Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:43 pm on 23rd March 2021.

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Photo of Paul Howell Paul Howell Conservative, Sedgefield 4:43 pm, 23rd March 2021

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Chris Green. As mentioned by my hon. Friend Alan Mak, scientific and engineering leaders—such as Stephenson who almost 200 years ago started passenger rail travel on the Darlington to Stockton railway on the Aycliffe levels in my Sedgefield constituency —stimulated changes that we could not imagine. The bicentenary of this event in my constituency is 2025 and we look forward to welcoming visitors to see the celebration. This Bill can be an inspiration for more leaders to grow up among our young people as they see that our country supports the development and motivation of great ideas.

In speaking in support of this Bill, I remind the House that we heard in the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee that the UK ARPA needs to be able to take risks. It therefore must be kept at arm’s length from existing public R&D structures to avoid culture-capture. Many of the UK’s existing research bodies seek to manage out risk, which is contrary to the terms of the UK ARPA, which must be able to tackle high-risk, high-reward projects with pace and energy.

We were also informed that the Science and Technology Committee had been told that creating a British ARPA could be destructive if it were to end up overlapping with the responsibilities of existing structures. It is important that we address these points; I believe this proposal does so but would like the Minister to confirm it. For too long we have not delivered the support that delivers innovation into a commercial space and this can be a lever to help.

I have on many occasions since joining this place referred to the hierarchy of knowledge: there are things we know; things we don’t know; but also things that we don’t know we don’t know. It is this latter space that I have found myself in so many times in the last 15 months. It is also the space that ARIA is to work in. It therefore feels appropriate that its remit is vaguer than some colleagues might like. This clearly makes the determination of its leadership critical, and this process must be credible and given time.

I will further explain my support by using a real-world example from a company that has already raised with me its belief that ARIA can be a force to develop UK innovation. There is a business in my Sedgefield constituency called Kromek. It is an innovation and export-led business in the UK and California that is based at NETPark in Sedgefield, which is the home of similar innovative businesses, including Catapult. Of course, this is in addition to the newly announced economic campus in Darlington that will include an International Trade footprint. The area would therefore be an outstanding site for ARIA to base itself.

Given the space that Kromek operates in and its footprint in the USA, it is very used to working with DARPA. That is interesting, because we understand that the intention is for ARIA to be in the same sort of space. Kromek has worked with a number of innovation agencies. For businesses like Kromek, innovation-led funding that accepts a higher risk can be the key that opens scientific advances quicker. It also provides better opportunities for such companies to develop production and supply chains in the UK, and, in Kromek’s case, in the north-east—helping the levelling-up agenda and frustrating the brain drain.

ARIA can provide transformational change to the innovation landscape by helping to create technology and solutions to address current UK needs. For example, Kromek developed a unique radiation detection solution that is now protecting critical infrastructure in New York. The products developed under this programme have been sold in more than 25 countries around the world so far. Further investment here could mean massive job opportunities. I invite any Minister who is visiting the north-east to join me in visiting this exceptional organisation, to understand the difference that an innovation-led business can make.

Kromek is currently working with DARPA to develop a virus detection system that can detect viruses, including covid-19, in open spaces. With ARIA support, these initiatives could be more UK-oriented and leverage more UK supply chain growth. The company has created a whole biotech part of the business, and because of this funding, this part of the business has already created 20 high-paid jobs and intellectual property in the space; it has real leverage potential.

ARIA, like DARPA, is to be positioned so that it can cut through most of the bureaucracy and act at speed. It is speed and greater risk acceptance that facilitate innovation within the necessary timeframe. For ARIA, we must be cognisant that not all rolls of the dice will be successful, but that the funds we are risking are proportionate and appropriate for the potential they could deliver—not just in hard cash, but also in mindset. Standing behind funds like this gives the investor confidence of intent, and encourages innovation and risk taking.

ARIA can help businesses to develop products and services linked to real-life applications that can meet the needs of the UK. As a result, it can make not only the companies globally more competitive, but the UK more sustainable in its capabilities; and it can drive global Britain as a world leader in innovation. The support of investment in innovation and innovative research, particularly in places such as Sedgefield, has the potential to help build back better and support levelling up. It can also make UK products to support our security forces, and provide the potential for us to be more self-sufficient and an exporter of products, rather than of IP and jobs.

I welcome the creation of this fund and hope that its initiatives are successful. I also hope that the expenditure is viewed in context and does not become the target of pressure from the first failure, but rather that it is given the time and space to deliver.