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Opportunity to invest in innovation in the Midlands to drive the UK economy

With its industrial pedigree and manufacturing prowess, the Midlands has long been known as the engine of the UK.

However, the Midlands is one of the hardest hit regions in terms of the economic impact of covid, but also has the greatest opportunity to see the fastest turnaround, according to independent analysis. It is also an area where the private sector has invested significantly greater levels of funding into research and development to drive business innovation, than the public sector. This poses a challenge to the Government’s desire to ‘level-up’ the economy as businesses in the Midlands are unlikely to be able to invest as heavily in research and development as they did in pre-covid times, and means the Midlands requires special attention if it is to not only recover as quickly as it has the potential too, but also ‘level-up’ to other higher performing parts of the UK which have received greater levels of public investment.

That is why now is the time for the Government to back the region and deliver the investment needed. This makes this autumn’s Comprehensive Spending Review - the first fiscal statement following ONS figures showing the country is in the worst recession on record - even more highly anticipated than ever to see what move the Government will make to support job creation, and to help UK businesses to recover. 

The Government has already announced that it doesn’t want to see a return to austerity and will instead ‘build’ its way out of recession, while wanting a ‘green recovery’.

Throughout the UK coronavirus outbreak Midlands Innovation (MI) partners have been undertaking widespread health research and supporting local, regional, and national efforts in a range of ways to try to beat the virus, and with lockdown measures easing in all parts of the Midlands they are now supporting businesses to innovate in the rapidly changing economic environment.

With the country’s attention now focusing on the massive effort needed to recover the economy, MI partners are poised to support efforts locally, regionally and nationally, going forward and are indeed already taking steps to offer support where needed. An example of this is that the partnership is helping both the Midlands Engine and the West Midlands Mayor’s covid-recovery taskforce, both through its partner WM REDI at the University of Birmingham providing economic data, which includes information from a range of sources including from Aston University, which is helping inform steps to support business recovery. While also through its health research partnership, MI Health, it recently supported the Midlands Engine to bring together the region’s experts to discuss what lessons can be learned from the national PPE shortage at the start of the outbreak, and how regional partners can collectively pool their expertise to ensure the Midlands has what it needs going forward, should there be a second outbreak.

MI partner’s the Universities of Warwick and Birmingham are working in collaboration with two of the region’s catapult centres – the Manufacturing Technology Centre and Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG) – to lead a ‘Speed to Scale’ proposal which is supported by Aston University and others. The proposal demonstrates how the industrial strength of the West Midlands can be developed to manufacture and deliver new products at scale and pace. The proposal is one of the components put forward by the West Midlands Combined Authority for how the economy could be kick-started to create jobs and new products and services with Government investment, and follows the news that Lotus is to open a new specialist advanced technology centre in partnership with WMG at the University of Warwick.

The Prime Minister announced plans for the country to ‘build, build, build’ its way out the economic consequences of the coronavirus. The news came just as the University of Leicester learned that Space Park Leicester will become the centre for business incubation programme for start-ups in the UK, run by the European Space Agency (ESA). Opening in early 2021, Space Park Leicester is a landmark international initiative being developed to create a world-leading cluster for innovative research, enterprise and education in space, earth observation and space-enabled sectors.

Professor Martin Barstow, Director of Space Park Leicester believes that the Midlands is well placed to become a significant part of the UK space economy: “All of the Midlands Innovation universities have significant interests in aspects of space research or in technologies that are important for space activities. Coupled with Midlands strengths in manufacturing and energy, growth of the space economy in the region is a strong prospect and a source of high value jobs with the right investments.” You can read Professor Barstow’s full article here.

In his summer fiscal statement, the Chancellor, the Rt Hon Rishi Sunak MP, unveiled fiscal stimulus measures to help create jobs through supporting homeowners to reduce their energy costs through a Green Home Grant Scheme. As part of the announcement he said it was important that the economic recovery should be a ‘green recovery’. Midlands Innovation, which has the UK’s largest green energy research programme – the Energy Research partnership or ERA – welcomes the Government’s focus on the need for a ‘green recovery’.

ERA undertakes a wide range of low carbon energy research programmes to support the country to identify how it can best meet its future energy demands in the most energy efficient, cost effect and environmentally friendly way. One example of ERA’s research is the multiple award-winning community green energy scheme – Trent Basin, a ‘living lab’ where new eco-homes are being built and residents benefit from the UK’s largest community battery – which allows them to see via the latest technology their energy usage and sell surplus energy to the national grid. With Britain needing to rapidly replace 26 million inefficient boilers if it is to meet its target of reaching NET-Zero emissions by 2050, the country will need to adopt and utilise the cutting-edge research being undertaken by the Energy Research Accelerator. 

Find out how to get involved with ERA's 'Big Ideas' bid to Government by registering for a free information session on 1st September 2020 here.

ERA recently launched a joint report, with the Birmingham Energy Institute at the University of Birmingham, on generating energy from waste. Currently the UK sends the majority of its waste to landfill and very little is converted into energy. The UK lags behind many of its counterparts in other European countries in this field, and if it is to achieve its ambition of achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 it will need to embrace converting energy from waste. You can read the policy commission report here.

Together with its flagship green energy research programme, Midlands Innovation partners have some 1,800 researchers specialising in the field of sustainable transport research and so welcome the Prime Minister’s focus on the need to invest not just in buildings, but also in constructing the country’s future infrastructure needs. With the covid outbreak bringing sharply into focus the difficulty in the efficient movement of goods and services not just around the country’s existing network, but into the country too, the MI partnership has a collective wealth of transport expertise across its intuitions and they are poised to undertake the latest research needed to decarbonise transport modes – not just in freight, but in people’s everyday transport needs too.

MI Partner, Cranfield University, is the UK’s only university with an airport.  It undertakes transformational research for the aviation industry.  It has been designated as a University Enterprise Zone creating a UK Aviation Innovation and Technology Entrepreneurship cluster. It has the Cranfield Eagle Lab on site; developed in partnership with Barclays, it is dedicated to aviation technology and supporting start-ups and SMEs. The University is represented on the Government’s recently announced Jet-Zero Council – an influential body made up of Ministers,  trade bodies and influential groups to support the Government’s future aspirations to produce the world’s first NET-Zero transatlantic passenger plane.

As well as supporting Government, and regional bodies and businesses, Midlands Innovation partners themselves are directly attracting investment and funding into the region, with Loughborough University attracting funding through the Leicester and Leicestershire Local Enterprise Partnership to develop a Global Sports Hub at its SportPark on Loughborough University Science and Enterprise Park (LUSEP).

The project, which already houses the UK’s highest concentration of sports governing bodies and national sports organisations, will directly support 165 jobs with an additional 157 induced jobs in the wider economy, stimulating further demand to bring sports related businesses to the region.

As a partnership, MI institutions directly employ nearly 100,000 people as well as supporting many thousands of jobs indirectly – providing an economic impact into the Midlands and wider UK economy of £10 billion.

MI partner, the University of Nottingham jointly launched the country’s first Civic Agreement to deliver a dozen initiatives, which harnesses the collective will of the City and County’s biggest institutions to deliver meaningful change for the people and place of Nottingham and Nottinghamshire. 

Through MI’s MICRA programme, which brings together the Technology Transfer Offices of its eight partners that translate cutting-edge academic research into ‘spinout’ businesses and provide innovative products and services to support existing businesses - the partnership is the country’s most successful university alliance in turning research funding into patents –delivering more patents per pound of research funding than any other UK university partnership.   

Building on its strong and diverse history of local collaborations, Keele University will be launching Keele Deal | Recovery in late September, setting out significant commitments that will aid and strengthen local recovery.  Staff, students and businesses at Keele have been involved in a range of efforts to address the impacts of the pandemic, and the new Deal will bring together and build on some of the major areas of the University’s existing engagement to form a powerful and wide-ranging programme of contributions for the benefit of local communities and economies. The proposition encompasses eight interrelated themes – Innovation and Enterprise, Cultural Regeneration, Digital Futures, Employment and Skills, Food Security, Health and Wellbeing, Inclusion and Sustainability.

As well as supporting local economies and businesses, MI partners are also providing a pipeline of talent to support some of the country’s most talented prospects. As an example, Aston University recently announced it is working collaboratively with the Greater Birmingham Chamber of Commerce to provide 50 postgraduate students with access to one of the city’s top business networks. Reacting to the news, Paul Faulkner, chief executive of Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce, said: “Investing in students is particularly crucial amid the Covid-19 crisis, if we are to mitigate in some way the negative economic impact that the crisis has had in Greater Birmingham and beyond.” This scheme builds on other programmes the university provides to support graduate employment, including the Higher Level Skills Match (HLSM) which helps SMEs within West Midlands to find graduates to support their specific business skills requirements.

Chair of Midlands Innovation and Vice-Chancellor of Aston University, Professor Alec Cameron, said: “As a partnership of the Midland’s eight most research-intensive universities, we are uniquely placed and ready to support efforts to help the region’s, and indeed the country’s, economic recovery through undertaking cutting-edge research, supporting business innovation and productivity, and not to mention supplying the country’s brightest and most talented future workforce through our excellent academic programmes.

“We welcome the Government’s continued desire to level-up the UK and to invest in research and development which will support its longer-term economic aspirations for the country to create jobs, and develop world-leading scientific discoveries.

“We know we have the building blocks already in place to support the country’s aspirations and our track record shows that as a partnership - we deliver. We’re ready to build upon our reputation as the UK’s largest green energy research partnership, to deliver even more business patents per pound of research funding, and through these and our technician talent programme – the UK’s largest investment in the skills development of Higher Education and Research technicians – we are already providing the academic blueprint which will help the sector to address the shortage and the skills shortfall in the technical community, which will be vital if the country wants to achieve its ambition to significantly increase investment in research and development.”