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Why the Catapult Network is a trailblazer for a new energy future

Catapult Network

9 min read Partner content

Philip New left the position of CEO for the Energy Systems Catapult recently. Here he looks back on it becoming a critical part in the UK’s energy jigsaw – and what the future may hold.

As one of BP’s earliest champions of alternative energy, Philip New spent decades pioneering new ways of powering human endeavour – in an often sceptical environment.

Then in 2015, with 30 years of experience in the energy industry behind him, Philip took on the challenge of launching the Energy Systems Catapult as its CEO.

Today that Catapult, as part of the thriving Catapult Network, has grown to become an integral part of the UK’s drive towards powering the energy transition through “whole system”, cross-industry collaboration, supporting some great innovators and lighting the path for exciting new developments and innovations.

Now as he leaves the Energy Systems Catapult Philip looks back on his time there, what it has achieved and what the future holds in a time when ‘fuel poverty’ is a rising concern and how the Catapult Network can help deliver a cleaner, powerful future for all.

Hi Philip. Tell us a little about your career and why you chose to join the Catapults

I’ve been in the energy business pretty much all of my working life and spent over 30 years at BP, latterly running their global renewable and alternative energy portfolio.

I have to give credit to BP, because at a time when oil and gas reigned supreme they had the foresight to see the future value in alternative energies and how innovation could harness it. But what I enjoyed most was working in the space where technology and innovation, markets, policy and commercial reality all met – that’s where really exciting things happen!

In fact that space is really the essence of a ‘whole systems’ approach – and also the backbone of the Energy Systems Catapult. When I heard about the Catapults, the concept stood out and I saw it as a great opportunity to continue working in that space while also helping the UK with some incredibly important emerging issues.

What were your main priorities for the Energy Systems Catapult in its early days?

There are nine Catapults in the Catapult Network, and many operate things like manufacturing facilities, machinery or testing rigs. However, as a ‘systems’ Catapult what we needed was people! The right diverse mix of people and skills to show how and why a systems approach could bring real positive change to the energy industry at a critical time of transition.

This meant we could begin creating links between countless different parts of the sector, across industries, providers, policy makers and, of course, innovators.

Today we are one of the very few places in the energy sector where you’ll find energy economists and regulatory experts working alongside social scientists, project managers, electrical engineers, systems engineers, systems architects, data scientists, policy experts and economic modellers.

Today this ‘whole systems’ thinking is a pretty well understood approach, but in 2015 there weren’t many voices calling for it.

Was getting the Catapult up and running a challenge?

Well it didn’t feel that difficult at the time, because as a Catapult, unlike an ordinary start-up, we had the support of Innovate UK, with a core grant and some important guiderails. We had the help of the other Catapults in the Catapult Network too, even down to help setting up IT systems – an approach we tried to emulate in helping the most recent Catapults.

We also inherited skilled people and a major home heating decarbonisation project from the Energy Technologies Institute, which kick-started a great deal of work for us.

But perhaps just as importantly we came into being at the right time. We were championing whole-systems thinking just as industry began to see that transition away from the dependence on fossil fuels was becoming an urgent reality and things simply had to change in that direction.

How has the Energy sector changed since the Catapult was first established?

It has changed massively. Back then companies and industries were still operating in the silos that had evolved over the past century, successfully delivering the reliable, cheap but high carbon energy that had underpinned economic growth and that we all took for granted.

Simply put, oil was for getting petrol into our cars, gas was for running our boilers and electricity kept the lights on. They didn’t touch each other or work together. Market rules were different, Institutions were different.

But with the profound changes to how we make and use energy – in particular the increasing role of electricity in transport and heating - came a growing need to think about how all these things interact.

That’s why the systems approach is so important – it’s the essence of the transition. We knew that through working together we could start to address the emerging and future issues of supply, demand and usage – and the transition from fossil fuels - in new ways. We needed to embrace the potential of digitalisation, think about the role of the end user very differently and deepen the engagement of communities, local authorities and a wide ecosystem of stakeholders.

In the same way, industry actors had built a strong continuous improvement track record, with impressive results, but the sector is highly regulated - experimentation and demonstration capability, scale up pathways , innovation runways and the capacity to deliver disruptive innovation were very undeveloped compared with other sectors.

In short, there was a real problem in terms of innovation across the sector. It was our job to change this.

How did the Energy Systems Catapult start to drive change?

Thanks to our people, their skills and our commitment to systems thinking we quickly found ourselves able to collaborate with some of the most respected thinkers in the sector to craft pathways to the future.

As a Catapult we are in the unique position of working across the public and private sectors, with the ability to provide expert support and guidance at every level – from industries to individuals.

So the content we started to develop and our support for innovation in a sector which desperately needed it was quickly recognised as having real value – whether through helping shape the debate, developing and curating demonstration and scale up programmes or supporting the brilliant innovators that we see across the energy space.

What are you most proud of?

As a systems Catapult, we depend utterly on the skills and diversity of our people, so I am enormously proud of the way the Energy Systems Catapult grew to do this, rapidly and intelligently. We now have more than 300 experts working for us with tremendous potential to deliver more for this dynamic and critical sector.

Getting real data is vital for supporting innovation, and the ‘Living Lab’ which involves over 1,000 homes across the country is the perfect way for innovators to test out a new system or piece of technology in the real world, in real homes, at scale.

Our Local Area Energy Planning project is helping local authorities effectively plan and map their way towards net zero, while our Energy Data Taskforce has changed the way the energy sector understands and uses data, driving efficiencies and smoothing the path towards net zero.

At any one time the Energy Systems Catapult is working on hundreds of projects and innovations, each of which has potential to drive more positive change into the sector.

You are leaving the Energy Systems Catapult – so looking forward how do you see the Catapults contributing in future?

It’s great to see how the whole Catapult concept has become much more understood and accepted over just the last few years.

But the truth is that the scale, urgency, and nature of the challenges they were created to address has become ever more acute. Whether that’s climate change, the cost of living, regional inequalities or a changing international energy market, the world has become a more difficult place and there is no room for complacency. Diverse capabilities must be harnessed to get traction on these complex challenges. The Catapult Network brings together an impressive range of expertise and connections across the economy. It would be a tragic waste if this potential were not harnessed.

So looking ahead I see a greater need for the Catapult Network than ever. The Catapults’ capability to make a difference is strong – the challenge is how to unleash their potential.

How will Catapults support society in the years ahead?  

We have developed a genuinely fantastic foundation to work from but the operating and business models must evolve. Government in particular has to understand the growing role that the Catapults can play and make sure that support is in place so they can be leveraged to the full.

My biggest fear is that Catapults have to operate as if with one arm tied behind their back.

Their unique position and design means they should get the best of both the public and the private worlds. But unless this is properly understood they may get neither. They represent a different way of thinking but it’s a model that can really work, so I hope the Catapult Network continues to evolve the business model, with greater diversity of revenue as well as a stronger capacity to play into the public/private space so this tremendous national asset and resource can continue to flourish.

The ambition of the strategic goals the UK has signed up to – such as levelling up and net zero - are fantastic energisers. They help focus minds but there is still so much work to do to put in place investable and implementable plans to deliver those goals.

The Catapults can help.

Philip New held the post of CEO of the Energy Systems Catapult from 2015 to May 2022, now replaced by Guy Newey, previous Strategy Director at the Catapult.

About the Catapult Network

The Catapult Network is made up of nine world-leading technology and innovation centres established by Innovate UK. It supports businesses in transforming great ideas into valuable products and services, delivering impact across the UK economy and enabling businesses to thrive in global markets. Since inception, the Catapults have collectively played a lead role in delivering over 15,000 industry collaborations, over 4000 academic collaborations and supported over 9,000 innovative SMEs across a wide range of sectors and extended international partnership projects.

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