UK innovation strategy means SMEs take centre stage

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High-tech small- and medium-sized businesses are at the focus of the government’s newly announced Innovation and Research Strategy for Growth.

Measures in the strategy include £75m of new funding, to be distributed through the Technology Strategy Board (TSB), specifically to help SMEs develop new products.

Announced today by business secretary Vince Cable and universities and skills minister David Willetts, the strategy also includes a system of ‘innovation vouchers’ to give SMEs free academic support from university research departments, and a series of prizes, along the lines of the X-Prize series, to stimulate innovation in targeted areas. The Technology and Innovation Centres, established last year, are to be rebranded as Catapult Centres.

‘A good deal of the innovation that happens in the UK comes from SMEs and with innovation comes business growth,’ explained TSB chief executive Iain Gray. ‘This new package of measures will help to put businesses at the forefront of the country’s economic recovery.’

On the Launchpad

The package also includes £25m to help companies develop large-scale prototypes to help attract investors; additional funding for the Smart Awards scheme (which will resume this name after being rebranded Grant for Research and Development) and the Small Business Research Initiative, which helps technology-focused SMEs to compete for government contracts; and an expansion of the Launchpad initiative, recently trialled in London, which provides base funding for approved R&D projects and uses this to attract outward investment.

The proposed prize scheme will be the focus of a Centre of Expertise, to be established with NESTA (National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts), which will identify subjects requiring innovation, but which are not covered by existing schemes. The government is to put up £100,000 to co-fund the first of these prizes, and will contribute £250,000 each year into a subsequent prize fund.

Moreover, Cable and Willetts said that access to the results of government-funded research should be freely available. An Open Data Institute, aimed at using web technology to improve access to data, is to be established, and talks are underway between academics and publishers to work out how to make published work available to businesses and other interested bodies.

Innovation landscape

According to Vince Cable, the strategy is the result of the government’s desire to harness the UK’s undoubted strengths in R&D to the cause of economic growth. ‘The UK has renowned universities and research institutes and a proud record of invention,’ he said. ‘We recognise that by improving the incentives for companies to innovate they will continue to create life-changing products to drive future innovation and growth.’

Willetts added: ‘A new innovation landscape, combined with continued investment and collaboration with business, will ensure that the UK is a world leader in innovation.’

The Research Councils, however, will continue to operate as they had. Asked whether anything could be done to direct innovation research at particular UK regions, Willets replied that ‘Lord Haldane is still the UK research minister; that’s to say that the Research Councils, rather than politicians, decide which projects get funding, and we accept, as previous governments have done, that research can’t be a tool of regional policy’.

’Serious funding’

Rick Rylance, chair of Research Councils UK, commented that the councils play an important role in innovation. ‘The Research Councils nurture innovation and the broad contributions of research in the growth and wellbeing of the UK.’

The Campaign for Science and Engineering welcomed the new strategy, but had another suggestion for a funding source. The government should set aside ‘serious funding’ to kick-start the innovation sector and push it to the forefront of economic growth, argued CASE director Imran Khan, ‘for instance, by setting aside the proceeds from the forthcoming 4G mobile spectrum auction to be reinvested in science, engineering and innovation’.