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.