Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 80 - 91)



  80. Can you give us a concrete example? Mr Temperley talked about this in glowing terms and you said you were going to bring it in. Can you give us some comfort that there are some really solid meaty contracts which are going to transform your earning capacity?
  (Professor Wilson) Well, I think Mr Temperley referred to the interest that we had through the Regional Development Agencies and the establishment of Enterprise Parks. We have had examples already within HRI of multi-nationals setting up a research capacity on a site. Currently we are negotiating with two individuals who are coming out of a multi-national which has recently been created by merger. They have some intellectual property that they are looking to develop which is very relevant to the work that we do in HRI in terms of genomics and gene flow, variation of the environment and interactions between pests and crops. We are actively negotiating with companies from the States, for example, who are developing radical new crop protection technologies and are looking for a European base, a platform. Coincidentally it turns out that we have scientists in HRI who have been participating in the underpinning research for that sort of work, therefore we are extremely attractive as a base to this company. I am confident that given the right calibre of Head of Business Development, given the new enthusiasm in my senior scientific group, and given my own activities in this area, we will be able to build new businesses which will add value, add diversity, add niche markets to sectors of the horticulture industry, and will have radical new technologies.

  81. My final question on this. Are these two people, particularly the Head of Business Services, going to be on any performance related bonus?
  (Professor Wilson) Yes.

  82. Their head is on the block if they do not achieve the numbers?
  (Professor Wilson) Absolutely. We have a saying in HRI, it is called the Messiah syndrome.

Mr Drew

  83. If I could link in directly with Michael Jack's questions because I am interested in the business recovery. Now, this was obviously key when last time we talked to you. How is this going? How are you actually looking to get new business in? You talked a lot about your cost savings, I want to know where the revenue stream is?
  (Professor Wilson) We are preserving those parts of the existing business units which are profitable, now that we have got really into them and looked at what is profitable and what is not profitable. The new business is coming in through competitive bids; of course there are traditional sponsors like BBSRC and the Department for International Development and so forth. We have been increasingly successful in that. We are participating in a huge number of European networks now. We have submitted EU bids, I understand, of the order of £17 million involving HRI. We will not be successful in all of those, but our standard hit rate at the moment seems to be about 30 per cent. The other activities we are getting engaged in: we have consultants now working for us who are again connected to these high value agri-business-type operations and who are making introductions on behalf of HRI to companies who can introduce radical new technologies which would benefit the UK horticultural industry.

  84. When will the corporate plan for 2000-2005 actually be presented to Government?
  (Professor Wilson) It has to be presented before the end of March.

  85. Is that dependent on these other changes?
  (Professor Wilson) It will reflect the changes up to this point. I would imagine that, on the timescale we are looking at, I would be surprised if we had a Head of Business Development in place by then. As far as we can prepare the ground and get our lines in order then the plan will reflect all of that, and anticipated business.

  86. Presumably this is one of the roles of the new Business Development person?
  (Professor Wilson) Yes. We do not want to pre-empt or prejudge what that person will bring to the organisation.

  87. You have not said much about the HortiTech business units which obviously is one of the reasons you got into such difficulty. Where is the recovery plan for that? Is it in place now?
  (Professor Wilson) We have rationalised these, if that is the polite word for it. We are putting our Business Units effectively under our three overarching themes which are broadly speaking: crop protection; crop breeding and plant development; environmental/plant physiology and so forth. At the moment, we have very able young scientists who are acting as conduits, if you like, between commercial opportunities across the range of potential customers and the scientists under those themes within the research teams. We have stepped back to realise that our future does lie in added value, in commercialising, in the most appropriate and profitable way, the various R&D programmes that we do. The only Business Unit now—apart from those three connected to the themes—that seems to be doing reasonably well, ie it is making a small profit, is our Seeds Unit which at the moment we are continuing with. It has quite a lot of customers. Again, it will be up to the Head of Business Development, I guess, to take a view on that.

Mr Todd

  88. From your answers, frankly, you would be better off in the private sector, would you not?
  (Professor Wilson) At the moment, and I think I said this last time, we would not be better off in the private sector because we are still in transition. I think, what is the word you used—
  (Mr Siddall) We are half way. This is what I said to you last time. I think that would probably be the long-term outcome. It is not essential for us to become viable.

  89. How long is long?
  (Mr Siddall) I think it is going to take us about three years to demonstrate the success of this strategy, what we call the mixed economy strategy. In that time period it would be interesting to see just what happens to public sector funding of R&D. If it goes up then that changes things; if it continues to decline, then I think it is a one-way street.

  90. It is going to be another of these surprise New Labour private sector initiatives perhaps?
  (Mr Siddall) To a degree our problem is to manage within the framework which we find ourselves.

  Mr Todd: Fine.


  91. Gentlemen, thank you very much. If it is any consolation to you or spiritual help the Salvation Army has got a carol concert at one o'clock in Westminster Hall.
  (Mr Siddall) Thank you.

  Chairman: I wonder whether that might be the last resort. Thank you very much for coming. It has been most interesting. We will no doubt want to watch your progress. Thank you for coming today.

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