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HE ‘the hub and spoke’ in UK innovation

Ministers should treat universities as ‘active partners’ in national innovation policy, according to a new publication from University Alliance

The report, Creating innovative regions: The role of universities in local growth and productivity, finds that the contribution universities make to UK innovation goes deeper than is generally acknowledged and must be better exploited by Government to support flagship growth schemes like the Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine.  

It is intended to inform the government’s National Innovation Plan, expected later this year, and recommends that universities forge closer links with institutions responsible for innovation policy at a city and regional level – where power is increasingly being shifted. 

Against the backdrop of changes to the Research Councils, Innovate UK and the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), it also sets out a number of innovation funding principles.

A key finding is the extent to which universities are able to fuel growth in SMEs – described as “the driving force of innovation” – and the necessity of Government funding to support that role.

Maddalaine Ansell, University Alliance Chief Executive, said: “Universities do more than bring the odd bit of research into the commercial sector. The scale of entrepreneurial activity on today’s campuses is a powerful catalyst for jobs, growth and productivity in our regions. For cash-strapped SMEs with growth potential, a local university will often be the best place for advice, guidance and support.”

Universities do more than bring the odd bit of research into the commercial sector. The scale of entrepreneurial activity on today’s campuses is a powerful catalyst for jobs, growth and productivity in our regions. For cash-strapped SMEs with growth potential, a local university will often be the best place for advice, guidance and support

Start-ups and spin-out companies may attract a lot of attention but the report judges this to be only one aspect of universities’ activity in innovation. By mapping the ecosystem through a series of case studies and Midlands Engine ‘deep dive’, it demonstrates that universities also:

•   act as physical hubs where entrepreneurs and investors meet
•   provide knowledge and talent for business including SMEs
•   help innovators navigate and access funding through a ‘one-stop-shop’ model
•   build relationships between Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) and SMEs, addressing a key challenge which has faced LEPs.

 The report argues that universities have the leadership, connectivity and continuity to make a significant difference to the innovation ecosystem. To support their activity, it suggests that:

•   every LEP in England and city and regional structures in other parts of the UK should include a university representative
•   policy should enable cross-LEP and cross-city region collaboration with universities working across complex administrative boundaries
•   LEPs and city regions should make use of the physical assets, space, expertise and outreach services of universities that prioritise SME engagement
•   the Government’s Science and Innovation Audits should be inclusive and participatory, taking account of universities that have a disproportionate impact on innovation.

The report also outlines innovation funding principles at a time when the Research Councils and Innovate UK are being merged into a single UK Research and Innovation body along with knowledge exchange funding currently provided by HEFCE. It recommends in particular that:

•   national and regional funds for knowledge exchange are maintained with particular emphasis on SME growth and productivity
•   excellence in research and innovation is rewarded wherever it is found
•   direct grant funding is maintained for talent-related programmes and SMEs.

Read the full report here https://www.unialliance.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/UA_Creating-innovative_regions_web.pdf  

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