuss integration of the Responsible Innovation Framework we developed for our synthetic biology competition with our Horizons tool which helps thinking on environmental and social drivers. In many ways they have parallel aims: helping innovators think about the societal drivers for their work and how to ensure they address these in the project. A PhD student will include an assessment of these approaches in his work and recommend how we might build on our support in the future.

I was also in the office to look at the proposals we are taking into next week’s assessment panel for our Supply Chain Innovation towards a Circular Economy competition. It was great to see so many good proposals, particularly with several focussed on business model innovation as we’d wanted. I finished the week working through all these proposals in detail and preparing case studies for our Resource Efficiency strategy which is currently being refreshed. A few quick calls with colleagues on joint future competitions and a catch up with Julie Hill of Green Alliance rounded everything off.

Other topics discussed this week: car problems, Breaking Bad, board games, nappies.

Mike Pitts