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Reflections on the new Innovation Strategy

The Government has released its eagerly anticipated Innovation Strategy. The new strategy highlights that research and innovation are central to the country’s plan for growth and its global aspirations. As an innovation-driven collaborative research partnership, we welcome its publication and the importance placed on innovation as a means of driving productivity and growth. 

We are pleased that the Government has recognised the integral role of universities in the UK’s research and innovation ecosystem, and the key role they will make in implementing the strategy.

 Midlands Innovation’s research and innovation strengths and collaborative approach means we align well with the aims of the strategy and I believe we can play a significant role in its delivery.

 The strategy recognises the importance of place in innovation – both as a means of galvanising innovation-led activity and ensuring its benefits are more equally distributed around the UK.

I am pleased that the strategy acknowledges the need to tailor R&D interventions to the needs of different places.  One of the most important elements linked to this is the Government’s commitment to work with local partners and the science, research and innovation sector to develop proposals for a new cross-government approach to enable places outside of the golden triangle to become world-leading research and innovation clusters. We welcome this and will be keen to have conversations with government and to use the convening powers of our partners to draw in other regional leaders and innovation business collaborators to have that discussion.

The other important aspect of this is the announcement of a cross-government approach to innovation. This will be a welcome step-change in how innovation is addressed nationally.

The strategy highlights that the Government believes that innovation is critical to levelling-up, and that further details of its innovation aims will be drawn out through the levelling-up white paper. In it, we expect to find more details on the Government’s approach and plans towards place and R&D.

 There is also recognition in the strategy that organisations will be put at the heart of the innovation decision-making process and for tailored growth to be delivered based on each area’s innovation strengths. This is important as all parts of the UK are not equal and the Midlands in particular has unique strengths that can be built upon.

We welcome the Government’s re-commitment to increasing annual public investment in R&D to £22 billion, which is critical if it intends to reach its R&D investment target nationally of 2.4% GDP by 2027.  There is however a challenge with this. It’s recently been reported in Research Professional that research by Durham University has shown that nearly half of all UK businesses surveyed reduced their R&D investments during the pandemic, with the report’s authors suggesting this will have a long-lasting negative impacts on firms’ productivity and growth, and reinforcing a trend seen from the previous economic downturn. In addition to this, research by the National Centre for Universities and Business estimates that in order to achieve the 2.4% target, private sector investment will need to be raised to a rate of £17 billion per annum. Therefore, the private sector will need support in helping them to once again be in a financial position to scale-up their R&D investment.

We are pleased to see the strategy highlight our MICRA project as a way of universities pooling their collective expertise. MICRA is an initiative to bring together our eight partners’ Technology Transfers Offices which help to translate research into commercial products and services. Closer working through MICRA has enabled us to collaboratively increase the levels of training in commercialisation that we offer our academic staff; something aligned to the Government’s desire to increase support for entrepreneurial skills in the academic sector. 

Building collaborations such as MICRA take time, and we welcome the commitment for further investment in the Connecting Capabilities Fund. Through MICRA, we have recently appointed a fund advisor to look at the possibility of establishing a significant fund in our region to support commercialisation of academic research. The Midlands is undercapitalised, as highlighted in a report by Beauhurst, which reinforces that the Midlands has 11% of the UK’s high growth businesses, but only 5% of the £13.5bn invested in private UK businesses last year.

It is also good to see the strategy highlight the Government’s Help to Grow: Management scheme, which was recently announced by the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, on a visit to Aston University.  The scheme aims to support 30,000 senior managers of small and medium sized businesses to boost their business’ performance, resilience, and long-term growth.

MI partners, the University of Nottingham and Aston University, are two of the five universities nationally which are offering these courses, while Aston University played a key role in helping to develop the initiative.   

We welcome the commitment to invest £200 million through the British Business Bank’s Life Sciences Investment Programme to target the growth-stage funding gap faced by UK life science companies. The Midlands has a thriving life sciences sector, with over 1,200 life sciences businesses based in the region, which support over 33,000 high skilled jobs. These businesses cluster around the clinical expertise of our Midlands Innovation Health partners.

There is also mention in the strategy of the opportunity to link innovation to the proposals to create freeports. As a backer of the bid to designate East Midlands Airport as one of the UK’s first freeports, we welcome the link that the innovation strategy offers and look forward to seeing more details on this as they emerge.

Alongside the Innovation Strategy, the Government announced the successful projects to receive the latest Strength in Places funds. The Midlands secured its first funding through the scheme recently, for which Midlands Innovation partners played an integral role in the award success. You can read more here about the Midlands Industrial Ceramics Group project, which will help to put the area firmly on the map as a global centre for advanced ceramics. We very much hope the Strength in Places fund can be extended, as the benefits of the fund are making a difference in helping to spread innovation opportunities across the country.

The strategy also announces a review by Sir Paul Nurse of the UK’s R&D and innovation landscape. As a collaboration of the Midlands’ most research-intensive universities, through which flows around 70% of all higher education research income in the region, we would welcome an opportunity to input into this review.

Blog by Dr Helen Turner, Director of Midlands Innovation