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Home-grown innovation that might just change the world



One of the most creative minds of the last century, the late Apple chief Steve Jobs, once said that “innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower”. Alex Blackburne caught up with Alex Hook of Nesta, a charity that gives ideas and innovations the much-needed platform to tackle some of the biggest tests in modern history.

There have always been innovators. From Thomas Edison to Henry Ford, Marie Curie to Mark Zuckerberg; they’re the people that truly advance society for the better. As a global community, we face some of the biggest social, economic and environmental challenges that the human race has ever seen. And solutions to these will only come from innovative individuals and organisations that are willing to risk it all for the good of humanity.

In November last year, Thomson Reuters published its 2011 Top 100 Global Innovators – a rundown of some of the most innovative companies in the world, based on patents. Forty US firms made the list, and Japan, France, Sweden and Germany also scored highly. But just one UK firm – Unilever – was recognised by the ranking.

Speaking to The Independent, Bob Stembridge, one of the report’s authors, said that the UK’s poor performance in the innovation list “could be a reflection of its economy. It is largely service-based rather than manufacturing. And that’s not to say that there is no innovation in services – if you look at financial services and banking, they can be very creative, but they don’t tend to show up in patents.”

Nevertheless, for a country with the sixth largest economy in the world, being represented just once in a global list of innovative companies is a sickening blow. But in the face of some big challenges, UK innovators might soon be at the forefront. And supporting these individuals and organisations might well be Nesta, the UK’s primary innovation foundation.

Nesta is an independent charity whose role is to look at some of the most pressing social and economic challenges facing the UK, in order to try and improve the country’s capacity to innovate and address them.

It has a number of core teams, including a policy and research team that is on the lookout for areas in which the UK can be better at innovating and a programme team that tackles how innovation might be unlocked in the delivery of public services. And it also has an investment team that for over a decade has been providing early-stage venture capital funding into medical technology, clean technology and ICT. The new impact investment arm, Nesta Impact Investments, looks to address a number of big themes, including education, sustainability and ageing.

Innovation is typically where you’re looking at a product, service or sector for the ability to generate something new on top of that”, says Alex Hook, a manager on Nesta’s investment team.

It’s essentially trying to improve the efficiency of how something is delivered, but how innovative something is can be quite a subjective viewpoint. We try to be as objective as possible – we’ve worked on things like innovation indexes and we have a lot of bright people trying to partly quantify the levels of innovation and look at it from a sector viewpoint as well at where the UK is good at innovation, where it exploits innovation and where it’s not so good and how we can improve it.”

Nesta’s investment arm focuses on impact investment, which is about making a social or environmental difference through investing. Clean technology – areas such as renewable energy, recycling and resource efficiency – and sustainability are two areas in which the organisation sees big commercial and societal opportunities on many levels.

We live in a lucky generation in terms of the resources we take for granted, but the UK does face some particularly significant challenges in its access to energy and its use of resources

We live in a lucky generation in terms of the resources we take for granted, but the UK does face some particularly significant challenges in its access to energy and its use of resources”, explains Hook.

We think that these are not just system-based changes, but we also think there’s the potential to adopt new behaviour patterns – at individual, community, regional and national levels for how we treat and manage resources, and actually how people benefit from that as well.

From an investment perspective, we’ve had a lot of focus on the commercial viability of the investments that we’ve made and now that we are a charity in constitution, the public benefit aspect of all our work is central to us.”

All the work Nesta’s policy and research team does is publicly available. This, Hook says, is to “try and improve the innovation capacity in the UK, accentuate the positives and look for some of the cross-sectoral benefits of taking success from one sector into another”. The transparency hopes to inspire future innovators and to highlight the necessity behind tackling the big economic and social challenges.

But being a charity is also fundamental to Nesta’s work, as it allows it to be more engaged with investors and innovators, to determine and seek out maximum benefits.

There are some very good and strong public benefit arguments to looking at resource efficiency at individual and community level”, says Hook.

Being a charity is central to what we do, but it’s only a recent transition and we have a set of charitable objectives which are focused on some of these big social and economic challenges that we face, so things like education, ageing, health, sustainability – all huge challenges that interlink to a large extent.

We think specifically around cleantech, being a charity actually helps us in some respects to look at the benefits from the broadest possible perspective of the motives for making an investment – so not just the financial benefit but the public benefit of supporting the innovation.”

On its website, Nesta says it has invested some £5m since 2009 to build its current portfolio. One of the organisations that it invests in is Plaxica, a bioplastics business that is trying to find different ways to produce plastics from things other than petrochemical sources, while another is Camfridge, which is developing solid state refrigeration technology in an attempt to move away from gas cooling, which has a number of emission issues.

But all of Nesta’s investments have a number of common threads running through their business.

If we look at the existing venture portfolio – medtech, cleantech and ICT – there is always some sort of defensible know-how within those businesses”, Hook describes.

We tend not to invest in ‘me too’ businesses, where the only thing they need is a really, really big marketing budget. We might consider that going forward, if we think behaviour change will lead to some beneficial impact, but historically, it’s very much been around some core know-how or intellectual property that you can in some way protect.

It doesn’t always have to be patent. There’s always got to be a clear market need for what this team and this product is trying to address. The ‘build it and they will come’ mentality is a risky one from an investment perspective– you’ve got to understand what the problem is and therefore be able to judge the quality of the solution before you.

Our research and policy work is more impactful by actually experiencing and trying to address some of these challenges that we have as a guiding objective for us

And then clearly it’s about the team. You’ve got to have the right blend of hunger, appetite and plenty of energy, but also the experience and the wisdoms of people who have already walked through a few bear traps and lived to tell the tale. It’s about getting that right blend of experience and energy in a team.”

This recipe for an effective innovation – both commercially and societally – plays a major part in Nesta’s business model. Not every organisation can tick all the boxes that are required in order to be a success, but it’s down to a mixture of Nesta’s policy and research and investment teams to determine which innovations make the cut.

But in the UK, there are a number of venture capital funding companies and so-called angels, all of which are looking for fruitful seed investments. Hook, though, describes three ways in which Nesta breaks the mould and is different from its competitors.

Firstly, we are not just about researching something; we’re also about trialling it and doing it. So we don’t just want to talk about it. We want to walk the talk”, he begins.

Our research and policy work is more impactful by actually experiencing and trying to address some of these challenges that we have as a guiding objective for us. Thinking and doing joined up in one organisation.

Secondly, I think we’re quite broad-focused and cross-sectoral. We have public and national interest, whereas other similar organisations might focus on only one aspect, such as health. We’ve got a broader focus and also when we think there is the potential to take learnings from one sector and apply it to another sector; we hope that becomes a virtuous circle.

And thirdly, we’re self-funded. Having recently made the journey from being a non-departmental public body, we are now an independent charity and we have funding to support our activities which is a good and a lucky place to be in for us.”

It’s important to be pragmatic about the challenges ahead. Nesta will not tackle these on its own – far from it – but through its on-the-ground work ethic and its investment in home-grown innovation, it’s bound to play a momentous role on the UK’s journey to a more sustainable society, economy and environment.

And who knows; it might just unearth the next Steve Jobs along the way.

Further reading:

Sharing the responsibility of a green future

Jonathon Porritt: the wonderful world of clean energy technology

Eight UK firms make it onto 2012 Global Cleantech 100 ranking


How Going Green Can Save A Company Money



going green can save company money
Shutterstock Licensed Photot - By GOLFX

What is going green?

Going green means to live life in a way that is environmentally friendly for an entire population. It is the conservation of energy, water, and air. Going green means using products and resources that will not contaminate or pollute the air. It means being educated and well informed about the surroundings, and how to best protect them. It means recycling products that may not be biodegradable. Companies, as well as people, that adhere to going green can help to ensure a safer life for humanity.

The first step in going green

There are actually no step by step instructions for going green. The only requirement needed is making the decision to become environmentally conscious. It takes a caring attitude, and a willingness to make the change. It has been found that companies have improved their profit margins by going green. They have saved money on many of the frivolous things they they thought were a necessity. Besides saving money, companies are operating more efficiently than before going green. Companies have become aware of their ecological responsibility by pursuing the knowledge needed to make decisions that would change lifestyles and help sustain the earth’s natural resources for present and future generations.

Making needed changes within the company

After making the decision to go green, there are several things that can be changed in the workplace. A good place to start would be conserving energy used by electrical appliances. First, turning off the computer will save over the long run. Just letting it sleep still uses energy overnight. Turn off all other appliances like coffee maker, or anything that plugs in. Pull the socket from the outlet to stop unnecessary energy loss. Appliances continue to use electricity although they are switched off, and not unplugged. Get in the habit of turning off the lights whenever you leave a room. Change to fluorescent light bulbs, and lighting throughout the building. Have any leaks sealed on the premises to avoid the escape of heat or air.

Reducing the common paper waste

paper waste

Shutterstock Licensed Photo – By Yury Zap

Modern technologies and state of the art equipment, and tools have almost eliminated the use of paper in the office. Instead of sending out newsletters, brochures, written memos and reminders, you can now do all of these and more by technology while saving on the use of paper. Send out digital documents and emails to communicate with staff and other employees. By using this virtual bookkeeping technique, you will save a bundle on paper. When it is necessary to use paper for printing purposes or other services, choose the already recycled paper. It is smartly labeled and easy to find in any office supply store. It is called the Post Consumer Waste paper, or PCW paper. This will show that your company is dedicated to the preservation of natural resources. By using PCW paper, everyone helps to save the trees which provides and emits many important nutrients into the atmosphere.

Make money by spreading the word

Companies realize that consumers like to buy, or invest in whatever the latest trend may be. They also cater to companies that are doing great things for the quality of life of all people. People want to know that the companies that they cater to are doing their part for the environment and ecology. By going green, you can tell consumers of your experiences with helping them and communities be eco-friendly. This is a sound public relations technique to bring revenue to your brand. Boost the impact that your company makes on the environment. Go green, save and make money while essentially preserving what is normally taken for granted. The benefits of having a green company are enormous for consumers as well as the companies that engage in the process.

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5 Easy Things You Can Do to Make Your Home More Sustainable




sustainable homes
Shutterstock Licensed Photot - By Diyana Dimitrova

Increasing your home’s energy efficiency is one of the smartest moves you can make as a homeowner. It will lower your bills, increase the resale value of your property, and help minimize our planet’s fast-approaching climate crisis. While major home retrofits can seem daunting, there are plenty of quick and cost-effective ways to start reducing your carbon footprint today. Here are five easy projects to make your home more sustainable.

1. Weather stripping

If you’re looking to make your home more energy efficient, an energy audit is a highly recommended first step. This will reveal where your home is lacking in regards to sustainability suggests the best plan of attack.

Some form of weather stripping is nearly always advised because it is so easy and inexpensive yet can yield such transformative results. The audit will provide information about air leaks which you can couple with your own knowledge of your home’s ventilation needs to develop a strategic plan.

Make sure you choose the appropriate type of weather stripping for each location in your home. Areas that receive a lot of wear and tear, like popular doorways, are best served by slightly more expensive vinyl or metal options. Immobile cracks or infrequently opened windows can be treated with inexpensive foams or caulking. Depending on the age and quality of your home, the resulting energy savings can be as much as 20 percent.

2. Programmable thermostats

Programmable thermostats

Shutterstock Licensed Photo – By Olivier Le Moal

Programmable thermostats have tremendous potential to save money and minimize unnecessary energy usage. About 45 percent of a home’s energy is earmarked for heating and cooling needs with a large fraction of that wasted on unoccupied spaces. Programmable thermostats can automatically lower the heat overnight or shut off the air conditioning when you go to work.

Every degree Fahrenheit you lower the thermostat equates to 1 percent less energy use, which amounts to considerable savings over the course of a year. When used correctly, programmable thermostats reduce heating and cooling bills by 10 to 30 percent. Of course, the same result can be achieved by manually adjusting your thermostats to coincide with your activities, just make sure you remember to do it!

3. Low-flow water hardware

With the current focus on carbon emissions and climate change, we typically equate environmental stability to lower energy use, but fresh water shortage is an equal threat. Installing low-flow hardware for toilets and showers, particularly in drought prone areas, is an inexpensive and easy way to cut water consumption by 50 percent and save as much as $145 per year.

Older toilets use up to 6 gallons of water per flush, the equivalent of an astounding 20.1 gallons per person each day. This makes them the biggest consumer of indoor water. New low-flow toilets are standardized at 1.6 gallons per flush and can save more than 20,000 gallons a year in a 4-member household.

Similarly, low-flow shower heads can decrease water consumption by 40 percent or more while also lowering water heating bills and reducing CO2 emissions. Unlike early versions, new low-flow models are equipped with excellent pressure technology so your shower will be no less satisfying.

4. Energy efficient light bulbs

An average household dedicates about 5 percent of its energy use to lighting, but this value is dropping thanks to new lighting technology. Incandescent bulbs are quickly becoming a thing of the past. These inefficient light sources give off 90 percent of their energy as heat which is not only impractical from a lighting standpoint, but also raises energy bills even further during hot weather.

New LED and compact fluorescent options are far more efficient and longer lasting. Though the upfront costs are higher, the long term environmental and financial benefits are well worth it. Energy efficient light bulbs use as much as 80 percent less energy than traditional incandescent and last 3 to 25 times longer producing savings of about $6 per year per bulb.

5. Installing solar panels

Adding solar panels may not be the easiest, or least expensive, sustainability upgrade for your home, but it will certainly have the greatest impact on both your energy bills and your environmental footprint. Installing solar panels can run about $15,000 – $20,000 upfront, though a number of government incentives are bringing these numbers down. Alternatively, panels can also be leased for a much lower initial investment.

Once operational, a solar system saves about $600 per year over the course of its 25 to 30-year lifespan, and this figure will grow as energy prices rise. Solar installations require little to no maintenance and increase the value of your home.

From an environmental standpoint, the average five-kilowatt residential system can reduce household CO2 emissions by 15,000 pounds every year. Using your solar system to power an electric vehicle is the ultimate sustainable solution serving to reduce total CO2 emissions by as much as 70%!

These days, being environmentally responsible is the hallmark of a good global citizen and it need not require major sacrifices in regards to your lifestyle or your wallet. In fact, increasing your home’s sustainability is apt to make your residence more livable and save you money in the long run. The five projects listed here are just a few of the easy ways to reduce both your environmental footprint and your energy bills. So, give one or more of them a try; with a small budget and a little know-how, there is no reason you can’t start today.

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