Dr Joe Marshall, chief executive of the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB), argues that while the UK government’s new Innovation Strategy is a good start, the key to growth is enabling powerful connections between the worlds of business and academia
The new Innovation Strategy is a welcome sign that the government realises the importance of cementing the UK’s position as a world leader in science, research and innovation.
Although the 113-page document sets out a clear vision focused on innovation missions and seven strategic technologies – including robotics, genomics and AI – a strategy alone is not enough.
It is critical that the strategy is now backed with a drive to simplify and encourage innovation – making it easier for businesses to ‘do’ innovation in the real world.
The power of collaboration
As the country comes out of the pandemic vigorously seeking new sources for economic growth, it is more important than ever that policymakers, businesses and universities work together to build the foundations for a more prosperous future.
The pandemic has been tough on everyone, but it has shown us what can be achieved through public-private collaboration, particularly with the vaccine development.
To hit the ambitious target of spending 2.4% of GDP on R&D by 2027, companies are going to need to invest an additional £17.4bn in research, compared to 2017 levels. In order to attract this private investment, we need to find the best researchers and ideas.
This brings me to one of the main barriers to innovation: an inability to make the right connections.
It is not so much understanding the need to innovate, but rather how companies find the most suitable R&D partners, and how researchers find the best companies to turn their expertise into a viable product or service.
It is not simply a question of publishing strategies and setting targets, welcome though those are, but more a case of simplifying how businesses and researchers navigate their way through the innovation ecosystem to find each other.
Finding the right partners
At the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB), we know from speaking to companies of all sizes that they see the research conducted at the UK’s world-leading universities as a major driver for their own innovation efforts.
Many businesses know they need to invest in R&D, and they also know the key could well lie within academic research teams – but the system needs to be simplified so they can get a clearer understanding of how to find out which researchers they should be talking to.
That’s why it was encouraging to see a mention of the NCUB’s collaboration brokerage tool, Konfer, in the Innovation Strategy – specifically in the section aligned with a call for new ideas, talent, and funding.
This was apt because the UK is awash with ideas and talent and funding. What it needs is a way to bring the elements together.
The Konfer network comprises more than 144,000 academics from 153 universities with a searchable database offering access to 1.4m research publications and projects.
The breadth and depth of the data is put to good use through targeted software that links businesses with relevant researchers and facilities, democratising opportunities to connect to those who do not have access to the right networks.
A simpler innovation pathway
Of course, this mainly works for those companies that are already ‘sold’ on the need to innovate and are actively seeking new collaborations.
To truly grow the UK’s R&D expertise and boost innovation, we also need to be taking the conversation to those businesses that are unaware of the opportunities of collaborating with university research teams.
To ensure these newcomers aren’t put off by jargon and complexity, we need to simplify the landscape and use technology to encourage businesses and researchers to collaborate.
Quite simply, we need an infrastructure dedicated to enabling connections.
The Innovation Strategy is an encouraging start, but a strategy is never the final word. We need a route as well as a destination point, and the aim must be to make innovation simpler.