Pera must have inside knowledge of the EC, says Fawcet
FREQUENT visits to Brussels have given Simon Fawcett good insight into what the Eurocrats want in return for their money.
As operations director at Pera Technology, which bids for millions of euros of European Union R&D grants on behalf of SMEs, it is Fawcett's business to make sure he knows which way the wind is blowing among the decision-makers at the European Commission.
It helps him and Pera's clients a great deal if he has an inside track on the kind of business projects the Eurocrats like to support and what they expect for their grants.
And the answer is: they want economic growth – and positive publicity. "They have told me that they want projects you can talk to your grandmother about and that your grandmother will understand," says Fawcett, an amiable and chatty Northern Irishman who joined Pera in Melton Mowbray over 15 years ago. "They want case studies; they want impact; they want to see a return; they want output that gives them column inches. They want Daily Mail readers and articles in the FT that say how great the EC is."
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So now we know.
But what about Pera? Fawcett admits that, despite the company's prominent location on Nottingham Road in Melton, many people in the region do not know what the company does. Fawcett's part of the operation, Pera Technology, is essentially a scientific and technology R&D operation which helps businesses develop product ideas and make them fit for the market.
The R&D is largely funded by European Union grants – the current EU programme for this is Framework FP7 – which Pera bids for on behalf of the businesses.
This necessarily makes Pera experts in the lengthy and complex business of EU grant-bidding, which the businesses pay Pera for via a "subsidy". Such work also explains why Fawcett repeatedly flies to Brussels. "These bids can be 80 or 90 pages long and have to make a fully fleshed-out business case," says Fawcett.
"Of course anyone can make a submission to the EC, and people might say, 'so what's so special about you?'
"Well, anyone can look at a house and learn how to do the conveyancing. But most of us prefer to go to estate agents which have the expertise because they do it in day in, day out. That's the analogy I use. And I would say that Pera is the best in Europe at what we do because we are experts at it."
Pera, however, isn't exactly the Pera it used to be. Those with long memories will know that Pera started life in Melton as the Production Engineering Research Association, helping to win the peace by supporting industrial research in the post-war years. The organisation was owned by large manufacturing organisations, which provided its membership.
This quaintly antiquated system survived until this summer when an employee management buyout remoulded Pera as a normal independent private company. With the new direction came an ambition to grow and seek out commercial opportunities.
Unlike the old Pera, the new Pera is not hamstrung by limitations on investment, says Fawcett. The new Pera can borrow money to fuel expansion while the new ownership system also makes employees stakeholders in the company's success. "They were after the John Lewis business model and indeed our MD went and spoke to John Lewis about how they did it," says Fawcett.
Pera is also not just interested in forming partnerships with promising SMEs; the company is now seeking development relationships with blue chips. Fawcett won't name names but jokily refers to a certain company that makes big engines and another business which makes "rather nice chocolate bars" as possible project partners. And then there's the MoD, which needs body armour…
In the meantime, Fawcett is keeping an eye on the latest batch of SME projects to go before the European Commission. Last week he helped oversee the submission of grant bids worth a quarter of a billion euros on behalf of 120 business projects which included instant water heaters, nurse exoskeletons, plastics recycling and lots of "smart material" concepts.
Pera may take a stake in further developing these via involvement in trans-European consortia. A typical technology Pera has been involved with is a small Norwegian wave energy project that has received 1.5m euros. "You could set these up in the Trent and generate electricity," says Fawcett, whose home in the Lady Bay area of Nottingham is close to the river.
Green energy projects like this have become increasingly common in Pera's bids to Brussels.
"For the last two years there's been a lot of cleantech and smart technology and materials projects – materials such as a film you can put on your windows to generate power," he adds. "There's been a move away from big blue sky 'splitting the atom' research projects." Fawcett, an engineer by training, had experience of working with both renewable and non-renewable energy at GEC in Leicestershire before he joined Pera in 1995. Projects at GEC included building wind turbines and Rolls Royce's submarine nuclear reactor facility at Raynesway in Derby.
"At the time there were all these signs saying 'Derby – a Nuclear Free City'," he says.
"Yet right in the city was a factory making nuclear engines for subs."