back to article Andrew Fentem: Why I went to an arts quango to fund pre-iPhone multitouch

In the late '90s British inventor Andrew Fentem pioneered multitouch techniques, years before Apple brought them to market in the iPhone and later the iPad. He won backing for his technology from Britain's new innovation quango: but its incompetence meant that Apple ultimately looked elsewhere. We told the story of how the UK …

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NESTA vipers

Some of the points made in this article ring true with my experiences of NESTA around 2002-2004. At the time I was working on a Linux music software product and we had touted it around various Linux expos, as well as government and EU organisations trying to get some small funding and backing for our innovative and open platform ideas. In the end we released it as a product of our own back to some moderate success however the whole process - especially encouraging innovation in open technologies - I would have considered to be exactly the kind of thing that NESTA were set up to help more with.

As it was we met a lot of well-intentioned people but it really served only as a forum for some interesting ideas and lacked any feel other than that people were really rooting for you, good luck etc. All very British in some respects. However in my experience any state money ring fenced for innovation is incredibly hard for true innovators to get their hands on as usually they are just _too_ innovative. Innovation is wanted, but not too much of it.

One thing it NESTA failed to do was provide any structured approach to finding funding (either public or non). At a recent european conference I attended the EU were not only keen to tell you how much money was available but also to encourage and help you at least attempt to gain access to this funding. When NESTA was dequangod a few years ago I wasn't particularly sorry to see it go.

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Roo
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"There are simply too many politicians and economists in the UK promoting stories and myths based on second, third or even fourth hand experience of the world, because they only ever talk to other members of this "elite"."

If I could upvote that quote to infinity and beyond I would. :)

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Amen

So much of what he says hits the nail right on the head.

The reason Britain is in such a sorry mess is because people like this are designing touch screens while the country is run by PPE graduates (with whatever coloured rosette on) who've never had a proper job.

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So, Why did he go to an arts quango to fund his pre-iPhone multitouch?

The question in the headline isn't really answered. He seems to acknowledge that he should have gone to a VC, but didn't. That was his mistake.

I knew people who were looking for VC funding around that time, and it was not easy - but it was possible if you had a good pitch; I know of two or three companies who are doing well having started around that time. I can't imagine any of those people seriously considered going to an "arts quango" for money (though some may have got cash from regional development agencies).

The story reads like: "smart engineer who is naive about business makes bad choice and realises too late".

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Anonymous Coward

Re: So, Why did he go to an arts quango to fund his pre-iPhone multitouch?

I imagine because at the time NESTA's brief also included science and technology. It was only later that it became apparent that it was only doing the arts bit. In his words:

"The essential problem was that "N.E.S.T.A." appreciated the A (Arts), but not the S (Science) or T (Technology)"

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Re: So, Why did he go to an arts quango to fund his pre-iPhone multitouch?

The story reads like: "smart engineer who is naive about business makes bad choice and realises too late".

I don't think it reads like that - I think it was that. The pragmatic thing to do would have been to cut and run as soon as it was obvious there was no science, technology or business experience on offer.

In a sense the whole story is British - not just the quangocracy, but the 'Oh dear that didn't work then' rest of it too.

The underlying problem isn't that the UK doesn't have talent, or that talent can't be nurtured by governments. Both of those are demonstrably untrue.

The problem is that the UK has a peculiarly toxic business culture which was and is designed to promote and encourage bullshit and wealth extraction scams, not technological innovation. Politics and quangocracy are a symptom of that, not a cause.

Other countries in the EU are much less biased against practical, hands-on innovation and engineering.

But in the UK innovation means working out ways to big yourself up (the arts, media and politics) or exploit and rip off others (finance, business, and also politics.)

The culture is inherently hostile to clever people who want to make tangible things. Engineers in the UK need to know this before they waste time trying to get local support.

I suppose things might be better now, with Kickstarter and more of a VC culture. But getting VC'd can still mean lunching with vampires, and there's no guarantee Fentem would have been better off around Silicon Roundabout.

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Re: So, Why did he go to an arts quango to fund his pre-iPhone multitouch?

Ah, but it wasn't officially an arts quango - hence the S and T in the acronym. The mistake (with 20/20 hindsight) was not to realise sooner that they had no capability or interest in understanding the technology and were effectively useless.

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Re: So, Why did he go to an arts quango to fund his pre-iPhone multitouch?

I guess if its called the National Endowment for SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY and the Arts, he might well have believed that it wasn't just an arts quango.

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Re: So, Why did he go to an arts quango to fund his pre-iPhone multitouch?

The issue is that Nesta and similar schemes like the TSB are presented as means by which the government supports innovation, particularly in technology. Unlike VC money, they do not require the innovator to hand over some part of their ownership. From that description, they sound ideal, and I've been sucked into various projects that got involved with them for exactly those reasons.

The reality is that they are run by people who are quite distant from what we'd recognise as technological innovation. Despite the headline title, they're run by people who have not experienced the cut and thrust of modern engineering - i.e. civil servants and arts graduates. This is not obvious from the glossy brochures and the 'pitch' you get from officers involved in the schemes, and it's that disconnect that the article highlights.

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Re: So, Why did he go to an arts quango to fund his pre-iPhone multitouch?

I think thats a bit unfair. He obviously approached Nesta in good faith and only realised it was Arts focused when it was too late.....

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Re: So, Why did he go to an arts quango to fund his pre-iPhone multitouch?

"Why did he go to an arts quango"?

He went to NESTA: "National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts".

By the title (and probably the spiel put out by the govt at the time) it should have been a suitable place to go for support and money.

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Re: So, Why did he go to an arts quango to fund his pre-iPhone multitouch?

The article does point out that the S and T in NESTA stood for Science and Technology. It wasn't supposed to be an arts quango.

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Re: So, Why did he go to an arts quango to fund his pre-iPhone multitouch?

To the 6 people who've replied to say what the S and T in NESTA stand for: no, I hadn't overlooked that. If you're looking at something as important as the source of funding for your business idea, you really do need to look beyond just the NAME of something. NESTA had no staff with any experience of funding tech startups. How was that ever going to end well?

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"Think outside the box"

This is like the Dilbert cartoon where the PHB says "get back in your box, you're a health & safety issue blocking the hallway"

Anyway, he says he was invited to speak at a Nesta conference... did he go? And if he did, did he ream them mercilessly in his speech? I would have.

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Sounds familiar...

"DCMS, the National Audit Office, and the Parliamentary Ombudsman all declined to get involved."

In battling another failure of a QUANGO, no-one has the mettle to tackle Ofcom, bring them to heal, and actually force them to do their job correctly. I thought President Cameron said we the people were in charge?! If that is the case, who does Ofcom, OfGem, OfWat, and all the other useless "Office of ..." answer to?

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Anonymous Coward

Buy to let alternative

I am currently considering a Buy To Let.

I could leave my capital in a savings account and get almost no return,

Or I could buy a house and rent it out at one third of the income of a couple each earning the living wage. Then I'd get maybe a 3% return.

What else could I do with a few tens of thousands?

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Buy to let alternative

You could invest in a share index ETF, which itself is invested in all of the FTSE100, FTSE250 or S&P500, for example. Having a pot invested in 100 or more shares at once makes it rather safer than having only a couple. In recent years the return would be 10% ish.

You could do peer-to-peer lending as well (eg Zopa) and get returns of 6% ish.

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Re: Buy to let alternative

> What else could I do with a few tens of thousands?

Buy ARM shares.

Or more reasonably, buy shares in a portfolio of tech companies that you think have a bright future.

Or if you want to support startups that are not yet publicly traded, see if you can find a VC to invest in.

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Paris Hilton

Okay, understand the desire to have the product UK based, but now?

What about Germany, France, Italy or wider still Russia?

Are these safer resting places for UK ideas and income?

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Hmm, didn't someone say something about only investing what you are prepared to lose?

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Windows

Innovation burseries.

"Fentem: I think that if the government really is keen to grow the economy it should be trying much harder to get money into the hands of young people - people with energy and ideas. Lack of jobs, inappropriate schemes, meagre benefits, inadequate housing supply and exploitative landlords mean that the young have little scope to express themselves creatively."

Yes.

How much? Rent + £10K or something and you get to keep any income. Renewable on a yearly basis but with a maximum of 3(?) years. Two sides of A4 as the form. Give them space in cheap buildings just outside cities with huge connectivity and cheap servers and a coffee bar, create critical mass / 'invisible college'. Mentors (not 'quango lags' but actual people who have done something).

Yes, 99% will get written off but the 1% might just generate a return. The whole thing would cost less than a fighter jet. And would give hope and experience. And create networks.

Excellent idea. It should be done. How do we tell them?

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First to file vs first to invent patents

At the time he was doing this and Fingerworks was doing their thing, the US was under a "first to invent" patent system, the only one left in the world, so whatever he invented that was later covered by one of Apple's Fingerworks patents would make the overlapping claims in Fingerworks' patents invalid.

This past March, the US changed to a "first to file" system so it was in sync with the rest of the world. Had that been in place back then, Samsung would not have been able to use Fentem to defend against Apple's claims, since Apple (via Fingerworks) was first to file since Fentem never did.

Basically Samsung can use him to defend against Apple only in the US. In the rest of the world he doesn't help their case at all.

So someone explain to me why "first to file" is such a great idea that the US had to switch to it, instead of the rest of the world switching to "first to invent"? Granted, you need more documentation to prove you really did invent first, but in cases like this one where that is available, the fact he didn't/couldn't file shouldn't allow someone else to patent his invention as their own, even if (as was true for Fingerworks/Apple) they had no idea what he had done and invented it independently a couple years later.

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Re: First to file vs first to invent patents

"So someone explain to me why "first to file" is such a great idea that the US had to switch to it, instead of the rest of the world switching to "first to invent"?"

It reduces the investigative burden and legal exposure of the patent office.

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The UK's main business now is banks

> the priority of this government is to support irresponsible banks and borrowers

It will also be the priority of any future government, because the UK economy now is based on banking. The UK is now a country of and for banks. You will never be able to make sense of UK policies until you realize this simple truth.

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