back to article How Britain could have invented the iPhone: And how the Quangocracy cocked it up

This is a disturbing, cautionary tale of quasi-government and its bungling. It describes how Britain could have led the recent advances in touchscreen technology, developing kit capable detecting more than one fingertip at once, years before Apple did – if it weren't for the nation's treacle-footed, self-serving quangocracy. …


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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Abandon all hope.... you are entering "couldhavebeen land"

    You know there is something very wrong in a culture when people start whining about what "could have been" instead of getting on with the present and making something new happen.

    And let's be careful of how we state things ... products are invented and marketed by companies not by countries !!!! By saying "Britain could have invented the iphone" you imply indirectly that the nation should have supported the effort.... which is exactly WHY it was not developed in this country because quangocracy is not a hotbed of commercial innovation.

    Remember the I-phone was invented and marketed by Apple using private funds... (and buying/licensing technologies that came from all over the world) not by expecting manna from government.

    The same could have been done in Britain (just as France, Germany Korea or Japan they all had the technology and know how) if someone there had the finance, the vision and the guts to go ahead with such a project.

    Don't blame the lack of private sector vision and appetite for risk on quangos....

    1. DaneB

      Re: Abandon all hope.... you are entering "couldhavebeen land"

      Well, you could argue that the iPhone was invented by Britain seeing as Sir Jonny Ive did the designing deed?

      This article highlights what Britain can still do so well - innovation and design - it's just that successive bullshit governments have failed to have the vision to back the winners. (Too busy lining their own pockets by selling off publicly owned assets).

      NESTA had no experts in science or technology? Truly ludicrous. It's all too evident in the way they wrote about the product that this was the case.

      Should have gone it alone, done the patenting himself and then sold it to Apple. Trust no one in government to actually understand anything more than how to bullshit a line or two all day long.

      1. tony2heads

        re: no experts in science and technology

        But obviously great expertise in clowning

        1. Charles Manning

          it's not just quangos

          Most universities are run the same way. Thaat's why you end up with all sorts of ridiculous rules, and a bias towards art/humanities bollocks instead of engineering etc.

          What can someone do with a PhD in history but teach/administrate in a university? End result is that you get rules made by these people, for the benefit of these people.

          At the university my son attends, the primary criterion for getting a teaching job in ANY disciplie (even Comp Sc) is having a PhD. No PhD means you can only teach first years - no matter your knowledge or ability.

          Although the engineering dept ahs tried to rally against it, the University (ie. history grads etc) force this rule to feather their own nests.

        2. I am not spartacus

          You do feel that they sent the wrong clowns on holiday, don't you? I mean, who would have objected to paying for the flight to Brazil on public funds, particularly if it was one way. Money well spent (for a change)!

          Oh yes, I see. Well then, who, apart from the ghost of Margaret Thatcher and the Brazilians, who I suppose do have a stake.

      2. WatAWorld

        Re: Abandon all hope.... you are entering "couldhavebeen land"

        "it's just that successive bullshit governments have failed to have the vision to back the winners"

        That thinking is the root cause of the problems.

        Communist and socialist environments have never been hotbeds of new technology and have never given rise to real 'winners'.

        What the UK (and NYC) should do is abandon making money through investment banking rip-offs of world + dog and make money through investment banking that invests in good promising technology -- that is what successful countries like the USA (apart from NYC) do.

    2. GL1zdA

      Re: Abandon all hope.... you are entering "couldhavebeen land"

      "Remember the I-phone was invented and marketed by Apple using private funds... (and buying/licensing technologies that came from all over the world) not by expecting manna from government."

      Have you actually read the article?

      "But apparently the state does more. According to Mazzucato, as cited by Polly Toynbee, “huge state investment in touch screens” gave Apple its advantage. Mazzucato went further: “all the technologies that make the iPhone ‘smart’ are also state funded”. [p112] For Mazzucato, the state had made “an investment” in Westerman’s multitouch but failed to “recuperate” it. [p72] "

    3. Oh Homer

      Re: "the I-phone was invented"?

      I think you mean smartphone, which was actually invented by IBM in 1992. Multi-touch technology was invented by the University of Toronto's Input Research Group in 1982. This was all many years before Fentem came along.

      Ultimately the iPhone was just a product development, not an "invention", and not even unique. Indeed it was beaten to the market by the LG Prada several months earlier.

      It should also be noted that at least one half of the most significant technology that made the iPhone possible was government funded (multi-touch for a start), and in reality all of it, depending on how far back into the history of telecommunications you want to look.

      1. Mark .

        Re: "the I-phone was invented"?

        Hear hear. At least the Register gets it right that Apple were first to market with a multitouch phone, rather than touchscreen phones, though the importance is overstated. The the difference between touchscreen and non-touchscreen is far bigger than the minor additional benefit of multitouch.

        Indeed, a multitouch UI can be a pain, as it means that you can't use it one-handed. A good UI should be designed to work with singletouch too (odd how now, Apple users criticise Android phones for being too big to use one handed, whilst portraying multitouch as the single most important thing ever...)

        Nor are Apple the biggest tech company (that argument is only on one hand-picked stat, and not by many other more useful metrics). Biggest at getting endless media hype, maybe.

        If the Register wants to talk up Britain's part, then how about giving coverage to ARM, the company that designs the processors in almost every mobile device, from the minority of Apple products, to the 80% of Android devices. But no, let's not let facts get in the way of Apple Apple Apple - better to pretend Britain's involvement is nothing more than a "could have made a 2007 dumb phone that was massively outsold by Nokia".

        1. diodesign (Written by Reg staff) Silver badge

          Re: Re: "the I-phone was invented"?

          "how about giving coverage to ARM"

          We've written thousands of articles about ARM.


    4. ecofeco Silver badge

      Re: Abandon all hope.... you are entering "couldhavebeen land"

      So you really can't tell the difference between whining and a warning?


      BTW, both private and public sector ventures have a VERY long list of spectacularly impressive failures. But it wasn't some private venture that put men on the moon, now was it? Or built continental sized transportation systems of uniform standard. Or provide enforced standard across all industries that ensure safety and reliability.

      The really big projects will always be the province of government, but in this particular instance, yes, the government failed.

    5. LarsG

      Could have had, could have been.

      The first man to fly faster than the speed of sound but a Labour Government stopped that.

      Could have had the most advanced aircraft in the world, the TSR-2 but a Labour Government stopped that.

      Stafford Cripps a Labour minister gave away the British Nene Jet engine to the USA and to the USSR who promptly reverse engineered it and put it in the MiG 15 which was used to kill British and America airmen in Korea.

      Do you see a pattern.

  2. Khaptain Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    The Black Swan Theory

    This article is actually guite a good example of how Nissam Taleb's Black Swan theory is actually appropriate within contemporary societey. In this context we have the Black Swan personified by the quangos....

    Success, as he wrote elsewhere in his book, has very little to do with actual logic, technical marvel or genuis level strategies it has far more to do with "pure chance" than anything else.

    PS :Thumbs up for the article, it is an interesting insight into what goes on behind the scenes of what should/could produce some interesting ideas/technology.

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

      Re: The Black Swan Theory

      Not sure this is a "Black Swan" (unforeseen event that your model didn't account for and that gets you unawares like a supernova popping off in your neighborhood while you thought about visiting the next solar system).

      It is just utter failure of vision and willingness to take risks, followed by wanking over the godlike benevolence and willingness to take risks of the magnificent state by paid court jesters. Here in the person of professor Mazzucato, who probably doesn't even know what "neoliberal" means. (What does it mean? It means the person who has given up on classical laissez-faire liberalism by injecting a fat post-WWII dose of socialistic state control, aka. "favouring middle of the road" policy.

      We are quite a bit further down the "middle" of that kinda road now, of course, as evidenced here. My, these fasces are coming awfully close.

      1. Khaptain Silver badge

        Re: The Black Swan Theory

        I consider the Black Swan as being the unforseen and pathetic handling of the event by NESTA. NESTA appears to have had excellent goals and ideas and also to have been an ideal path to choose. Unfortunately for Fentem is didn't work out that way.

        If Fentem has known in advance about how his case was going to be handled he would have probably attempted to achieve his funding from another source.

      2. phuzz Silver badge

        Re: The Black Swan Theory

        "Willingness to take risks" is pretty much number one on the list of reasons a company goes bankrupt. Never underestimate the power of luck.

        1. CadentOrange

          Re: The Black Swan Theory

          It's also the reason some companies make it big.

          1. WatAWorld

            Re: The Black Swan Theory

            And that is one of the two main principles of the Black Swan theory, that luck has more to do with success than good ideas.

            You must take risks, but you do not know which risks will pay off.

            An example the book gives is the movie industry. Nobody has ever been able to predict which movies will be successful. So major motion picture companies risk a little bit of money in a great many movies. Smaller production companies each risk a great deal in a small number of movies.

            Touch screens were around long before the iPhone and Apple. But they did not 'take off'. From,

            "Historians consider the first touch screen to be a capacitive touch screen invented by E.A. Johnson at the Royal Radar Establishment, Malvern, UK, around 1965 - 1967. The inventor published a full description of touch screen technology for air traffic control in an article published in 1968."

            What made iPhone popular is what makes a best selling author or major painter popular: The bandwagon effect, that it is the person (Jobs) people wanted, not the technology. Owning Apple meant being being associated as a fan of Jobs.

            1. Havin_it

              Re: The Black Swan Theory

              The subject of TFA wasn't just a touchscreen, it was multi-touch UI (that wasn't the size of a fucking washing machine) and could therefore provide a practical and useful UI for a pocket-sized mobile device. That is what this guy and Fingerworks brought to the table, and yes it was novel because it hadn't been technologically feasible before, not because Steve Jobs had a nice polo-neck.. You're flailing.

  3. SW10

    Never ask governments to pick winners

    It's an old lesson a long time in the learning...

    1. Syntax Error

      Re: Never ask governments to pick winners

      No its an article written with the benefit of hindsight. Interesting though.

  4. paulc

    Clowns... the lot of them...

    that is all the jerks* in NESTA...

    * well maybe some of them aren't jerks, but there does seem to be a serious need to whack these idiots with a cluestick...

    1. FrankAlphaXII

      Re: Clowns... the lot of them...

      Perhaps one of the clowns can oblige you.

  5. Steve Todd

    The assumption here

    Was that the technology was up to the task pre-iPhone. The original iPhone was borderline on what it was possible for CPU/GPU/battery tech of the time to handle. RIM didn't believe that what Apple were claiming was even possible. Everything had to align before touch interfaces were ready for main-stream phone use.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: The assumption here

      "Everything had to align before touch interfaces were ready for main-stream phone use."

      Did you ever play with the PocketPCs (CPQ iPaqs etc - note the name carefully) and HandheldPCs (HP Jornada 720 etc) starting in the late 1990s and lasting a few years thereafter? I did.

      Technically, the main thing missing there was decent software (how could anything not Wintel-based ever get anywhere in the MS world? The Surface RT debacle shows us MS is still the Wintel company).

      Even that problem could have been fixed if The Church of Jobs had come up with a suitably blessed equivalent, but maybe they were still lumbered with the Newton debacle.

      Maybe Psion could have had something to offer in this game too; I lost track of them after the (marvellous) Series 3.

      1. Steve Todd

        Re: The assumption here

        I played with ipaqs, and various other WinCE devices of the time. They were resistive touch and lacking in CPU power to run a fast touch based UI, so I stick to my point. EVERYTHING needed to be ready before the modern smartphone was possible, not just the software.

        1. Charles Manning

          Re: The assumption here

          "lacking in CPU power to run a fast touch based UI"... only because one leg was chained to the floor by WinCE.

          I did a lot of low level WinCE work back then and I still struggle to knoow how they could turn a fast-for-the-time CPU into a Z80.

          I did some tests running WinCE at lower speeds to see if we could do some power savings (mainly to reduce heat). Below 8MHz, WinCE could not enven keep itself going, let alone run any software.

          1. Steve Todd

            Re: The assumption here

            You think a touch based graphical O/S is going to be as lightweight as CP/M? Of course not. A decently powerful multi-tasking O/S is going to take up CPU cycles. Part of the trick of iOS is to offload much of the screen rendering to the GPU, and those WinCE machines didn't have a GPU worth a damn.

      2. JEDIDIAH

        Re: The assumption here

        > Did you ever play with the PocketPCs (CPQ iPaqs etc - note the name carefully) and HandheldPCs (HP Jornada 720 etc) starting in the late 1990s

        These would be devices running hardware on par with an Mac Plus?

        They only supported relatively primitive UIs that you had to be a really dedicated geek to tolerate.

        They are a fine example of a type of device not yet being ready for the masses due to tech not being sufficiently advanced yet.

      3. Alan Brown Silver badge

        Re: The assumption here

        "Technically, the main thing missing there was decent software (how could anything not Wintel-based ever get anywhere in the MS world? The Surface RT debacle shows us MS is still the Wintel company)."

        Yup, Say what you lke about him, but what Jobs absolutely insisted on was a focus on user experience.

        Everything worked, everything interoperated.

        Now he's dead, the Apple experience is starting to unravel at the seams. They'll be an also-ran before too muchg longer. Their one overarching commercial advantage is being chipped away by people with narrow vision and a "rip-shit-and-bust" attitude to the user experience.

  6. IDoNotThinkSo

    I'm from the government and I'm here to help...


  7. Andy 73

    Personal recent experience with government 'support' for innovation has been anything but good - wooly targets, big headline figures and a protracted series of hoops to jump through. The end result is that the opportunity for chance success is eliminated, replaced by the job of fitting to a lumberingly slow process which offers marginal financial support to small businesses.

    That said, I'm not sure how you make it better. It should be faster, more flexible and not afraid of failure. In that respect the startup scene shows a lot of possibility - and it's here that the government should be able to outpace commerce by removing (or at least reducing) the cold hard financial requirements in favour of enabling people to 'take a punt' on new technology. The TSB funding is not enabling - it supports businesses that can prove they are capable of standing alone, and in return demands they fit the unique pace of government entities.

    1. John Sager

      Governments will never take a financial risk that is obvious as such to the electorate, and, as taxpayers, should we really expect anything different? The best way government can help is to set the legislative & policy landscape such that private capital finds it easier to support innovation like this, and for innovators to find the private capital. But Labour really doesn't like that idea. There is a reason why VCs in the UK (if there are any that really deserve the term) are so much less obvious than VCs in the US.

      1. phil dude

        picking winners...

        you mean that BBC program where we get to see VC's with piles of cash picking winners?

        It is no wonder why the US version of the show format is called "shark tank".

        Sharks actually exist...


      2. chr0m4t1c

        "Governments will never take a financial risk that is obvious as such to the electorate, and, as taxpayers, should we really expect anything different?"

        Generally I'd agree with you, but this was money specifically put aside to try and kick start inventions an innovation.

        I'd rather they put the money into projects that had a 5% chance of success than give it to moochers after an expensive holiday. But that's just me, it seems.

        Has the bloke who was give thick end of £40k to go to Vegas made back even 1% of that money in any way? I would hazard a guess that we would have got better value from sending him to Blackpool to play the penny falls with it.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Quango's like NESTA

    Are there to give well paid jobs to the Sir Brownnose and Lord Fuck'titup's of the 1%, who's only abilities are receiving large salaries and sitting around in committees chatting to their mates whilst consuming large quantities of tax payer cash.

  9. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
    Paris Hilton


    "It describes how Britain could have led the recent advances in touchscreen technology, developing kit capable detecting more than one fingertip at once, years before Apple did"

    I'm sorry, "Britain" is not the counterpart of "Apple", only if we are all comrades in the great Socialistic-Mercantilist undertaking of imperial revival. Which ain't gonna happen.

  10. Ben Liddicott

    Nesta had ***four*** grandiose ambitions

    Ambition zero was the most important:

    0. Provide a way to funnel money and/or power to parasitical government hangers-on - friends, relatives, lovers, minders and fixers, those who've done favours and those from whom you expect favours.

    That's the real job most quangos do.

    The real lesson is don't expect anything from the government. Sell your house. Find an investor. Find an investor who will sell his house. But don't go near the zombie hand of government "assistance".

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I don't mind the government creating jobs

    For chinless wonders, but aren't they supposed to be put into highly paid positions where they can do no harm?

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    New Labour were very relaxed about individuals becoming extremely rich, but in return they created a whole range of non-jobs in the Public sector to assign to their supporters.

    You can spot these types because their job titles include words such as Outreach, Coordinator, etc and are often combined with Youth and Elderly. A good example of their work is the creation of travel plans for schools. As if parents who drive their kids to school have not considered walking, cycling or taking the bus!

  13. James Pickett

    "No one at Nesta has a science or engineering background"

    Which says it all really. Does anyone know how much PWC got for their involvement?

    Thank you Andrew for the insight, depressing as it is. Plus ca change...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Which says it all really

      I have this idea for a money-distributing quango: we get a panel of scientists together and decide how to spend the money on the arts & artists :-)

      1. Craigness

        Re: Which says it all really

        @Anon Big LOL! That is an EXCELLENT idea, but all we'd have to show for it would be comic books, novelty ties and ironic t-shirts.

        1. Paul Kinsler Silver badge

          Re: comic books, novelty ties and ironic t-shirts.

          Oh, I don't know. You'd be surprised at how artistic theoretical calculations, computer modelling, and (e.g.) high-vacuum cold atom sculpture is. Especially once it had been properly funded.

  14. All names Taken


    On the other hand weren't there some issues about chip plants being funded and then out of date before the papers were off the table?

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Labour are thick. Not as thick as the people who vote for them, but still... thick.

    1. DaneB

      And Cameron and Osborne are right fucking Einsteins aren't they?

      1. Ted Treen


        Indeed Sir, Cameron & Osborne are particularly repellent examples of humanity, BUT...

        Their being repellent does not automatically preclude Labour from being more than somewhat dense. Furthermore, a statement describing Labour as extremely lacking in the brightness department is in no way indicative of an endorsement of the other lot.

        In my (not so) humble opinion, the whole bunch of 'em are utter and total arseholes, and I know many other people of the same opinion.

      2. h4rm0ny

        >>"And Cameron and Osborne are right fucking Einsteins aren't they?"

        Honestly, they're evil but reasonably competent. My opinion on New Labour is that they are simply downright evil, hypocritical, self-righteous scum who do nothing well except play to the crowds. Ever since Tony "quick - make up a reason to bomb Iraq" Blair took power, they have become a pettier and more small minded version of the conservatives.

        This whole story made me want to cry. I did some work in the Public Sector during New Labour's tenure. I fled back to industry. Pure, completely pure, gravy train. Pigs in a trough doesn't come close to how things were under New Labour. Not sure what it's like now - probably not much difference. But I can tell you hand on heart that under New Labour, the corruption was institutional and started right at the top.

        1. Wilseus

          [i]Ever since Tony "quick - make up a reason to bomb Iraq" Blair took power, they have become a pettier and more small minded version of the conservatives.[/i]

          Well quite. I'm glad that at least one other person other than me has figured this out!

      3. GitMeMyShootinIrons

        "And Cameron and Osborne are right fucking Einsteins aren't they?"

        Not genius, certainly not popular, but you can't deny the fact that they've gotten the country through a recession compounded by Labour ineptness without resorting to the usual socialist panic spend, spend, spend (regardless of whether you have the money) approach.

        Remember - Labour bailed the banks out.

        1. JC_

          "And Cameron and Osborne are right fucking Einsteins aren't they?"

          Not genius, certainly not popular, but you can't deny the fact that they've gotten the country through a recession compounded by Labour ineptness without resorting to the usual socialist panic spend, spend, spend (regardless of whether you have the money) approach.

          Remember - Labour bailed the banks out.

          Osborne and Cameron have deepened and lengthened the recession because of their austerity policy. That's a fact. If this is the recovery it's taken longer and been weaker than the recovery from the Great Depression.

          Their policies are madness, completely unsupported by economic theory or empirical evidence and have caused enormous human suffering.

          Fortunately for them, they and their clique are completely sheltered from the consequences of their dreadful decisions; the poor and the unemployed are the ones who are suffering.

          1. Richard 12 Silver badge

            No, that's an opinion

            Economics being the fuzzy trick-cycling that it is, you can find lots of eminent economists utterly convinced that the ConDem policies have shortened and shallowed the recession, as well as a few saying that they lengthened and deepened it.

            However, the general consensus is that a Labour coalition would have bankrupted us instead, causing a full-scale depression and hyper-inflation.

            Though it can't be proven, partly because economists are trick-cyclists, but mostly because Labour have had no plans at all other than "Not what the ConDems say" throughout most of their opposition.

            Heck, I still have no idea what Balls and Miliband actually stand for or believe, unless it really is just the "Not Tory" stance they've been following.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          I am not convinced that we are out of the recession yet. Technically the economy has not shrunk for two or three quarters in row but its not growing either.

          As for panic spending, we have a range of neo-Keynesian spending going on, from help to buy which is keeping the housing bubble going and potentially billions to be spent on HS2.

          There is also the small matter of the gov't keeping their friends and donors sweet. Royal Mail sans pensions liabilities sold at well below value, increase in PPI, etc, etc.

          1. Alan Brown Silver badge

            "I am not convinced that we are out of the recession yet. "

            The UK isn't. It's taking creative book keeping to make it look like the country is treading water.

            Cameron recently had the UK's position in the New World Order well and truely explained to him by the chinese leadership - and meekly accepted it.

    2. DaneB

      And Cameron / Osborne are right flippin' Einsteins aren't they?

    3. Ted Treen
      Thumb Up

      I wholeheartedly concur...

      ...and admire your remarkable restraint in your descriptions.

    4. Gio Ciampa

      When do you start filming the next series of Secret Millionaire...?

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I've worked for a public body that started out with a decent remit to help business, but I saw it descend into a quango that just provided pointless jobs for political cronies. We may mock states like North Korea, with their nepotism and self serving elites, but they are just an extreme version of what we have here as the positions of power held by the Powell clan show. Don't know what the answer is, but we need to get rid of the patronage and as well as ensuring that serial incompetents at the top don't just move on from one disaster to another. For example, when the head of the quango I worked for found his position untenable when Labour lost power he called in a favour with one of the UK's leading entrepreneurs and went on to a directorship elsewhere. Of course, if he'd been a little less of a public-school educated dimwit and brown nosed a few more politicos from both sides of the fence he could have happily stayed on as an overpaid quango boss on a six figure salary ...

    1. DaneB

      Christ, it really is that bad...

    2. Ted Treen

      To be expected:

      The excellent Jerry Pournelle described this in his Iron Law of Bureaucracy:-

      In any bureaucracy, the people devoted to the benefit of the bureaucracy itself always get in control and those dedicated to the goals the bureaucracy is supposed to accomplish have less and less influence, and sometimes are eliminated entirely.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        The excellent Jerry Pournelle described this in his Iron Law of Bureaucracy

        That pretty much describes how the BBC are run nowadays. They were told by government to cut costs, so the managers employed more managers who then sacked all the productive staff. The result is more managers than ever, and less of those tedious things like journalism or making new programmes.

        1. Nigel 11

          Another, shorter formulation:

          Any sufficiently developed bureaucracy is indistinguishable from malice

  17. Roo

    In this case competence is tangential.

    It is tempting to give NESTA the benefit of the doubt and ascribe their bungling to incompetence - but I really don't think the pattern of their behaviour supports that. On the one hand you have a guy with some IP and who wants to build a tangible product that could generate income. On the other hand you have artists - the vast majority of whom make a net loss on their output, and in some cases it isn't even possible to monetize their output. Yet NESTA supported the high-risk-zero return activities without hesitation, they subsidized their mates' hobbies and no intention of supporting money making activity/innovation.

    It's a pity that Fentem didn't hedge his bets, that said I am not sure I would have done any better in his position at that age.

  18. John Styles

    Theres goes my blood pressure again...

    But, how stupid (or naive is probably a better word) do you have to be to not realise this would happen if you got involved in something like that? Or to not bail out when it is obvious that what it is obvious would happen happens?

    1. DaneB

      Re: Theres goes my blood pressure again...

      I guess it shows how mistrusted government truly is now. Remember all theose pop stars turning up when Blair got into power? When is that EVER going to happen again?

  19. Jason Bloomberg

    Britain has led the way

    Britain has often led the way; but that does not mean that commercial success will land in British hands. There is a lot more to it than inventing or developing a technology; the success of Apple goes far beyond using 'touch screen' displays.

    I am no great fan of Apple but their success is in giving the customer what they want (and particularly in convincing the customer that it is what they want) and delivering it in a quality manner with a premium price. That is where Britain often fails. It doesn't matter how good the tech is if one cannot turn it into a desirable product.

    I remember an Alexi Sayle joke that if Britain had invented the Walkman it would have been the size of a tea chest and made of polished mahogany. That sums up what the problem often is with Britain's inability to dominate commercial markets.

    1. ian 22

      So Britain avoided inventing the iPhone

      From the phone wars I've read here, it seems Britain dodged a bullet.

      (Waves multi fingered gesture, runs off)

    2. Mike Richards Silver badge

      Re: Britain has led the way

      One thing Britain still doesn't have is the venture capital community that you find in Silicon Valley or Cambridge, MA. Had this idea been developed in the US it would have been possible to find a group of investors who either had the specialist knowledge, or knew the people who did, to make a decision on whether this was worth funding. Silicon Valley keeps going because its where brilliant ideas meet an avalanche of money.


      Re: Britain has led the way

      What Apple usually does is to add that last 1% of what a device needs in order to appeal to the mainstream and then couple that with lots of visible marketing.

      If some bit of computing tech has reached the consumer then it has probably been cooking in academia and research labs or non-consumer computing for a long time beforehand.

      Britain didn't invent the tea chest sized Walkman this time. Microsoft did.

  20. ElReg!comments!Pierre

    How I could have invented the Airbus A380...

    ... and how my wife made me take the trash out instead.

  21. Alan Johnson

    No Sympathy - whining because one of many possible funding sources was used and they did not give as much funding as needed is entirely the guys fault. Why did he agree and sign a contract if they were only providing a derisory 20K an order of magnitude less than required to get to a manufacturable product? Thsi smacks of wishful thining by someone without any sort of commercial clue. yes the British establsihment is woefully bad at supporting industry with a shockingly poor understanding of science, tehcnology and how to get things done but they are at least trying. The fact they gave money to someone who is commercially naise and incompotent reflects badly on all parties but the prime responsibility for failure belongs firmly with the guy who conceive dthe idea and set up th eproject and company not a government body who provided funding.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: they gave money to someone who is commercially [naive]

      ... maybe, but that "commercially [naive]" bloke had had a good idea, and was trying to get help. Maybe Fentem deserves less sympathy than someone who could have made their idea commercially successful without help (but also didn't) ... but it most likely would have been better all round if Nesta had done (or were capable of doing) their job properly in this case.

    2. Roland6 Silver badge

      Re: No Sympathy @Alan Johnson

      Only someone who has never engaged with the inventive and business start up end of the high-tech sector could be so naive.

      Sorry, the people who come up some of the best idea's aren't all business men or people with an extensive network of contacts/supporters ready to shower them with all the help necessary to turn their idea into a product. Part of the reason these people go to big 'friendly' looking organisations is because they believe they will get help without being ripped off.

      Also from my experience it is actually quite difficult getting initial funding and if you're into sub-£100k many so called 'experts' will advise you to visit your local bank ...

      There are some good VC's in the UK who understand the above and will engage with the inventor to help them get 'the business' off the ground - making their funding offers conditional on getting a wider business expertise on-board (recruiting your own manager can be a lot of fun!)

      No the real message of this piece is that inspite of the successful UK government funding programmes of the 80's and early 90's for high-tech, the government could create NESTA and for it to be totally ignorant of the lessons from this legacy.

  22. MJI Silver badge


    I think in this position best to go round different companies yourself.

    The incompetence of Nesta was staggering

    1. Chimp

      No, Minister.

      No, think outside the box. Tell the Sir Humphrey types that you're a lesbian clown with an interest in phases of the moon. Use the resultant shower of cash to fund your product.

      Thinking, see?

  23. slightly-pedantic

    Dependency culture

    Implicit within this story is that it was the responsibility of Nesta to filter from 1000's of applications the ones where the innovation alone has the potential to drive major shifts in business, and then to back those regardless of any of the other circumstances. The telecom industry, and I suspect the inventor, didn't anticipate the iphone phenomenon, yet we expect a government agency to have that kind of foresight?

    I was investing myself during the period concerned and saw 1000's of applications, and yet never saw this inventor approach me for seed funding, and from the sound of the article, if efforts were made to raise commercial money they were not successful. Could it be that the inventor was a key limitation to commercialising his own technology? My experience is that no amount of brilliant innovation is sufficient to mean that you can commercialise a technology if the inventor has either attitude, capability or experience limitations. Perhaps we also expect that our government agencies should step in to fix those problems too?

    During the years up to its recent change in status I know that Nesta invested in many truly innovative and brave technology ventures, often to the tune of several £100'000s. Every commercial investor in early stage technology knows you must miss some great opportunities in the 1000's you must reject. Putting pressure on such agencies to account for missed opportunities is likely to breed exactly the kind of defensive investment behaviour that will depress their potential for positive impact. What we should be judging Nesta on is those that it did back vigorously and the returns that those investments made.

    My experience of Nesta was that it did have its limitations and constraints. However I did work with people who had a good understanding of what they were doing. If we believe that the state should be intervening in our economy through innovative seed stage investments then maybe the more important issue is that instead of improving provision, we've simply given it up. Nesta no longer does seed stage technology investment and as far as I am aware no alternative has been put in place.

    1. Craigness

      Re: Dependency culture

      Given they're not investing in established products, some of their grants are not expected to make money and they only invested the interest on the initial endowment, it's unfair for the author to state "In its first five years handling a £250m endowment, NESTA saw a return of just £228 in royalties".

      But rather less implicit in the story is the responsibility not to be totally incompetent. They can be forgiven for backing failures, not for making a failure of something which had the potential to succeed.

  24. All names Taken

    Surprised that u r surprised?

    The UK is not a meritocracy and i don't think it has ever claimed to be.

    It is an aristocracy lead nation or at least it appears to be with its politicians claiming to represent commoners in the Houseof Commons but having very little to do with commoners anyway.

    From time to time it does claim to be a democracy but the sincerity and actuality of such claims can be easily challenged. However a society that is based on privelege and supremacy is probably spending lots of resource and energy maintaining the power structures of that place hence ... a lot?

    1. TwoWolves

      Re: Surprised that u r surprised?

      The aristocracy ceded power between the wars, a new elite run Britain.

      As I recall during the period when the aristocracy ran things Britain had the most powerful empire in the world, launched the Industrial Revolution and pushed the boundaries of science and medicine to the point that they lifted millions around the world from poverty and disease. However the current elite don't like anyone pointing this out, let's call it "unfashionable".

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Surprised that u r surprised?

        As I recall during the period when the aristocracy ran things Britain had the most powerful empire in the world, launched the Industrial Revolution and pushed the boundaries of science and medicine to the point that they lifted millions around the world from poverty and disease. However the current elite don't like anyone pointing this out, let's call it "unfashionable".

        All those accomplishments were largely the work of a nascent middle class - not the aristocracy, who saw things like trade as being "sordid" and beneath them.

        1. TwoWolves

          Re: Surprised that u r surprised?

          Nevertheless they provided an environment that allowed them to flourish. You also seem to have forgotten the regular sponsorship of expeditions and botanical collections, proving once again the superiority of private enterprise..

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Surprised that u r surprised?

        Think you need to read up on your history, because the overwhelming majority of advances in Britain during that time happened *despite* the aristocracy, not because of them.

      3. annodomini2

        Re: Surprised that u r surprised?

        "The aristocracy ceded power between the wars, a new elite run Britain."

        Nope, they just rebranded.

  25. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    It is not just NESTA

    I was acting as an advisor on a complex (really really) issue for UK Gov. One of a number. We were given (as a group) a pretty demo/pitch by the Design Council. The area is complex and it is very obvious that human, technological and mathematical issues are all very important. In my review I commented favourably on the Design Councils ideas but suggested they get teamed up with a decent technical group so that some balance and measure of effectiveness might be reached.

    My original submission was counted as positive. My attempt to correct with a positive but of no fucking use unless someone does a reasonable set of experiments, was ignored by the (Home Office) meeting secretary (not someone who just types by the way). A second attempt to correct this was accompanied by a 'do you want to work with us again, we intend to support the Design Council'. I left. As far as I know the ~Design Council got the funding for something that had little chance of validation,

    Anon (well vaguely) for obvious reasons

  26. Hollerith 1

    NESTA bad

    I was briefly involved with NESTA while it was being set up and got out as fast as humanly possible. it was clear that they had no actual intention of doing anything seriously technical. What they loved were computer-created artworks. Some early ones were lovely and fun, but it was a huge organisation and its output was artwork. From the very first day it looked to make itself a very comfortable nest for birds who could not do anything other than feather their own nests. The entire mentality of the place was corrupt, i.e. looking to support the longevity of the organisation as its sole purpose for being an organisation. I still feel unclean from the fact that I even walked through their doors.

    Having said that, I suspect every quango is the same. NESTA's ostensible purpose was merely rather more nebulous than most.

    1. Vision Aforethought

      Re: NESTA bad

      Socialism and unchecked capitalism are the same. Here we have the former.

  27. AMB-York Silver badge

    Why ask the government for help?

    Sorry, but the best thing the government can do for business is keep out the way. Plenty of other ways to raise money.

  28. Marco van Beek
    Black Helicopters

    Why did he wait so long?

    <Copyright Notice>Anyone from the British Government reading this is, if you read past this point you will have agreed to pay me the sum of £10M sterling for each reading. (I will even pay tax on it, or at least I will once I have paid for my coffee beans from Switzerland...)</Copyright Notice>

    What I don't get is why did he wait so long for any sort of response? It doesn't seem like he was tied into them until the contract was sorted, which took the best part of a year. I would have been long gone by then, taking my work with me, and keeping all the IP myself.

    There is a lovely bit in Richard Noble's book about Thrust 2 and Thrust SSC, where he approached the DTI and asked if they would be interested in sponsoring the project. Flying the flag and all that. They asked him how many he thought they would build in their first year of production... It's not the lawyers who should be first against the wall...

    1. Craigness

      Re: Why did he wait so long?

      My guess is he lacks 2 key qualities

      1. BS detection

      2. Disloyalty

  29. FadBotherMukka

    This is a story of the bl**din' obvious from day one. Okay, this was all pre-Dragons Den, but surely anyone with a half-decent invention and a modicum of common sense would have been making serious efforts in going to other sources of funding and demonstrating the possibilities.

    Oh, and not to disgree with the points about the New Labour cronyism, but a quick read of Private Eye shows that it's just as endemic across all the other establishment parties.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Have you ever tried getting funding for a technical startup? Particularly one that involves hardware as well as software? It's damn near impossible.

      A friend had to get a loan from the European Union and worked weekends in a manual job to make ends meet when he set up his own company. It's now very successful, but it took several years of extraordinary self-sacrifice, since the banks and UK government refused to provide any capital. As for venture capital in this country, it seems to only exist for stupid Internet startups.

      1. Marco van Beek
        Thumb Up

        Re: funding for Startups

        Yes I have, and I would agree. Those with spare money to invest have no imagination and no vision. If I had a pound for every time a VC wanted yet another variation on a business plan I wouldn't need their stupid money. They have no concept of the value of someone else's time.

  30. J.G.Harston Silver badge

    The whole economy is turning into this - where only those who are personally insanely rich can afford to participate.

    1. phil dude


      Perhaps an alternative way of say this is "living in the UK is so expensive who can afford to spend on non-essentials?".

      That's why rich folks can "play" these games, their lives do not depend on them...

      However, from computing fokelore, Apple and Microsoft were founded out of garages....

      Facebook was a student out of Harvard?

      It would appear to be successful, you need to be able to focus on just one thing, a thing no-one else has seen, and be given support to move on it when it flies...

      But history is written by the many failed?

      Is it all perhaps just a lottery?


  31. GrumpyOldMan

    Quote: "It’s a long-standing – 100+-year-old – complaint about Britain that we invent lots of great stuff but someone else makes money out of it. "

    I've seen and heard this in so many fields. My background is mechanical engineering - we saw this all the time in the 70's 80s and 90s. We invent and develop stuff, the Japanese copy it and then perfect and manufacture it.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: We invent ... stuff, the Japanese ... then perfect and manufacture it.

      Gosh! I bet that Japanese economy has really been going great guns in the last decade, eh? Or shall we just check first ..? :-)

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: We invent ... stuff, the Japanese ... then perfect and manufacture it.

        Maybe, that's cos the brits haven't been inventing in the last decade...

  32. chrisf1

    Why NESTA and who else?

    An interesting issue here is why go to NESTA in the first place and were any 'real' VCs approached and what did they say.

    Whilst NESTA has a track record of talking up its endowment and not much about its actual investments, they were ( at least then before the conversion to charity, may have changed but I still see them as too overtly following the political zeitgeist) always going to have the political and bureaucratic issues of a public sector body. The UK was absorbing about half of all the VC funds in the EC at the time iirc.

    A real danger of talking up state investment is the drowning out of other approaches. The state is almost by definition a funder of last resort ( unless it is funding for its own consumption, then its a supply side intervention) if there is a business case a business should be doing it. If it is too long term, too radical or too subject to regulatory risk or that the economic dividend is too dilute then there are good reason for state involvement but this does not seem to be in that category.

    1. phil dude

      Re: Why NESTA and who else?

      I know little about this specific agency but it could be the professional network that is supported by it?

      The UK may excel in "Lone Inventor in the Shed" types, but the political class want a nice polished presentation from $CORP, with no hard facts in it.

      The reality is this. Companies have a legal obligation to make money. If business is good, they can invest in something to improve or expand their business. If business is VERY good, they can fund non-essential activities that may pay off. If business INSANELY good, they can buy OTHER companies that do it.

      In government, there is no business. Taxes are collected from the population (i.e you) and other economic activity (what you spend) and "redistributed" (spent like drunken sailor...) for the theoretical benefit of the country.

      a) Traditional banks don't make money, they are the govts agents for printed cash. So borrowing from a bank for something that is not a "dead cert", is very limited (unsecured loans), otherwise they take your house. Casino banking means you have to have a marker in the casino. And casino's out there for shed dwellers?

      b)For a business, a loan is weighed against the business accounts (unsecured but some evidence of success), but may take your assets. No way a bank is risking any money unnecessarily.

      c) And then we come to "fairy dust" VC stories. They may fund $SOME startups and hope one will win big, but they will want $LARGE_CHUNK of your $IDEA. If not properly done, they will just TAKE your idea.

      The state cannot pick winners directly because it is so big it distorts the market, it will at the same time, pick the losers. That is politically unacceptable. Issuing large amounts of cash for any project without firm deliverables seems to attract all sorts of "inappropriate" people.

      The state should ensure the boat rises for everyone. Fund STEM well through postdoc. Fund FOSS where possible. Fund systems that everyone can use. In the USA the NSF, NIH, DOE and DARPA fund a lot of broad boat rising activities. DARPA is the 10/1 model. The others pay for work done.

      But in the UK, make being a small biz less burdensome. In order for any company to apply for any funding they need to be experts in the govts arbitrary rules as well as their subject area.

      If the UK wants more successful startups, perhaps it should make it easier...


    2. Andrew Orlowski (Written by Reg staff)

      Re: Why NESTA and who else?

      A good question, one answered by the inventor in Part 2, which we'll publish on Monday.

      The inventor himself in Spring 2004 urged Nesta to contact Apple, amongst other companies, to help fund and develop the work.

      This was not something that would have interested a sort-term speculative VC, as there was no immediate "product" forthcoming in 12 months or so. Such is the nature of R&D. So it was quite natural that he thought a specialist arm of the state might be able to help.

  33. Paul Hampson 1

    What has this to do with Apple?

    "developing kit capable detecting more than one fingertip at once, years before Apple did"

    -Why is apple the big deal here? They invented nothing to do with multi-touch technology which are why all their patents concern doing things with multi-touch rather than multi-touch itself.

    By and large all of the technology in the iphone was previously used by other companies. In the mobile sphere they excel at interface design and marketing, they do not invest much in technology per se (comparatively when compared to Microsoft, Samsung or Nokia) and consequently were not the competition to this UK inventor.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: What has this to do with Apple?

      The reason Apple's investment appears so low compared with other companies is because of the way comparisons are done.

      First, Wall Street compares companies by their investment as a percentage of revenue. If you invest a billion dollars a year and have $10 billion in revenue, that's 10%, a huge investment by their measure. If you invest $2 billion a year but have $200 billion in revenue, that's 1%, a paltry investment by their standards. Apple's revenue is well above that of Microsoft and Nokia, and close behind Samsung, so the measures aren't all equal. Apple invests more than Nokia EARNS, so the idea they don't invest like Nokia is laughable.

      Samsung brings up the second half the equation. They don't just operate in the tiny market segment Apple does, they sell all that plus everything from TVs to washing machines to oil drilling platforms (via Samsung's Heavy Industries division) Their revenue is counted across all that. More importantly, their INVESTMENT is counted across all that. I can't imagine the next version of their oil drilling platform will be cheap to develop, but it counts in their investment dollars, while Apple invests nothing developing oil drilling platforms.

      Apple has also grown far faster than these companies in the past five years. That growth has slowed down now, but when your revenues grow 10x larger in such a short time you can't upgrade your investing at the same pace, it takes some time to catch up. So Apple's investment looked to be "declining" to Wall Streeters who only look at the percentage, thus the constant complaint that Apple is under investing.

      They're budgeted to be investing nearly $10 billion this next fiscal year. Does that sound like a small amount? Considering how relatively little they spent to develop the iPhone and iPad, one wonders exactly what they could be spending that much money on. Maybe they will introduce something in the next few years where they develop all the technology themselves, and move beyond making well functioning products where none existed previously (you can argue that nothing in the iPhone didn't exist elsewhere, but there were no phones that had them all in one package, and certainly nothing that offered anything remotely close to the user experience it did) Those who hate Apple and claim they're incapable of ever inventing anything can console themselves that if this occurs, some of it will undoubtedly be due to the purchases of small companies to gain access to their technology (as they did with Fingerworks to get the multitouch technology)

  34. Super Fast Jellyfish


    I agree that Nesta was shit and the money pitiful but why didn't Andrew Fentem patent his idea?

    1. Roland6 Silver badge

      Re: Patent?

      Think back to 2004, patents (particularly software patents in the UK) wren't such a big thing then - much of our current thinking and awareness of software patents has come about through the patenting of "slide to unlock" and other trivia by Apple who then proceeded to throw their money behind court proceedings. Also I suspect that Andrew didn't really feel that his work was sufficiently complete to patent or to really be able to identify and articulate what his invention really was.

      Obviously today we (well some) know that Marconi, merely patented the particular configuration of third-party components (ie. other people's inventions) that resulted in a working radio; but his brilliance was in arriving at that particular configuration and then taking it forward from there.

      I look back at my works and see many idea's and pieces of work that could (and perhaps should) of been patented but for various reasons weren't, combined with opportunities that I should of taken but at the time failed to fully grasp.

  35. Irongut Silver badge

    A very good article that highlights issues I have seen with innovations my father tried to commercialise with government help from the 80s to the present day. He never managed to make a penny from things he invented in the 80s that I now see being re-invented today.

    "no one at Nesta has a science or engineering background" - this, no idea how business functions in the real world and a complete lack of accountability among the civil service are the biggest problems this country faces. If we are to avoid sliding furhter into mediocracy and irrelevance we need to replace the old boys educated in the classics at Eton with some real people who know more than a couple of dead languages and have actually worked in their life. Unfortunately I doubt it will ever happen.

    1. Hans 1

      Sadly, replacing the guyz at the top with guyz from the bottom changes nothing for us, worse, look what communism lead to ...

      Unfortunately, only idiots and/or selfish bastards strive for power.

  36. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    We've always been crap at turning ideas into money in the UK.

    The real problem is getting patent protection at an affordable rate here. So the ideas either get ripped off or sold cheaply to the US because there's no protection on the ideas.

  37. domino316

    Applied for small grant to do some lab testing with Tech Strategy Board, refused first time, resubmitted addressing points raised (as allowable), declined again with lower scores, asked how this was possible considering the same content was included and expanded upon.

    The responded by saying it had been sent to the wrong group of assessors so was sent to the first group again (who scored it higher) but TSB still declined, requested the feedback, which showed the independent assessors all recommended it be supported. TSB said it did not meet score threshold, erm yes it did by quite a margin, decided then and there they were a waste of space, though they are happy to give companies like Rolls Royce and Airbus millions for R & D.

    NESTA said "great idea but far too small an amount for us to be interested in".

  38. Stevie


    I got my start in IT working for a machine tool company in Coventry in the late 70s. It isn't there any more and was failing even as I signed my contract of employment mainly because what money was spent on R&D was too much D and almost no R.

    Research would have told the company that the world was moving into a plastic/single spindle/NC era and that there was no market for the cast iron/single spindle/hydraulic control machine they had built even though it would outlast the Placcy Jap machine by decades.

    Lots of development costs though. They built three of the new model and they sat in the showroom for years. Biggest doorstops in the world.

    But then we had a corporate structure built on the Grace Brothers model (seriously: two canteens, one for monthly paid staff the other for the weekly paid scruffs) and you couldn't tell management anything they didn't already know.

    And I worked for the pointy-haired boss from Dilbert (again, seriously. Separated at birth). Knew nothing about computers and was proud of it. He was a manager you see. He "had people" to "do things".

    1. phil dude

      Re: Bah!

      For some non-Brits, I think they could be excused for thinking Grace Brothers was a documentary on British life...


  39. JP19

    Nothing to see here move along

    Pack of wankers (politicians) appoint and pay another pack of wankers to fritter away money donated by the arithmetically challenged.

    Nothing I find surprising.

  40. Neil Hoskins

    I don't think...

    ... the iPhone's success was because of its touchscreen; I think it was because it was made by Apple and was therefore cool and shiny. The fanbois and bloggers and tech-journos-who-should-have-known-better like the BBC's Rory Cellan-Jones then wouldn't stop blathering on about the sodding thing. The only reason that everybody has followed suit is that the Apple spin doctors have convinced everybody that that's what they want. Personally, I hate bloody capacitive touchscreens: most people's fingers are too fat to get any real control, and you end up with smudges all over your screen - it's complete madness.

  41. ProfessorLarry

    Not Invented Here?

    History is riddled with tales of inventors who were screwed over or not credited or who just missed out. And very often, history eventually reveals that whatever we may have thought, some widget or technique was actually invented earlier or by someone else. Somebody or some company or some country gets (or takes) the credit, and that's what the history books and the patent offices record. Consider the big Darwin celebrations and the "rediscovery" of Alfred Wallace and how the Royal Society conspired...

    Hell, I am co-inventor with a US patent on the technique that Apple used to let users know they were actually ejecting a disc not discarding it in the recycle bin yet never received a shilling or even a thank you. That's just how things work in the real world.

    In the frenetic and fractured world of high tech, a majority of good things are no doubt independently "invented" by many people at more or less the same time. Most of them will never be recognized or benefit. And most will not even have a dysfunctional quango to pass the blame onto.

    --Prof. Larry Constantine (pen name, Lior Samson)

  42. airbrush

    Despite the evidence..

    The UK has become a world leader in the arts in the past 20 years and this sector of the economy is pretty successful so can't have been all bad.

  43. Kubla Cant Silver badge


    games like ... interactive carpeting

    Maybe I'm misunderstanding, but I have to say that "interactive carpeting" sounds like the dullest game ever. I assume that it's a computer simulation of the thrill-packed life of a carpet fitter.

  44. Don Jefe

    Ideas and Business

    Many, many businesses fail because there's a huge disconnect between what people think has value and what has actual value. An idea is worth precisely nothing, zero, if you don't realize the idea. The same is true of excuses for failure to realize the idea, excuses are worth precisely zero.

    Every single business will face seemingly insurmountable challenges, and it is how you manage those challenges that determines if your business, and your idea are successful. The idea, and the business, are worthless if you can't deal with the unique challenges you will face. For some it is regulatory interference, for some it is personnel management, for some it is distribution, for some it is competition, for some it is physics and for a very, very small group their challenge is actually funding (all the money on the world won't help 90%+ of businesses).

    It does not matter what your challenge is, if it beats you that means you failed. Full stop. The failure is not, automatically, a reflection on your abilities, not all battles can be won, but again, it doesn't matter. At all. You failed, that is the only thing that matters.

    The (very informative and well written article) is nothing more than the story of a business that failed in its first significant challenge. If you have dreams of global success in any field that are derailed by a minor semi-government agency then dreams is all you're ever going to have. If a minor challenge like in this story bests you, then there was never any hope of defeating a real regulatory challenge, much less an actual competitor.

    Being overwhelmed by a system that is, ostensibly, supposed to help you isn't a positive indicator of potential. If the people helping you get the best of you, an actual competitor, someone who actively seeks to undermine you will certainly not have a problem. If you can't beat the system you'll never beat someone else who has.

    This is an unfortunate story, but anything past the fail part, is a fairy tale. A lot of the commenters are lost in that part, the fairy tale part, as well. In business there is no such thing as an almost, or a could have been. There is only failure and success and it doesn't matter how you get to either of them. The second you forget that you've just joined the ranks of the failed.

  45. WatAWorld

    Don't blame the Quango for your inability to find industry funding

    The economy must not depend on Quangos providing venture capitol.

    And no entrepreneur should seek funds from only one source.

    You need to be prepared to have delays, run arounds, and denials of funding from any given source of funds.

    Private venture capitolists. Other inventors. Other technology people. Do not depend on quangos.

    Do not blame quangos.

  46. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    You win some, you lose some - stop whining.

    There isn't really any blame to apportion here at all.

    You win some, you lose some.

    It's really easy to sit on a high horse today talking about touchscreens which are everywhere, when back in the day it was unproven in terms of consumer take up and likelihood to succeed.

    It's also the job of these government agencies to be prudent with cash. On this occasion they messed up in hindsight. Somebody I really feel sorry for is Trevor Bayliss, he got properly screwed over and taken advantage of by Labour.

    Alan Sugar brought double deck tape recorders and word processors to everyones homes in the 80's and made himself £500m and a company with 50% of the PC market in Europe, But by the 2000's he completely cocked up with mobile phones, called Apple stupid, slagged off Orange and kept trying to flog some dated emailer phone thing.....same again...

    You win some, you lose some.

  47. All names Taken
    Paris Hilton

    Positively now

    Then we and he did not know what to do or where to go. However we are sentient beings and learn from our mistakes.

    So where should the next inventor go (bearing in mind that the more people or organisations in the loop the less secure the new idea becomes)?

    1. Don Jefe

      Re: Positively now

      Two things I'll say from my role with a VC group in Washington DC:

      As far as where to go, I'll tell you what I tell anyone I talk with. Go where there's a customer. Make that first sale and go where that leads you. Until you've got at least one paying customer you do not have a business. Full stop. You've got an accounts payable department.

      Whatever your grand plans may be, they go directly out the window when you land your first customer. Every single thing you do from that point forward will be determined by who that customer turned out to be, what you actually sold them and what you've got to do to sell more. Those three things are very often surprises for everyone involved.

      About a half dozen proposals a month make it to my desk and I might actually talk to two of them, maybe. But anytime a proposal comes up and they've got a functional balance sheet (meaning any kind of revenue) I will always call them. Always. Even if I'm not remotely interested, I might know someone who can help them, and they've got my attention because they have an actual business. It doesn't need to be profitable at that point, or even have a clear view of when that might be, but if they've got just one sale under their belt they are 100% closer to success than all the other dreamers out there.

      Second part:

      The notion of a unique idea is a fallacy. Someone has thought of it, guaranteed. Ideas aren't your job. Your job as an entrepreneur is to make money with the idea. That's the hard part, everybody's got ideas, but most people have no idea how to make money with the ideas. The people that can help you give exactly zero shits about your idea. They'll help you because you've figured out how to make money with the idea. That's what they're buying into, your vision of how to monetize (x), doesn't matter what it is. You and your plan to make money with an idea is what they're investing in, nothing else.

      Go wherever you've got to go to get the resources you need. When we add a company to our portfolio the first checks we write are almost always to the family and friends of the principals. We're buying up the 'emotional debt' that's a hinderace as well as proof that people believe in you. If you can't beg or borrow enough money from those close to you to get rolling, then why are you asking me for money?

      And as far as someone stealing your idea, it is a risk (get used to those), but legitimate investors aren't in the business of stealing ideas to run businesses with, that's too much work and we've already done it. You'll have to put your ideas out in public forums, no way around it, but everybody there is going to be focused on their idea, not yours.

      Besides, as I said earlier, it's your money making plans that matter and those will be confidential. Anyone who is interested enough to question the financials will provide you with a bilateral NDA that protects you and them. You'll have the opportunity for your own lawyer to review it as well if you like. If you've actually made it to money discussions you're in serious territory then and money is on the line, monkey business has been checked at the door.

      Lastly, don't ask your government for help. Unless you're in China or Zimbabwe. They generally mean well but they will strangle you to death, by accident.

      1. phil dude
        Thumb Up

        Re: Positively now

        An excellent post.


      2. Mage Silver badge
        Thumb Up

        Re: Positively now: Lastly:

        "Don't ask your government for help. Unless you're in China or Zimbabwe. They generally mean well but they will strangle you to death, by accident."

        Yes. I discovered this with LEDU and NIDA etc in 1980s, £10,000 and it wasn't worth it. We ended up employing 11 people and making a profit by the time DeLoran closed. He got millions the same time they gave us £10,000. Because he lied. The UK never even checked his story of Shannon Development approval (IDA and Shannon Development thought it was a con and turned him down).

        Under powered "sports car". Vibration made the steel skin come off the fibreglass. All this was obvious before the Gov gave him his millions.

        Any Government will strangle you with bureaucracy. Apple wasn't successful due to good ideas with iPod then iPhone. Both pre-existing products. Ideas are nice, but having money and good marketing is the reason Apple is successful. Neither Jobs or Bill Gates were POOR students. Even their own families had enough money to fund their start. Jobs built his marketing on Woz's ideas initially and Gates repackaged Dartmouth Basic.

        I'm all in favour of R&D and Innovation and Engineering, But that's maybe 10% of what is needed for a successful business. The rest is equal dollops of Hard Work, Money, Marketing and Luck!

        Apple was very lucky as well with the iPhone because of the incompetence of Nokia, RIM and MS:

        Nokia lost the plot on UI and R&D about 2002

        RIM was a niche product

        MS fixated on having ONE GUI and identity of OS (So CE was a stupid miniaturisation of Desktop, now the Desktop is a stupid enlargement of Zune)

        Other "players" were too small and under the radar. Apple cut down OS X to iOS but bought in a decent GUI instead of miniaturising Mac GUI. All the rest was pretty much of the shelf. I built a 4G touch screen myself before the iPhone came out but didn't have a decent GUI and knew it (it didn't matter either, as it was only a Proof of Concept demo of the 4G Flarion Modem, then bought by Qualcomm) .

        The iPod success was down to copying Deiter Rams' Braun styling and marketing, also simply being Apple. Other MP3 players as good.

  48. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I hesitated before replying but as somebody who worked at NESTA in the Invention and Innovation team, I cannot let some of this pass. I am regular reader and I am disappointed with the quality of reporting in this article. It is not balanced and would appear to be written based on a single source, without some basic fact-checking.

    I cannot comment on Andrew Fentem's particular case but:

    1) I&I was one small part of NESTA. We had an annual investment budget of £2.5m-£3m. The rest of the organisation received £12.5m+ in endowment interest and a substantial additional government grant annually. NESTA's total budget was £20m+ total.

    2) We had plenty of scientists and engineers. One compsci + natsci from Cambridge; one molecular biology PhD from Cambridge; one physics PhD from Cambridge; one mathematician; one mathematical economist and one lifesciences masters.

    3) Every other part of NESTA was either involved in "self-preservation and PR" (that describes the Strategy and Communications function accurately, which ate the lion's share of the budget like the Stasi in the DDR) or various Arts programmes. I&I were the uncool, nerdy people who read the footnotes, asked quantitiative questions and did not share the love. At the first opportunity, we were move to the basement and subsequently hidden in a different building entirely with the IT department and Finance!

    4) The maximum investment we could make was initially £100k, I think. It was subsequently increased to £250k and then eventually to a sensible amount that can actually start a business. We had argued for a larger investment limit from the beginning but for a long-time it was seen by the Trustees as being too risky to actually commit significant venture capital rather than scattering feel-good seedcorn among mad inventors.

    4) NESTA had started by trying to make light touch agreements with "awardees", based around a royalty on future sales, rather than forcing people to incorporate. These were unworkable in our view, leaving individuals exposed with unlimited personal liability as sole traders and making it very difficult for them to raise VC if successful with our seed money. It also initially made all award decisions using the same committee, from clowns to enterprise software. We moved NESTA to a model of investing for equity in companies (which explains why the royalty income after five years was negligible) and running a VC-type process for angel-size investments. We had co-investments with Apax, Wellcome Trust, Oxford Technology, Quester, 3i etc.

    In summary, NESTA's initial approach needed changing (like every business plan) but we made many improvements (and could have made many more if NESTA had not abandoned direct investment) and this article paints an unfair picture of the work we did. The proof of the pudding is in the eating: there have been various good exits from the portfolio (Tideway Systems acquired by BMC; Cambridge Bluegnome acquired by Illumina; Hba1c test sold to Cholestech then Inverness Medical; Nanosight sold to Malvern Instruments). Some others are in £mm of revenue but not yet exited. An awful lot of the others have failed, which is what you would expect with early-stage VC.

  49. itzman

    A working rule of thumb

    These organisation do not exist to further technological innovation: they exist to fulfil a political need to have the ammunition ready in case someone is accused of 'not doing enough about X Y or Z'.

    Raising the issue of whether the organisation is achieving aims which were never part of its brief, is simply hot air.

    The confusion arises out of the failure to realise the real purpose is not the stated purpose.

    The real purpose is to be seen to be putting funds into technological innovation, not to actually achieve any.

  50. Mr. Peterson
    Paris Hilton

    if it weren't for the nation's treacle-footed...

    just curious: here in The States, 'like molasses in January' is an oft heard phrase - what of 'like treacle in January' in Jolly Olde?

  51. aurizon

    Strangulation by committee

    The British way or should I say the socialist way. The organizations created by the governments are staffed by good old boys, who have achieved the ability to share brain cells, and a single one at that.

    They have no staff people on the cutting edge of the technology as Fentem was. All the staffers knew nothing, their qualifications were achieved by socio-political means. That meant they lacked the ability to see and comprehend ANY SORT of technical matters.

    Fentem did very well indeed - he should have emigrated to the USA where he would have been snapped up by any one of a number of companies.

    However, change in the UK is needed, as it is also needed in Europe who also suffer from this same political strangulation. Politicians can not and never will be able to recognize this and the UK way of control and funding is broke and needs to be replaced. Even now the same old crap is killing british science as the funds are now wasted and diverted too political warm bodies who know and do nothing (that same shared brain cell idea - how smart can they be.

    The USA meddles less in companies and taxes less, so money for projects is easier to make, and people also have a culture of taking investment flyers on NEWCOs, while the British monied classes want to clip coupons.

    How to change this - Guy Fawkes had the right idea, but his execution failed.

    We need the ability to create a government body that can detect good ideas and toss away crooked schemes. Will it happen in the UK? Will this type of loss be repeated ad nauseum? Hard to say, but we need to get rid of all labor politicians and get some sort of technocracy going

  52. Peter Johnston 1

    Unfortunately the Technology Strategy Board makes NESTA look efficient and organised. Appallingly bureaucratic, inconsistent and disorganised.

  53. Christian Berger

    But companies are no way to foster innovation

    Companies have multiple problems when it comes to innovation. If you have ever worked in a real company you know that Dilbert is not an exaggeration. On the other hand, companies tend to delay advances, for example with patents.

    What we need for further progress is a more scalable model for development. Free Software hints some ideas for such a model. Operating system kernels like Linux are a typically beyond the capabilities of a single company. (with few exceptions) Another example is the Internet which has by far outpaced any of its commercial competitors and even the ones run by telephone companies. Few people even remember Compuserve or the X.25 networks which still run today.

    We need to stop thinking of companies as bringers of innovation.

  54. ADJB

    Interesting - I didn't realise that Andrew Orlowski also writes for the Daily Mail under the name Nicholas Booth.

    1. diodesign (Written by Reg staff) Silver badge

      He doesn't. Welcome to Fleet Street.


  55. nerdy but nice

    It's not the state that's the problem...

    The danger of this article is it lends credence to the crude anti-state ideologues, who resort to the old chides about ‘picking winners’ and so on. This is all very well and boring, but isn’t born out by numerous cases where the state has funded highly successful enterprises. South Korea’s LG, and Frances EDF (who now run so much of our own privatised electricity infrastructure) come to mind. But it depends on the culture of the state...

    To indulge in a bit of speculative sociology about all this – maybe the issue is less the role of the state per se, and more the specific historic problems of New Labour as it lost its bearings in embracing the market and its own brand of creative libertarianism. When market reforms were introduced (by the Thatcherites and by New Labour) into the actual interior functioning of the state, they problematised certain ideals of government. What this meant was that a whole set of governmental rationalities, procedural and organisational understandings, and standards of judgement were, if not lost, then skewed.

    As New Labour continued the project of bring the market as a rationality into the workings of the state, they had to fundamantally alter their own anti or counter market values. The euphoric freedom and anxieties of undertaking so radical a revision of their own founding socialist principles, meant they came to believe that they were making the world anew. All the rules were off. The internet boom, the new millennium, Charles Leadbetter et al added to the heady atmosphere.

    Into this wide open new world, the post-1968 left’s version of expressive individualism (Blair the Grateful Dead wannabe etc) came to offer new possibilities to reshape the very subjectivity of government agents through the affective ideals of creativity. Where the free market revolution is the revolution of the individual over the collective, the Conservative version was the revolution of the Instrumental Individual. The New Labour version imbued into this the revolution of the Romantic Individual. Perhaps this is partly a legacy of a left wing belief in wanting people to believe in the cause, to invest their role with subjectivity, rather than simply act on orders. In so doing it seems they opened the state to novel forms of governmental behaviour including informal forms of decision making, a tolerance of personal relationship, and a blurring of the lines between personal gain and public office. All this is what was going on in Andrew Fentem’s story. At the heart of government a fundamental ability to judge what ought to be done was set adrift and it went well beyond this story – it contributed to an acquiesence in the face of the creativity of the financial markets, and to the decision to take the UK to war in Iraq.

    What we call this is a moot point. If we accept the new world of New Labour, that the pieces were in flux, and the new standards of behaviour and judgement were for us to creatively adapt and make anew, we might call this itself governmental innovation, or modernisation, in the interest of a generally more creative, more fluid, society and economy. The very sense of its slippery frisson might seem the guarantee of its efficacy in the new world of globalisation and celebrity. If we hold ourselves to the 'old' ideals and standards, we would call it corruption. I would like to think that beyond these two positions there are a whole range of ways the state might work to do a better job than this. As it is, this is all academic, as the current government is now simply seeking to dismantle the government – and in bitter irony, it is the failures of that marketisation of the state (rather than the state per se) that gives them the proof they need to claim the state is by definition moribund.

    Anyway, you get my point, the article doesn't prove that the state per se is ineffective in supporting major industrial innovation. It’s just a small part in the story of how the lot that happened to be in power at the time were in many ways a bit daft.

  56. Vision Aforethought

    So I wasn't the only one!

    (Got to this article via the Daily Mail.) Approx 10 years ago I applied to NESTA too and this is pretty much what I discovered at the time. 1. I contacted them about something similar, IE, a high tech invention that my company had actually developed (related to online mapping etc), and only now has Google maps even come close. 2. The staff sounded like rail workers/traffic wardens/council jobsworths, not very well educated, and more like the sort of grumpy insecure self hating old fart you would find in a pub at 4pm. 3. I was advised that I only stood a chance (this is not a joke, and the examples in the article above validate this) if I was a black lesbian wanting to open a hair salon. In other words, a minority. (Not sure how the gov would get their money back from that!) Toxic damaging left wing prejudice at it's worst, and like Mr. Fentem, a loss to this nation. I'm taking my technology to the US where there is considerable interest. Mr. Fentem, if you are reading this, track me down via twitter, my ID is 'oflife'. You have my utmost sympathy. Socialism, what's it good for huh?

  57. Kraisee

    Acorn had this tech in 1994

    Wait just a minute! This guy wasn't even close to being first in the UK.

    Nearly a decade earlier than the events in this story, Acorn Computers had already made their "NewsPad" device for the EU -- it had a colour touchscreen, mature OS with a large number of apps and all the features to make at least an iPad-class machine and a smaller phone version would have followed quite quickly.

    But exactly as with this story, we can thank Mr. Blair for typical UK government short-sightedness, when he personally sold-out the UK school computer market which was dominated at the time by Cambridge-based Acorn, to Bill Gates and his Micro$oft empire. I have always wondered who promised who, what, for the PM to sell-out a successful UK company like that.

    1. diodesign (Written by Reg staff) Silver badge

      Re: Acorn had this tech in 1994

      True - but touch has been around for yonks. This is article is about multitouch and the user interface stuff connected to that.


  58. Matt Bradley

    What you need to understand about this article (although it is extremely well researched and well written), is that Andrew is determined to find examples of where the British government's approach to funding technology has failed.

    Clearly this is one such example. However, the question which SCREAMS out of every paragraph of this article is "why did the inventor not go to the private sector in the first place?"

    I guess we'll never know the answer to this question. What we do know is that a state funded technologist arrived at the same technology which was being explored by numerous different bodies at the same time, and that he ultimately failed to commercialise it.

    Was this the fault of a quango? Only part 2 of this article will reveal.

  59. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Who really wrote this story ??

    So, published here on the 13th, "written" by Orlowski. An almost identically-worded story in the Mail Online - - published on the 14th, "written" by Nicholas Booth.

    So where did it originate ?? Neither article references the other, so either someone's guilty of plagiarism, or a 3rd party wrote it and flogged it round.

    1. diodesign (Written by Reg staff) Silver badge

      Re: Who really wrote this story ??

      Ours was published first. Welcome to Fleet Street.


  60. Graham Barker

    Only the tip of the iceberg

    I used to be an external assessor for NESTA and can well believe every word of this report. Nor was this the only project badly handled (to put it mildly) by NESTA senior management, who were slothful, stupid, arrogant or greedy - and often all four.

  61. David Gale

    Plus ça change...

    Plus ça change... but they only got part of it... :)

  62. Sirius Lee

    We get what we deserve. The concept of innovation may be alive and kicking in our universities but not in our investors. Think Dragon's Den and then scale up. In Dragon's Den you have a collection of people, allegedly 'investors' who, so far as I can tell, want to screw the poor sods who turn up. There's no sense of engaging with inventors unless the investor can get be guaranteed unreasonable returns. That's not investing but it does look like the style of 'investing' that occurs in the UK.

    It's not surprising. In a country that needs a 'nesta' there is no support of innovation by investors unless the investors money is guaranteed by the state. In the US there is DARPA. But it supports truly futuristic ideas such as self-driving cars and supports it's projects over the long haul will $billions.

    But it's not a new problem. Think of the computer. Invented here then labelled 'top secret' handing the market to the US. Or the jet engine. Initially met with skepticism eventually it was embraced by...the state in the form of BOAC which rapidly pulled out when Comets started falling like their namesakes. Instead others learned from the BOAC experience and took the market. UK 'investors' were no where near. Then there's the 'rescue' of car industry by Moulton and friends. The failure to commercialize the encryption used by the UK spy agencies which was 're-invented' in the US by three researchers with the initials RSA and given the name 'public key cryptography' which is now the way all web encryption works.

    The list goes on. The bottom line is that UK investors do not. Not unless their return is guaranteed. And that's not investing.

  63. Neil Craig

    I have long campaigned for a well funded X-Prize Foundation run by successful engineers, scientists, accountants and venture capitalists not politicians and civil servants.

    To be fair such an organisation would not have directly funded this project in advance but if they had known that by achieving a target, short of commercial viability, the winning company would have won anything from hundreds of thousands to millions, real venture capitalists would have showered him with immediate offers of financial support.

  64. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Typo's include a missing "a" and a mangled "quantitative". More importantly, NESTA's Hba1c investment was called Quotient Diagnostics and was sold to EKF Diagnostics, not Cholestec/Inverness Medical. Sorry for any confusion.

  65. Hans 1

    NESTA ?

    Here I was thinking NESTA was all about sharing the huge profits of the national lootery among peers and MP's, now I hear they include their mates ? I cannot believe !

    Worse, they give the remaining peanuts to clowns and magicians ? Maybe because they think that these have a very similar job to theirs - lies and a lot of bullshit.

  66. attoman

    Britain and Apple Co-Equals? The Queen vs King Stevie?

    Britain has never invented anything, anymore then the US or even California.

    Inventions are the product of people known as inventors from 1 to 4 people (any more and its just a B.S. which can and does invalidate some patents because you can't list a non-inventor regardless if his name is Jobs on any US patent).

    The inventors can assign their patent rights to any entity including Britain or Apple.

    As far as inventors go some very great inventors originated in Britain.

  67. attoman

    Britain could not have invented the iPhone anymore then Apple did.

    The iPhone is a product using thousands of inventions none of which in any basic way were created by Apple. Apple married these things into an exceedingly delicious dish which is and will remain for 2.6 more years a leading product in its class.

    The iPhone is no more an invention then an appealing update to an operating system is an invention. It does qualify for a styling patent also known as a design patent but nothing more.

    For most of us who found our inventions in the iPhone series it was a delight that the technology had a life after the patent expired.

  68. attoman

    It's all been done before- in fact in 1976

    The general rigid touch screen with speed detection and multi-touch capability was invented in 1976. We invented and developed it and later used the speed detection on the select button based Felix pointer.

    This device series corresponded to the contract description:

    "The contract describes the development of “an innovative touchscreen technology”, specifically a touchscreen that can detect the speed at which one's fingertip moves across the display and can "capture multiple impacts across a surface area" – multitouch, in other words."

    Hearing how difficult it was to reinvent in 2004 is rather sad and suggests that the Fentem and others intensionally avoided looking to see past inventions.

    By the way a pair of prototypes running a Pong Game were shown to the Steve's at the Apple storefront in 1977 along with an early GUI and Jobs said their customers would prefer joysticks, Jobs didn't get the GUI at all.

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