Written Evidence Submitted by Unilever
Unilever executive summary
We are supportive of an ARPA style funding model and would like to see it include key considerations regarding:
- Speed and agility of the funding model – moving to much shorter timescales.
- Focus on fewer, higher impact activities (e.g. the circular economy).
- Translational impact: identified upstream with a commercial partner on board from the start.
- Key areas we see a potential high impact are: e.g. carbon, plastic packaging, circular economy, renewable energy, biotechnology and sustainable materials.
What gaps in the current UK research and development system might be addressed by an ARPA style approach?
- An invention becomes an innovation when it is practical, scalable and economical. The role of a UK ARPA model should be to simplify funding to allow an ecosystem to flourish where academia, industry and government work together to move at speed to capitalise on new thinking and opportunities in high impact areas.
- The current system can be slow, and the landscape is incredibly complex. In order to move at speed and capitalise on new opportunities, this new model should act with more speed, decisiveness and responsiveness, focussing on impact. Currently funding is spread too thin on too many disconnected initiatives.
- An ARPA model should provide funding which rewards solutions to de-risk investment in unknown entities and allow new ideas, companies and innovators to break through.
- It is crucial that an ARPA style approach works across the innovation ecosystem to draw on different expertise and ensure funding prioritises those working in collaboration, in particular, stipulating upfront that challenges and funding need to identify a commercialization partner(s) to better enable translational impact. This should not be constrained to one partner at the beginning but could be a consorita approach. We need a systems approach to solve the biggest challenges with industry/academia/Govt and technology convergence to create workable solutions.
- There should be a sharp focus on accelerating science and technology where there are matters of immense economic, health, environmental or security implications.
- Challenges should be clear, motivational and purpose driven to yield maximum discretionary effort.
- Delivered via - speed of operation, with strong clear leadership and sufficient funding scale to push new technologies to make commercialisation much faster. Key ways of working to include:
- Fast and competitive project briefings (winnow down to the best via competitive funding phases – increase funding level per phase).
- Projects & funding structured to allow ecosystems to emerge during the phases – disruptive technologies of the future will likely include several “sums of the parts”
- FAST IP frameworks – make rapid commercialisation the end goal. Make available sector deals to give scale, if necessary.
- Translation – allow sector deals to move through to translation quickly through consortia integration. Systematically adopt modelling and simulations to drive scale-up.
- As a business we are trying new ways to achieve our bold ambitions to tackle huge problems. For example, we recently announced a new range of measures and commitments to fight climate change and protect and regenerate nature. We are investing €1 billion in a new Climate and Nature fund over the next ten years to reduce to net zero greenhouse gas emissions from all our products by 2039 (11 years ahead of the Paris Agreement deadline) and aim for a deforestation-free supply chain by 2023. We would encourage and support initiatives in this area.
- In the area of plastic waste, we are working to keep this valuable material where it should be – in the circular economy, where it can be reused, recycled or composted. We have made strong commitments, but we can’t do this alone and new partnership models are crucial to achieving this. For example, we have invested in and are working with Circulate Capital to help scale waste management companies and infrastructure across South and South-East Asia.
What are the implications of the new funding agency for existing funding bodies and their approach?
The science funding landscape is already incredibly complex from challenge funds to city/regional growth deals and catapult centres - it deals with traditional approaches and needs well. But it is not set up to tackle major problems, nor to facilitate integration or cross sectorial collaborations. An ARPA style model needs to cut through this and not just layer on an additional funding stream based of the same aims and model as what already exists.
- There should be a focus on translational impact. Unlike Innovate UK with its focus on SMEs, there should be significant funding on accelerating science and technology but with commercialization partners identified upstream. UK ARPA translational end points should be at the heart of all initial briefings. (Existing UK translational entities are narrowly focused)
- It needs to be clear how funding will be different from ISCF challenges, and instead have a sharp focus on challenges where there are gaps. The UK government should ensure that existing schemes such as the Strength in Places fund continue to be well funded – this will ensure a wider discussion about devolution, levelling up and investment outside of the ‘golden triangle’.
- A UK ARPA style model should tackle the greater societal challenges. e.g. carbon, plastic packaging, using the latest advances in digital biology to unlock health and wellbeing.
What should be the focus be of the new research funding agency and how should it be structured?
- There should be a sharp focus on accelerating science and technology where there are matters of immense economic, health, sustainability or security implications.
- Focus on providing critical Investment and mass in areas where UK can win or where we need to be more competitive globally.
- Ring fence funding against these challenges and should be transparent to the public well ahead of publication of calls so consortia building can start early. Share challenge goals openly with UK public to inspire and attract
- In terms of focus areas, we have outlined our thoughts below:
- How can we accelerate the development of the technical foundations of a new circular chemical industry with no reliance on petrochemicals?
- How can we develop the capability in UK to have a fully circular approach to plastics in the next 5yrs, where ALL plastics are recyclable, are collected and processed, and the quality of recycled plastic allows us to stop the use of virgin plastic?
- How can we accelerate the development of viable alternatives to today's plastics, creating a National Packaging Innovation Centre that can lead the world in developing the most sustainable packaging solutions for the future?
- How can we accelerate the transition to low carbon renewable energy systems for industrial, residential and transportation needs?
- How can we dramatically accelerate the development, testing and deployment of wide scale immersive health technology to make the next generation of adults in the UK the healthiest in the world?
- How can we get more predictive & advanced pre-clinical models to accelerate better diagnostics and non-invasive measurement, to advance regenerative medicine for non-medical areas?
- How can we bring together the best industrial biotechnologists to create a capability for 10 million tonnes equivalent of palm oil from waste in just 5 years, thereby ending deforestation and the competition between biofuel and food? How can we create solutions across hygiene, home and wellness using biotechnology?
- How can the UK become the world leader in alternative sources of protein to meat and dairy and palm oil? If we do not have major UK companies in the race very soon, we will have lost, yet we claim to be world leading in biotechnology.
- How can we accelerate the transition to circular and regenerative farming (e.g. focus on fertilisation - rapid and scalable alternatives to the energy intensive Haber-Bosch process, nitrogen and phosphorus sources and cycling etc.)
- In terms of structure, there should be an executive board comprised of carefully selected relevant ex-Industry, entrepreneurial academics and venture capitalists from a range of Industries Including technology, FMCG, engineering and healthcare. This executive board should operate like an investment board, meeting regularly to make decisions and place money in places where it’s expected to gain maximum return on investment in terms of scientific insights and development. Funding should be granted in phased milestones against predefined success criteria and should operate with focus, speed, flexibility and dynamic resource.
- In terms of industry involvement Industry could sponsor key Initiatives, Unilever are happy to work together with the government and other industry partners to establish how industry can be best Involved, particularly In helping to Input along the way when fast decisions are made.
What funding should ARPA receive, and how should it distribute this funding to maximise effectiveness?
- ARPA in the UK should deploy a different model to current funding Initiatives In order to maximise effectiveness, creating phased milestone-based funding which will be released against predefined success criteria. This enables space to review and assess progress more regularly, adapting for success as necessary.
- For academia involved, there has traditionally been less than ideal translational impact. There should be mechanisms built into ARPA that provide clear incentives for reaching the commercialisation stage e.g. a bonus scheme.
- Traditionally it can easily take a year from a call being issued to the contract being signed and the funding released. We need schemes which operate with focus, speed, flexibility and dynamic resource, that enable consortia to evolve during the project. Phase funding starting with low level commitment on feasibility which can be reviewed and started quickly. With each subsequent phase funding increases with each phase reflecting potential value seen by companies and the maturity of the consortia.
What can be learned from ARPA equivalents in other countries?
- Smaller nations such as Israel and Singapore have a lot less bureaucracy and simpler administrations. ARPA should cut red tape that is found in some UK government systems such as current consortia grant processes.
- Longer term strategic consistency is key, combined with the speed and agility to dynamically allocate resource and funding within the strategic framework. China and Singapore invest consistently behind key science and technology areas. Funding both institutes/people and projects. China identifies lead researchers that are top-class in their fields and provides research facilities at scale. This is balanced with project focussed R&D. Academic parties are not looking for industrial funding (given high state funding), but for relevant problems to work on.
- There have been some learning from the US to bear in mind here – ARPA was uniquely founded and differentiated in four broad ways – (i) a national challenge requiring disruptive thinking to a clearly perceived threat, (ii) visionary leadership and aspirational talent acquisition (provided via the US president), (iii) extremely high levels of trust, autonomy and scope of delivery and finally (iv) the organisation differed from all traditional funding (university and governmental) mechanisms to enable it to deliver its goals.
What benefits might be gained from basing UK ARPA outside of the ‘Golden Triangle’ (London, Oxford and Cambridge)?
- ARPA should be embedded in the science, technology and innovation ecosystem of the UK – not in one location but with arms in a number of important places.
- A single site entity is not required – but clear purpose and mission is.
- If ARPA was to be based outside of the golden triangle this could bring economic benefits to other parts of the country, the North West for example. To have a devolved ARPA or a hub and spoke model with a big spoke in the North would be consistent with levelling up the areas of UK science strength in the North.