Richard Noble's Bloodhound Project diary

Apologies - my update is late yet again, but I need to explain what is going on!

Bloodhound was planned up as a flat company – that means that everyone is empowered and has responsibilities and the appropriate authorities to get on with their job without the need for constant checking and supervision. Some executives think this is a recipe for disaster because there would appear to be no central and authoritative control. In fact, once everyone has got used to it, the project moves very fast on a very wide front. As all this develops and because we are unable to increase the headcount, the workload per head becomes massive. It's working well and I am having trouble keeping up and trying to avoid slowing it up! That's my excuse!

Of course everyone outside the team expects Bloodhound to fail – apart from help with the initial research budget, there has been no safe Government money into the engineering side which is totally dependent on financial sponsorship and trading. How on earth can the project survive the credit crunch and then the start of inflation which we are beginning to feel as the Quantitive Easing and the oil price hike kicks in? There is only one answer to this and that it that Bloodhound has to be exceptional to survive. It has to be well engineered and it has to deliver on its education performance and publicity objectives. It has to stand on its professionalism and its creativity. And because there is absolutely no template for what we are trying to achieve, we have to be very smart and very quick in determining trends and the ways forward. For instance there is no way we can write a long term education plan: there is absolutely no precedent for what we are tackling and we have to learn fast as we progress.

The finances are incredibly demanding – our costs run at just under £100,000 every month for the engineering operation: we are late with the full-scale rocket burn and the aero team is just working its way through the aero difficulties at the back end of the car. The rocket programme has developed steadily and with ever improving results – but there are difficulties – the huge rocket installation at Mojave needed to support the test firing of the 27,000 lbs thrust booster has taken longer to develop and as I write this, Daniel Jubb and the team are getting ready for the cold firing of the test unit, which will be closely followed by the firing of the hot unit. One problem - rocket motors are notorious for non scalability. Does this mean that all the hard won lessons learned from all the firings of the 6 inch unit will read across to the 18 inch unit? We are going to find out very shortly.

With everyone talking about recession and the banks' negative attitude to small companies, we knew we were going to have cashflow difficulties in May when we had to bridge between sponsor payments. Before 2008, this was never going to be difficult, but in turbulent 2009? The answer was quick – the bank declined even though we have very solid contracts. It seems that the banks have very old fashioned views on sponsorship funding; it is seen as second rate money and carries higher risk. So they won't help. However, Hilton Financial Solutions in Southampton lived up to their name and Bibby Finance came up with the bridge finance so we could keep up the pace. Hilton have a fine can-do attitude and in my limited experience this is rare among the financial people.

Of course the next opportunity (never any problems – only opportunities!) is choice of build site. The situation is highly complex: basically the project needs at least a 20,000ft smart building for the engineering and at least another 15,000 sq ft for the Education and visitor centre. The project is beginning to develop a very solid following and we anticipate around 30,000 visitors per annum coming to see Bloodhound under construction. Somehow we have to get this building sourced and sponsored in return for the huge local and international interest that is being generated.

The project is based at Bristol and many of the design team live locally – but Bristol is a huge financially successful service based city. Would it value Bloodhound - an engineering project? Would it rise to the challenge? We gave presentation after presentation, and Jack Allen at the City Council has been working incredibly hard at it, together with James Burch at UWE producing drawing after drawing – but there seemed to be little response further up the chain of command. We have been pushing them for six months now. About two months ago, I was asked to give a presentation to the Coventry Ambassadors who are very concerned about the future of the City with the demise of the car industry. The presentation had unexpected results – they want Bloodhound built in Coventry! 375,000 people a year visit the Coventry Transport Museum under Gary Hall's leadership and it is thought that 50% come to see ThrustSSC and Thrust 2. Then we were contacted by the Farnborough International people who run the Farnborough Air show – are we going to build Bloodhound in Farnborough? If so, they would like to incorporate it as a major feature in the 2010 Farnborough Show - they have plenty of space and are prepared to meet our exact building requirements; at long last the aerospace community is beginning to respond to the project. And then suddenly there was Belfast – the sector of the country with the highest levels of GCE results – Belfast would be seriously interested, Northern Ireland is stable now and they have the finance, the industrial infrastructure and the motivation. There was only one way forward for all this – to invite best bids by July 15th. We have to get on and get Bloodhound built!

Dave Rowley, Dawn Fitt, Kate Bellingham and Ian Galloway are achieving wonders with the educational team. The numbers of schools applying to use Bloodhound in the classrooms is rising fast – very much in line with the team's predictions, which I had thought to be dangerously optimistic. As I write this, the number has reached 1003 schools. There is huge interest and it is coming from the teachers who clearly believe that Bloodhound is capable of meeting some of their needs to help teach Science Technology Education and Mathematics. But of course there is a problem looming – how on earth are we to support this number of schools – what happens when they all mail in for information on the same day? Even more important, we have a short life project (3 more years) and we need to find out how the schools are using Bloodhound (if they are indeed really using Bloodhound) and how can we improve the education products if we have no idea of how the schools are using them? It seems that the education system is used to one way communication – the hard pressed teachers find it difficult to find time to communicate back with us, even though Dawn mails them every month. So we need a team of Ambassadors to help develop all this – there is absolutely no point in just pushing out education material without feedback –that would be wasteful of a very valuable opportunity . I was lucky enough to have a meeting with Lord Sainsbury who founded the STEM network and I stressed the need for immediate support for all this huge activity. Lord Sainsbury explained that there is a Government driven unit of some 18,000 STEM ambassadors who could help. I explained that there are difficulties; the STEM people appear to be financially driven, are obligated to present the complete range of available products without favour and are hierarchically structured, which means that unless they get instructions from on high, it becomes well nigh impossible to get any focussed support for Bloodhound. Lord Sainsbury was very friendly and agreed to hold a meeting to discuss all this, but there has been no response to date. I think the problem is that the education system is hierarchically driven from on top, and Bloodhound is a phenomenon coming the up other way – ie being driven by the teachers.

But Kate Bellingham had an answer. At the last 1K club meeting, she announced that she was looking for Bloodhound Ambassadors from the 1K club to help with the schools programme. No one had any idea what would happen – but 50 Ambassadors came forward. Kate was thrilled – it seems that the quality of the Bloodhound Ambassadors is exceptional – many being senior engineers and chief executives – so thanks to Kate we now have the first 50. So the 1K club membership base (now over 1,300) might now be a starting point for the supply of quality schools ambassadors – we have a way forward! But now we have to build a real education organisation – the Bloodhound BET is highly productive but it is run by just four part timers and Marcus Wake, our Year in Industry student. The organisation is going to be quickly overwhelmed when all these schools come on line – we have to move very very quickly.

Very shortly Bloodhound has to fight another massive battle. The cost of build of the car is £6m and John Piper and I have the plan tightly written. In order to keep the cost down, we have to build really fast and try and complete in under 50 weeks. This requires one hell of an organisation to do this and I am convinced that we have the team to drive the build. But everyone is looking at me and saying where is the big money coming from?

I've been here before – far too many times!!!

Well, a great deal has been developing over the last months. The potential for Bloodhound is massive – as an example we have just passed flip/flop year when more people get information and entertainment from their computer screens than they do from television. And the value to advertisers is thought to be greater from the computer audience – because the viewer has made a positive effort to contact the site, compared with a television running in an empty room. Google makes stats available and for the first time we were able to learn that a top F1 team generates about 1.5 million web visitors a year. Each visitor on average looks at 5 pages – so say 7.5 million pages per annum for today's F1 team. Contrast that with ThrustSSC which did 59 million visits in 1997 – that could have meant 295 million pages or 39 x the internet size of the F1 team. But the ThrustSSC figures were from 12 years ago - the internet is thought to have grown 20x since then. Let us suppose the figure is 10x – then if Bloodhound can achieve the same market share as ThrustSSC – then we could be talking of 2.9 billion pages per annum. I have tried to explain to the Bristol people that Bloodhound has the potential to achieve far more than their marketing budget could ever deliver in 10 years. It's going to be very interesting to see where Bloodhound ends up being built – it's going to go to the host City which really understands and appreciates it and will partner it the most.

Last month we were fortunate to have a meeting with Judith Hackitt, Chair of the Health and Safety Executive. The meeting went well and there is great interest in what we are doing and the all important way we are going about it - the project culture. Health and Safety is about developing a safe culture, common sense, strong personal discipline and having the procedures well thought through. It doesn't necessarily have to bring all innovation to a halt. At the meeting, John Piper brought up the question that was worrying the design team: with all the data on the car to be published for the education programme, how might this affect the design team in case something were to go wrong. Judith Hackitt made it very clear – she saw no reason not to publish and John agreed to proceed. That's one more very important hurdle cleared.

As I write this, Mike Horne from the ThrustSSC team is building the Bloodhound Show car on the Isle of Wight. Conor is managing the schedules tightly and all being well we should have the show car together for the Goodwood Festival of Speed. The project's big rocket should fire about that time too.

It is important to understand the ethos of Bloodhound – it depends on its wits for funding. It started with no money in the bank and it has no traditional financial investors – we have seen too many projects skewed or lost because of investors. These projects require a completely different approach to that of a conventional trading company. Bloodhound generates its funding from sponsorship and in the case of the educational programme (BET) it has received a grant of £615,000 from the DCSF. It has the capability of generating vast global coverage for its sponsors and because the project is not set up as a rapacious profit generator the publicity potential per pound spent is probably far in excess of its traditional entertainment competition.

Suddenly it's all coming to a head – large companies are showing interest and we are starting to make progress on the big money. Again looking at the trends, we are starting to see 25% of our internet audience from our friends in the US and there are many US schools using Bloodhound. We have had tremendous help from the US corporations – and this is very welcome. But make no mistake, the funding of the Bloodhound build is going to be the toughest undertaking we have ever done. It is happening in the middle of a world recession, it's counter culture and it's high risk! Everything imaginable to encourage Old Britain! But this isn't about Old Britain, it's about New Britain - the product is good, the education is working and we have created a truly great team. It's just going to be an absolutely massive fight to win through!

Author
Richard Noble

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