Transport innovators meet DfT’s Chief Scientific Adviser

Challenges and opportunities facing small companies and academics involved in accelerating new mobility ideas were discussed at a roundtable marking the start of the latest Transport Research and Innovation Grants programme in early June.

Better access to finance, more real-world trials and greater certainty around regulations would all serve to help transport sector innovators increase their chances of commercial success, a select group told the Department for Transport (DfT) at its offices in Birmingham this month. 

Five representatives of small to medium sized companies (SMEs) and academia spoke for over an hour with the DfT’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor Sarah Sharples alongside Connected Places Catapult’s Chief Business Officer, Paul Wilson. They were chosen to represent the 67 projects selected to receive Transport Research and Innovation Grants (TRIG) funding to develop new technologies, products or services to enhance the way we travel or make transport systems function more effectively. 

Sarah asked those gathered to outline the biggest challenges in getting technology to market. First to reply was James Thomas of JET Connectivity. “Accessing capital you cannot get from venture funding is a barrier,” he said. “Companies like ours don’t need a few million pounds of venture capital; but may need tens of millions in infrastructure finance – but how does an SME put that together if they have a balance sheet of only a few million? 

“It is a really big challenge,” added James, who has developed a floating 5G mobile phone network for the sea. “With transport, everything is such a big scale and we are trying to put in place millions of pounds’ worth of hardware in order to build.” 

Next to speak was Etienne Louvet of IONA Logistics, which develops advanced drone systems. “Risk assessing infrastructure products is difficult for stakeholders, business angels and early-stage investors, but being part of the TRIG programme helps.” He also agreed with James that finance is an issue, pointing out that funding early stage development can be “almost impossible”. 

Kristen Tapping of GoRolloe, developer of an air filtration device for vehicles, said getting innovations to trial stage can be hard. “We have a working prototype in the laboratory, but to get real data we have to trial it in the street.” Doing so, however, brings intellectual property risk, she warned. 

“People might take photographs when we may not have a patent. We could sign non-disclosure agreements with potential customers, but it doesn’t mean others won’t see our device. It’s also hard to get funding if you cannot disclose to investors exactly what you are doing.” 

Imperial College London’s Dr Alalea Kia commented that the construction industry is “very risk adverse” to new innovative technologies such as a climate change resilient, permeable surfacing material she is developing. “Liability is a challenge for new infrastructure technology. Inclusion in design standards provides the confidence for more widespread adoption, however extensive field performance data is required in order to be included in these standards. 

“It can be challenging for industry to accept the liability for the necessary field sites to deploy the technology and collect performance data, making it difficult for new innovations to be adopted.” 

Susan Ross of Edge Innovation, which is collaborating with Derwent Valley Car Club, had a different view. “Our challenge is mostly around people,” she said. “We need capital to buy more vehicles and create more schemes, but if commercial organisations who went before us left a trail of disappointment, it may be more difficult to get financial support.” 

Her company’s plan involves providing cost efficient transport for people in rural areas including those who cannot drive. She acknowledged that small margins of profitability represent a barrier to growth, and said rural services in particular need to be reliable to convince drivers to leave their cars at home. 

Policy interventions for innovation 

Sarah asked if there are any policy interventions the group would like to see to encourage more transport innovation. “Other than funding, the struggle we have is around certainty,” remarked Etienne of IONA Logistics. “No manufacturer or investor will want to work with us if we advertise autonomous flights without having commitments and legal frameworks.” What would really help is if the Government was to buy one of its drones “so it can demonstrate it is literally invested in the technology”. 

Alalea of Imperial College said she would welcome any policy that encouraged the adoption of sustainable technologies that address the challenges that the environment and society are facing today. “Our current infrastructure is not resilient against extreme weather and policy should encourage the use of technologies that are capable of mitigating this today and in the future.” 

James of JET Connectivity said that for him, “policy and regulation has a place” but urged the Government to “let industry drive itself, rather than through over regulation”. 

Sarah asked if the Department could be doing more in other areas to help push forward transport innovation. Kristen of GoRolloe remarked that in coastal areas of the UK, transportation “sadly is really expensive and inaccessible. If you take the train, you often have to wait half an hour for a bus. Somehow, bridging the gap between cities and the beautiful coast would be a good idea.” 

Susan of Edge Innovation added: “It is not just coastal, but rural areas too. Rarely is public transport reliable or does it connect up. We want to get people out of their cars and to decarbonise, but the systems don’t always work to enable that to happen.” 

Autonomous and demand responsive transport 

Sarah asked the guests what innovative ideas could make a real difference to transport services. “Autonomy has to be moved forward,” said James, “especially on the railways to improve reliability.” Kristen added she would favour major discounts on train fares at times when occupancy is shown to be low. 

Etienne said he wants to see more use of demand responsive buses that can skip certain stops if no-one is waiting to be picked up; an idea supported by James. “At the moment, buses sit at the end of a route with their engines idling for 15 minutes and no-one gets on, apart from at peak times,” noted James. “How about using a button on a lamppost to hail a bus?” 

Susan pointed to less of a technology ask, but one which she says would deliver good results: better marketing of services. “Schemes such as Dial-a-ride are often seen as an older persons’ service, but imagine opening them up to more people by promoting them as something everybody can use.” 

Concluding thoughts 

Roundtable participants were then asked for any final thoughts. “There needs to be more focus on impact assessment of technology on infrastructure,” said Etienne. 

Alalea remarked that many funding calls tend to be focused around one specific area, for example net zero, autonomous vehicles or artificial intelligence. “There are many challenges we are facing as a society and need to be mindful that solutions are funded that solve all of the environmental, economic and societal challenges faced in our world today.” 

Kristen said she wants to see more grant funding to cover intellectual property. “Sometimes grants exclude IP, but it is a necessary part of developing technology.” She also called for more incentives for operators to trial solutions with small start-up firms offering sustainable solutions. “Operators often do things now so they don’t get fined, but it would be better to create a rewards system to encourage them to choose the greener option.” 

Susan asked for more incentives for people to car share to reduce the number of vehicles on the road, and urged faster action on innovations such as legislating for electric scooter use. “When talking about trying to get people to move in a more sustainable way, there are options that people can connect into,” she said. “But if Government takes four years to trial such innovations, it is taking too long.” 

Benefits of the TRIG programme 

Sarah thanked the roundtable participants for their input into a “really rich discussion” and spoke of the importance of regulation and procurement in encouraging innovation, plus the role of dedicated test facilities in sharing learnings effectively. 

“TRIG is designed to be an agile programme and is a flagship for how to deliver innovation in Government departments,” she said. 

“We are grateful for the support of Connected Places Catapult, which doesn’t just help individual projects but considers the portfolio as a whole. This is really important as we need to understand trends and make sure that if a critical mass of technology is emerging, it is presented as a whole to different policy teams. 
DfT’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor Sarah Sharples

Sarah added that TRIG is about “bringing transport to life”, where “technologies are being developed over a period of time”. She also made clear that the Department is keen to hear not just about new ideas, “but about how we can help you succeed; how we support innovation, and how we create a pipelines of new solutions”. 

The work of participants in the TRIG programme can, she added, “help make transport better, grow and level up the economy and help us to think about how we can export solutions internationally.” 

Connected Places Catapult’s Chief Business Officer, Paul Wilson remarked: “We are pleased to be partnered with the Department for Transport on the TRIG programme and had more than 240 applicants to receive funding.

“We are aware that the owners of transport systems are often big organisations who are difficult to do business with for a small company. We appreciate the need to change the way things work: one challenge we want to work with you on is how to unlock access to those big infrastructure markets so there are ways you can innovate.” 

Paul said of the representatives of 67 projects chosen to be part of the latest funding round: “You are nudging thinking forwards in this programme, and we want to help you make a lot of noise about what you are doing.  

“We then see part of our role as working with bigger infrastructure providers to find ways they can open up their infrastructure to the exciting things that you are doing.”