Head start from blurred lines

3 min read

The Iain Gray Blog The CEO of the UK’s innovation agency, Innovate UK, argues that blurring the lines between early stage research and commercialisation can give the UK a global head start in emerging technologies

Now seven years old, Innovate UK is embedded as a permanent and key feature of the UK’s business innovation landscape, with a very clear role - to support businesses to commercialise their innovations. The role of the Research Councils - some of them established for over a century is even more embedded – supporting early stage research. Two organisations, with two distinct and well-honed specialisms, doing what they do best, bringing their respective expertise to bear at very different points in the journey from initial research, through to commercial exploitation.

The reality, however, isn’t quite that clear cut, with Innovate UK and the Research Councils collaborating and jointly funding innovations across the research/commercialisation boundary.  In fact, as far as that exciting space between cutting-edge, early stage research into day-after-tomorrow technologies (graphene, quantum computing and synthetic biology, for example) and commercial viability is concerned, the lines between research and preparing the ground for commercialisation are blurred - and not by accident, but by design.

A strategy for emerging technologies

It’s exactly that close collaboration that has helped to ensure that we have been well-sighted on those emerging technologies where the UK is particularly well placed, such as graphene, synthetic biology and quantum computing. That foresight has informed the development of our Emerging Technologies and Industries Strategy, which recognises that while these nascent technologies have the potential to generate billion-pound global industries, their very nature makes envisioning and developing commercially viable applications - and securing investment, particularly difficult. The strategy set out a coherent approach for working with the UK’s research base and partners from across a wide range of industries, to help form the critical mass needed to support these potentially disruptive technologies through to finding commercially viable applications.

While Catapult centres are business-led, IKCs are business-inspired but university-led.

An updated version of the strategy will be published this autumn. Building upon the previous strategy and guiding our planned £16m of investment into this area this year, the revised strategy will continue our approach of working closely with the research base, continued support for demonstrator projects - allowing these technologies to be tested (often at scale) a stronger focus on global opportunities and a renewed commitment to encouraging market ‘pull’, supporting the development of a supply chain, the corralling of the necessary technical expertise and all the other elements required to achieving the ‘critical mass’ needed for these emerging technologies to achieve commercial viability.

Innovation and Knowledge Centres

An area which has, since 2007, been particularly important in assembling a critical mass around emerging technologies are Innovation and Knowledge Centres.

’The lines between research and preparing the ground for commercialisation are blurred - and not by accident, but by design

Jointly funded by EPSRC, BBSRC and Innovate UK, Innovation and Knowledge Centres (IKCs) are centres of excellence, each with initially five years’ funding to accelerate and promote business exploitation of an emerging research and technology field. Their key feature is a shared space and entrepreneurial environment, in which researchers, potential customers and skilled professionals from both academia and business can work side-by-side to scope applications, business models and routes to market.

IKCs are complimentary to Catapult Centres. While Catapult Centres are business-led, with university engagement, IKCs business-inspired but based in and led by a university, with business involvement.

Currently five-strong and closely aligned with the emerging technology areas of strategic importance to the UK, IKCs each act as nucleating points for an early stage industry, providing the basis of cutting edge innovation ‘ecosystems’, bringing together people with the right technical, business and commercialisation skills in a flexible, highly entrepreneurial environment. They’ve already created strong connections with potential customers, existing industry players and investors and continue to develop compelling market-led strategies for commercial exploitation. Many of the companies in their orbit are already benefiting from sales of new products developed in conjunction with the IKCs.

A race we can all win

Breakthrough discoveries in the research base sometimes result in their discoverers riding off into the distance, continuing to investigate and develop their breakthrough in relative isolation. Innovation and Knowledge Centres aim to turn that breakaway into more of a peleton, assembling all the participants required to support successful commercialisation and the development of strong global market opportunities and a robust, UK-based supply chain together. By supporting discoveries from our world-class research base in this way, academia and companies throughout the supply chain can all win.