Meet the team: John Loughhead

16 Mar 2021 | Admin

We are very pleased to announce that Professor John Loughhead, until recently Chief Scientific Adviser to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), has agreed to become the Independent Member of the Investment Committee of the Low Carbon Innovation Fund 2 (LCIF2).

What has been the most significant technological development of recent years?

There are two that stand out for me. Firstly, remarkable advances in mobile data communications that have greatly enhanced technical functionality and allowed the creation of new business models. These have been transformative in both the advanced and developing economies. And, secondly, the emerging field of engineering biology which holds out the prospect of revolutionising medicine and global health as well as offering wholly new industrial processes.

What has been the most influential legislative change you have seen?

Without doubt the adoption of a net zero greenhouse gas emissions target for the UK, which is now being followed by other major countries. Achieving it will require a transformation of national economies, and probably international trading practices, at unprecedented speed and scale. It will impact businesses dramatically and be the major driver for future innovations.

How has the perception of energy, environment and efficiency evolved in your view in recent years? What do you envisage for the future of the sector?

There has been a marked increase in particularly public awareness of the importance of environmental issues in our lives. Globally the impact of carbon emissions on the climate is emerging as a major political issue for younger generations, ensuring biodiversity has become a news item. At a local level, awareness of air and water pollution from incumbent industries and transport systems is rising across the world. Rather than being the concern of a few environmental campaigners, these have become important issues for the finance and investment communities in judging the sustainability and viability of businesses. Delivering better systems and services in response will become business as usual in the coming years.

From an investment point of view, what do you see as the key challenges for emerging technologies attracting finance? How do you see those being overcome in the coming decades?

In the energy field the biggest challenge is that, notwithstanding the urgency, the pace of change is slow. Because we already have readily-available energy delivered via an expensive, long-life infrastructure, new technologies find it challenging to compete on cost or to deliver new functionality for the end user. Financial returns and exits can therefore be uncertain. While there is a growing demand for environmentally sustainable opportunities from larger investors, it is still essential to have an encouraging regulatory framework as well as financial support for innovation (in the form of grants or development contracts from the public sector) to help overcome the hurdles. More overt carbon pricing policies are now being floated by Government which would be a significant step.

What are the key ingredients to delivering innovation?

As well as the regulatory framework and financial incentives already mentioned, we need a vigorous science base, skilled human capital, a financial system ready to invest in entrepreneurial companies at the right level over the right timeframe and the crucial intangible of fostering creativity in individuals to devise ingenious ways of meeting needs. As Apple showed with the iPhone, the creative use of what we already have can produce an astonishing system.

Describe your career journey in 100 words

Leaving academic research, I spent most of my career in industry developing new technologies for energy systems initially as an engineer then as Managing Director of a contract R&D business. After 12 years in Paris as Vice President at Alstom running R&D, technology and IP, I returned to the UK in 2004 as Executive Director of the newly-created UK Energy Research Centre which provided much of the analysis underpinning UK sustainable energy policies. The last six years have been spent in Government as Chief Scientific Adviser for the Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC) and then the Department for Business Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

What’s been your biggest professional challenge?

Tempering the enthusiasm and tight focus of technical experts (and policymakers) with an understanding of commercial, financial and marketing realities.

What is your proudest professional moment?

Most recently in persuading the energy ministers of 24 countries to come together and launch a new phase of the Mission Innovation clean energy development initiative – a major international partnership spending billions annually on innovation.

Who would you like to have dinner with – and why?

Bill Gates. He has lots of ideas about clean energy innovation and commercialisation, not all of which I agree with, so I’d like the chance to argue with him!

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