David Puttnam, Nesta’s founding chairman, felt that the UK had failed during the 20th century to capitalise properly on its talent for innovation and had traditionally been poor at turning inventions into marketable applications.
He convinced the Labour government of 1997 that an endowment could make a difference. A continuing source of income would enable it to take risks and back innovations over the long term without being subject to short-term government funding cycles and shifts in political fashion.
The National Lottery Act was passed the following year and NESTA (as we were first known) was born. Standing for the National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts, it was a public body designed to promote creativity, talent and innovation across a wide spectrum of areas and interests.
NESTA focused on three big strands of work during its first five years under Chief Executive, Jeremy Newton. These were:
Invention and Innovation
This sought to help talented people turn original ideas into products or services that had commercial, cultural and social potential.
These programmes gave grants, resources and support to talented people to help them develop their ideas. Many of these innovators went on to create amazing things thanks to NESTA’s backing:
- Emily Cummins, inventor of the ‘solar-powered fridge’, a sustainable means of keeping food cool for the developing world.
- Kevin Fong, a doctor and science communicator who presented the BBC’s programme To Boldly Go.
- Mark Champkins, successful Dragon’s Den participant and the Science Museum’s first ‘Inventor in Residence’.
- Hugh Welchman, producer of the Oscar-winning animated film Peter and the Wolf.
- Award-winning artist Jonny Briggs.
- Jane Ni Dhulchaointigh, inventor of sugru, one of Time Magazine’s Top 50 Inventions of 2010.
The third strand supported inventive ideas in teaching and learning, aiming to foster creative ability and understanding of science, technology and the arts.
Sir Chris Powell was appointed as Chair at the end of 2003 and remained until 2009 when Sir John Chisholm took over the Chairmanship, and Jonathan Kestenbaum joined as Chief Executive in October 2005. With these changes came a review of NESTA’s work, leading to a change from backing individuals to improving the innovative capacity and the innovation systems of the UK.
NESTA activities were split between innovation and investment. NESTA Investments, an early-stage venture capital fund was formed. It focused on high-technology investments, operating on strictly commercial grounds, and brought new flows of capital into the sector at a time when early-stage venture capital was scarce.
At the same time, NESTA created its Innovation Programmes; a series of experimental projects that, by working with partners, aimed to develop practical insights into making innovation flourish in different contexts.
One example is The Big Green Challenge programme, which was one of the first projects worldwide to apply the method of a prize competition to tackling a social issue. The finalists created projects that reduced CO2 emissions in their communities by between 10–46%.
NESTA also became a major source of original research and influential policy work in the field of innovation. It created the Innovation Index, a new measure of national innovation performance that captures more than just scientific R&D. Another landmark was the report The Vital 6 Per Cent, demonstrating that the 6 per cent of UK businesses with the highest growth rates generated half of the new jobs created by existing businesses. This had huge implications and has been quoted by the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and many major newspapers.
A government review in 2010 concluded that, while NESTA provided a valuable role, it did not need to be a public body and that its activities were better suited to the voluntary sector. This led to NESTA becoming an independent charity in 2012, along with a name change to Nesta.
This period also brought a new change in leadership with Geoff Mulgan becoming Chief Executive.
Nesta is now entering its most exciting time yet. We’re expanding our scope to become a hub for innovators the world over. As well as increasing the research we do into how innovation works, we’re also developing practical tools and skills to share with everyone who wants to make change happen, but doesn’t know how to start. We’re investing in a range of exciting start-ups that can make a real difference in the world, and we’re testing out new ideas to help the arts, the health system, the education system and all our public services thrive in the future.
Despite the many changes we have undergone, we’re still a young organisation and we’re in the lucky position of getting more freedom when many organisations face big constraints.
We want to use that freedom to promote fearless creativity in the service of the common good, grow a stronger society and find better answers to our biggest challenges.