MI Review of 2023

Platforming our people

A blog by Midlands Innovation Director, Dr Helen Turner

This year has proved to be pivotal for Midlands Innovation. As I reflect on our achievements there is a lot to be proud of, not least because the MI Board of Vice-Chancellors approved a new five-year strategy and vision for our partnership.

As the research and innovation landscape evolves, we need to ensure our combined strengths are turned into opportunities for the region, its people and our eight university members.

Our new strategy outlines how we will deliver bold and impactful initiatives, focusing on five overarching priorities: people, place, partnership, projects and policy. You can read it here.

Another reason 2023 has been a pivotal year is that MI partners took the bold step of establishing Midlands Mindforge – an ambitious patient capital investment company aimed at investing in university spinouts and other early-stage IP-rich businesses in the Midlands. In June, Midlands Mindforge announced its inaugural CEO and Chair are Dr Lisa Smith and Mike Rees, both hugely experienced figures in the field of investment.

MI is also playing a pivotal role in leading a national pilot which could unlock the UK’s potential to attract greater levels of overseas investment into regional Research and Development (R&D). The Midlands Universities as Drivers of Trade and Investment pilot is identifying and developing R&D investment propositions focusing on sectors where the region’s universities have research and innovation strengths and expertise that, when combined, are genuinely world-leading.

In March, we supported HEPI in producing a national report which highlighted the piecemeal approach the UK currently takes when trying to attract Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) into regional R&D, and produced an exclusive blog series for HEPI covering the key aspects of how universities can drive FDI. In the spring, we were delighted to announce that the Government had awarded the pilot funding and more recently, that additional funding had been secured to expand and extend the pilot via the Midlands Engine.

2023 has proved another successful year for MI’s TALENT programme which is advancing the careers and status of technicians in higher education and research. TALENT hosted a second, and largest-ever cohort, of the Herschel Programme for Women in Technical Leadership, with over 300 UK-wide technicians undertaking the 2023 programme. In March, TALENT published an independent report highlighting the potential economic benefits of implementing the TALENT Commission report recommendations, one year after this landmark report was published.  One of its key recommendations was to establish a UK Institute for Technical Skills and Strategy (ITSS). £5.5m funding was awarded to establish ITSS, with support from Research England, and the Institute was formally established on 1 August. I am very much looking forward to seeing how ITSS develops over the coming year.

ITSS and the TALENT programme have been built on the bedrock of the MI partner’s belief that the sector and policy makers need to recognise the integral role of technicians in higher education research and teaching. In 2023, MI was proud to host the fourth UK Higher Education Technicians Summit (HETS) and the UK’s only awards dedicated to recognising technical excellence, the Papin Prizes. This year, the Papin Prizes saw a record number of nominations. HETS has been running on a bi-annual basis since MI partners first founded it in 2015. This year, we were proud to welcome UKRI as a headline sponsor.

MI Health presented early findings of the Midlands Health and Care Inequalities Policy Commission to MPs and Lords who are members of the Midlands Engine All-Party Parliamentary Group in late spring, and also to the renewed Midlands Engine Health Board.  

MI Health is also playing a key role in convening the Integrated Care Systems (ICS) in the region through hosting twice yearly Midlands ICS Research and Innovation Workshops. Now in its second year, the latest workshops focused on Connectivity and the Midlands Health and Care Inequalities Policy Commission preliminary findings, and Social Prescribing. It also supported the Midlands Innovation Immunology Network to host a successful virtual launch of a new Midlands Extracellular Vesicle (EV) Network.

I am proud MI has had the opportunity of representing our partnership and championing our region at a range of national events, including being invited by the Chancellor to participate in a Treasury Connect event on seizing upon the UK’s Life Science expertise, and representing the region at the UK Life Science Investment Summit. UKRI invited MI to be one of six projects showcased as part of a Parliamentary event celebrating UKRI’s first five-year strategy. MI highlighted the role of PRISMs, or as we call them ‘research enablers’, in underpinning and driving excellence within UK research and innovation. You can read a report for MI on research enablers here. In June, I was delighted to host an Innovation Panel debate at the inaugural Midlands Engine Investment Summit.

Our programmes and networks have hosted a number of conferences – in January Hydex hosted the Midlands Hydrogen Policy and Innovation Summit at Toyota. Our Inclusive Transformation research theme hosted its annual conference where the interdisciplinary research teams discussed the impact of their completed social science projects that are helping to tackle regional challenges or for those starting out, the approaches they were going to be taking to their projects. The MI Flow group hosted a successful annual gathering and launched new online Flow Cytometry training resources. This autumn, TALENT hosted a national conference to share how the programme has advanced the status and opportunity for technical skills, roles and careers, and how institutions can get involved with ITSS. In September, the TALENT team did an excellent job of arranging TechxFest, an outreach event at Derby Arena that brought hundreds of Midlands school children together to see examples of the many varied and exciting technical roles available across industry and academia for those who embark on a technical career.

We are proud to have also hosted or welcomed several national organisations or conferences to our region throughout the year. MI Health and the University of Nottingham hosted Wellcome’s Discovery Research Midlands conference, C-DICE hosted the 2023 National PostDocs Conference at Loughborough University, and we welcomed the new Chief Scientific Adviser for the Department for Levelling UP, Housing and Communities to the Midlands. We also arranged a conference on behalf of GCHQ with Aston University to discuss how Midlands researchers can help shape the UK’s future security.

In our new strategy, it outlines that we will develop MI Policy – a new priority where we can use our collective strength and voice to influence and advocate. This new strand includes that we will make sure that there is a policy component where we can share learnings with the sector and policy makers in all our projects, and builds upon the success of policy commissions our programmes undertake. In April, ERA announced it was launching a new Policy Commission focused on assessing the case for publicly owned energy, and swiftly after this, it played an instrumental role in establishing Midlands Nuclear – a powerful new body which aims to make the case for increased and sustained investment into Nuclear and related industries in the Midlands.

Another component of MI Policy is to provide a collective voice and response to national issues affecting our sector. In September, MI partners published a Rights Retention statement to promote transparent and inclusive research, and in the same month, MI’s Executive Management Group, made up of the Pro Vice-Chancellors of Research within our eight partner institutions, held a roundtable with Professor Dame Jessica Corner to discuss Research England’s proposals for REF2028. TALENT also launched a new report which reveals unprecedented insights into how technical staff in higher education and research support critical health and safety activities.

Another important role of MI is to highlight the collective strength of research excellence across our eight partners, so we were delighted to support a bid led by the University of Leicester for the Midlands to become a Space Cluster, and we’ve issued an updated report highlighting the expanded strength and depth of space research expertise across our partnership.

I hope you have enjoyed reading about some of MI’s key achievements in 2023. None of these would have been possible without the continued drive of MI’s Board of Vice-Chancellors and Executive Management Group (EMG). I am very grateful for the work of Professor Trevor McMillan, whose tenure as MI Board Chair came to an end in the summer, and to Professor Karen Holford, Vice-Chancellor of Cranfield University, who will continue to lead our Board and partnership over the next two years. I would also like to say a special thank you to Professor Simon Green of Aston University for his tenure as Chair of our Executive Management Group. Under his stewardship, MI’s EMG played an integral role in the development of our exciting new strategy and vision.

There are also many people across our partnership who represent their institutions on our various groups, networks and committees. I want to sincerely thank them for their time, energy and enthusiasm in continuing to collaborate through Midlands Innovation.

May I also thank the people and organisations both regionally and nationally who have worked with us on various projects and initiatives this year. Finally, may I wish you Season’s Greetings and a happy and healthy 2024.

Read MI Vision for 2024, a blog by MI Director, Helen Turner, on MI’s aspirations for 2024. 

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