Sharing ideas in science, technology and innovation

SmartWater – using nanotechnology to beat crime

Alan Carr, Policy and Partnerships Manager (Low Carbon) at Birmingham Science City

What’s invisible, impossible to remove and hated by criminals? SmartWater, of course.

As arguably one the most effective innovations of modern times, it was a privilege to welcome Phil Cleary, SmartWater CEO, to provide one of the keynote speeches at Venturefest West Midlands last month.

Phil engrossed the Venturefest audience with an overview of how SmartWater – which is headquartered in Telford –  was founded. It is a true story of brotherly cooperation, as he and his brother Mike co-founded SmartWater in 1993. Phil, a former police officer was responsible for brand development and Mike focused on product innovation, ensuing that the product actually worked from his garage.

Using a robust form of nanotechnology, SmartWater encrypts data with water as the application medium. There are potentially billions of datasets available, making a huge number of applications available.

The success of SmartWater is something that all SMEs can aspire to. Phil and Mike had a great concept – but also needed knowledge, passion, funding, patience and tenacity.  This led them from Mike’s garage to an internationally renowned product.

SmartWater’s traceable liquid technology is unique as a security tool and has helped to secure hundreds of convictions for crimes ranging from armed robbery and burglary to the illegal trafficking of endangered species. Its uses include:

  • Preventing metal theft, such as railway cables, as every piece of metal can now be traced back to its source
  • Tracking mosquitos and malaria to help push them away from communities – by using SmartWater to analyse their faeces
  • Combating poachers of tusks and horns, which can now be soaked in a unique SmartWater signature.
  • Preventing war memorials being stolen for scrap by donating a SmartWater solution to all war memorials for free and by running a memorial database.
  • Stopping the trade of artefacts by Syrian or Iraqi criminals via a joint US-UK initiative announced in March

Whatever the project, the whole ethos of SmartWater is to bring accountability back to crime, making escape a lot more difficult.

SmartWater is an international success story from the West Midlands – but how does a local SME aim to replicate the success that Phil and Mike have had? The advice from Phil at Venturefest was simple. “If you don’t have a marketing plan, it doesn’t matter how good your product is.”  He asked the audience to imagine if the amazing solution that Mike had created had never been marketed properly – and the potential that would have been wasted.

The moral to this brilliant invention is this: the combination of a great technology with a robust marketing plan paves the way to success. Along with several years spent in a garage.

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A deep dive analysis of the West Midlands’ technology sector

By Richard Hutchins, Chief Operating Officer, West Midlands Growth Company

From data analytics to cyber security and fintech, the latest West Midlands Deep Dive Report produced by the West Midlands Growth Company focuses on the region’s technology and digital sector. Developed in partnership with Birmingham City University (BCU), it analyses the trends that will impact the region’s business landscape during the next 10 years.

Theresa May has described the technology industry as a “great British success story”, outlining how tech and digital will be a priority for the UK after leaving the European Union. This report – which covers the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) area – reinforces the potential of the tech and digital sector, the important role it has played in the country’s economic recovery, and how this growing industry will evolve into a much greater contributor to the West Midlands and UK economies.

This thriving sector is well placed to create thousands of new jobs and generate greater economic outputs in the coming decade, according to the report.

During the next 10 years, GVA generated by the sector in the West Midlands will rise by £1.3 billion (20% or 2% per annum) from £5.7 billion to £7 billion, with the potential to peak even higher, at £7.9 billion. Employment in the sector across the region is expected to rise by almost 14,000 by 2025 – to just under 84,000 employees. The rapid pace of innovation, substantial market opportunities and significant potential to attract inward investment into this sector, will underpin this rapid growth.

So what exactly are the drivers of growth within this sector? How do we ensure the region is well-equipped to meet this demand and capitalise on the growth potential of technology?

The innovative use of digital technologies can disrupt existing business models and value chains, but it also has tremendous potential to create value and boost competitiveness and productivity. Our findings show that the region’s tech and digital firms appear to be clustering around key innovations to exploit their potential, such as fintech and blockchain technology, cyber security, data analytics, The Internet-of-Things (IoT) and digital care services.

Several areas within the West Midlands are home to emerging tech and digital ecosystems. Firms in Warwick, Leamington Spa and Stratford-on-Avon, for example, excel in games design and development, while companies based in Telford and Solihull are more likely to specialise in apps and software.

It will be unsurprising that the need to upgrade cyber security is a key driver of investment and innovation in the sector. As private, public and civil institutions become increasingly digitised and dependent on information systems, they become more vulnerable to attack. Another area of vast potential is The Internet-of-Things (IoT), which allows equipment and assets to ‘talk’ to one another via wireless technology and then to be transmitted back to a collaboration platform. This allows people to monitor productivity, quality control, safety and inventory – and in turn, improves project efficiency, timelines and risk management. Clusters of firms specializing in cyber security and IoT are emerging in Redditch, Telford, Solihull and Tamworth.

Meanwhile, blockchain technology – a public digital database shared among a network of computers worldwide – offers secure, fast and efficient transactions to financial firms. This sub-sector is becoming a dominant area of focus in West Midlands cities with a large Business, Professional and Financial Services (BPFS) sector, such as Birmingham for example – home to the UK’s largest BPFS hub outside London.

Access to the right skills and talent can often be main reason why a tech firm will locate in the West Midlands. Currently, the region employs more than 70,000 people in the industry, of which a large proportion, 55%, are in highly skilled and well-paid jobs.

There is an emerging demand for critical technical skills and expertise – which account for 85% of hard-to-fill vacancies in the sector. Notably in areas such as Data Analytics, Big Data and Cloud Computing, there is a need for the region to invest in training and workforce development, to maintain the strong performance of the tech and digital sector. More than a third (34%) of roles in the local sector require a degree. Our internationally renowned universities – at Aston, BCU, Birmingham, Coventry, Warwick and Wolverhampton – are vitally important in ensuring the local workforce is well qualified to meet these demands.

Looking internationally, inward investment has been a key driver of growth in the region’s tech and digital sector. The West Midlands secured a record 111 foreign direct investment projects in 2016, according to accountancy firm EY – more than any area outside London and Scotland.

Digital firms will have an opportunity to exploit a new wave of growth with an acceleration of technology adoption in emerging markets such as China, India, and Russia. Such opportunities are being driven by the young demographic in these countries, large scale broadband penetration, rapid smartphone adoption, and rising levels of disposable income available. The opportunities in the West Midlands, nationally and globally, are vast.

To download a copy of the West Midlands Tech and Digital Deep Dive Report, visit the Business Birmingham website.

Opportunity through Innovation: Acting on the WM Science and Innovation Audit findings

By Dr Pam Waddell, Director of Birmingham Science City

Science and innovation could be a driving force behind the continuing economic renaissance of the West Midlands, and the newly published West Midlands Science and Innovation Audit (SIA) helps to point to areas of strength, opportunity and challenge to focus on to help to unleash this potential.

Results of the West Midlands SIA will be considered in detail as part of Venturefest West Midlands on June 27 – a free one day event which will bring together more than 700 entrepreneurs, innovators and investors at the NEC  .  Andy Street, the Mayor of the West Midlands, will open the event by discussing ‘Innovation and the West Midlands Economy’ and a panel session in the afternoon, led by Birmingham Science City, will consider different perspectives and opportunities to take the findings of the West Midlands SIA forward.

The West Midlands SIA was funded by the three West Midlands LEPs – Greater Birmingham and Solihull, Coventry and Warwickshire, and Black Country, and supported by the West Midlands Combined Authority, and the Mayor of the West Midlands and the three LEP Chairs have all endorsed the report.  It will inform the interventions of these bodies and partners across the local innovation ecosystem.  The West Midlands SIA is a detailed supplementary report to the Midlands Engine SIA published last year.

Central to the West Midlands SIA report is a the framework that indicates how the identified market strengths and enabling compencies of the West Midland can interact to create exiting areas of opportunity, that can only be realised if the ecosystem factors are all in place:

The findings of the report emphasise that leveraging these strengths and optimising the supporting ecosystem will help to boost the region’s productivity levels, which are currently below the UK average and must be raised if the region is to realise its potential.

The challenges are clear. The report emphasises that organisations across the West Midlands must work hard to stimulate R&D investment, engage more businesses in innovation and boost skills development in particular. It is also vital that the region further develops its physical infrastructure to attract and nurture more innovative companies; and support greater knowledge exchange between universities and the private sector.

The West Midlands is well positioned to meet these objectives. Its strong research capabilities have national significance – from its eight universities to its two Catapults in high value manufacturing, and energy systems, and the work of organisations including the Manufacturing Technology Centre in Coventry and Jaguar Land Rover. These organisations all help to attract funding and encourage collaboration between the public and private sector. They are vital in upskilling our workforce and promoting the strengths of this region and, as the report states, it is important to widen and diversify this offer to ensure that the West Midlands continues to support growth in science and innovation.

Looking ahead, it is clear that publication of the SIA will provide a new tool to help inform local stakeholders how we can tap into, and make the most of, the region’s science and innovation ecosystem. This will range from identifying ways of delivering public sector reform, to delivering the WMCA and regional LEPs’ Strategic Economic Plans and supporting the Government’s Industrial Strategy.

The Birmingham Science City Alliance will be sharing its findings with our local and national partners to promote the region’s strengths as well as working with its partners to address challenges and opportunities for growth. It is a vitally important document that we are proud to have contributed to – and look forward to acting on in future.

Connecting the Innovative Business Community – Venturefest West Midlands, 27th June

By Dr Pam Waddell, Director of Birmingham Science City

 

There is less than one month to go until Venturefest West Midlands (http://www.venturefestwm.co.uk/) arrives back for the third year at the NEC in Birmingham on 27th June. Entrepreneurs, investors and innovators will meet, engage and exchange ideas for co-operation and collaboration, particularly in the fields of science and emerging technologies, at this free one-day event.

There is something for everybody across the West Midlands innovation community. Venturefest West Midlands is the perfect event if you are starting out with a new innovative business idea, if you want to take your business to the next level, if you are an investor looking for new opportunities of if you are seeking to work with or support innovative businesses.

With the aim of promoting business growth through innovation, the programme is packed full of inspiration, insights, advise and ample opportunities to meet and connect with potential investors, funders, customers, collaborators, business partners and support organisations.

We are particularly delighted to announce our two keynote speakers this year. The new Mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street, will start the day off telling about his vision for the critical role of innovation in driving up productivity and transforming public services in the West Midlands. In the afternoon, we will hear the inspirational story of Phil Cleary’s idea that was turned into a profitable, multi-million pound international business, SmartWater Technology Limited.

Once again, Pitchfest (http://www.venturefestwm.co.uk/pitchfest) runs throughout the day, with local innovative businesses boosting their profile in front of a national audience of investors looking for the best new opportunities. Alongside this there will be lively debates and issue-led workshops. Over 30 speakers will discuss topics such as supply chain and demand-led innovation, finance for start-ups and scale ups, business journeys in different sectors, support and engagement opportunities with Catapults and Transport for West Midlands, and the implications of the West Midlands Science and Innovation Audit on local strategy and actions.

Throughout the day there is a Pitchfest innovation showcase and an exhibition including universities, funders, support bodies and more, as well as spaces to meet and talk. Venturefest is a highly valued regional event, led by Birmingham Science City, working with Innovate UK, business, universities, Catapult Centres, science parks, business support and professional services. We will all be there and look forward to listening, learning, meeting and sharing in a great day of connecting across the West Midlands innovative business community.

If you are involved in innovation, science, creativity and entrepreneurship, we invite you to join us at this fascinating free event – register now at http://www.venturefestwm.co.uk/registration

From Science Parks to Connected Centres of Innovation

Dr David J Hardman

Chief Executive Officer, Innovation Birmingham & Chair of UKSPA

Over the last 50 years the success of science parks in the UK has largely been achieved through geographic aggregation of talent often with a sector focus; creating hot-spots of critical mass, which stimulate and accelerate innovation.

This model now faces historically unique drivers of change. Societal digital evolution, the blurring of sector boundaries, data becoming the focus of value and increasing urbanisation aligned with the ever-increasing rate of technology development and the associated challenge of ensuring availability of relevant skills means that arguably the 20th Century model of the science park is looking less fit-for-purpose.

It remains the case that innovation is stimulated by bringing creative minds together; but by putting the same type of people together all the time in the same places similar outcomes will be generated so stifling innovation.  The advance of digital technologies is driving the blurring of sector boundaries but is also providing the opportunity to consider a new (4th) generation of science parks. In the new model innovators, entrepreneurs and businesses of all sizes connect to collaborate. It should also move us beyond what we would now consider to be our ‘tech’-based clients to include the creative sectors – beyond science and into the arts.

This challenges the ‘science park’ tag – a true innovation campus now needs to engage with the broadest possible mind-sets – the convergent scientists, technologists and business leaders working alongside and with the divergent minds of the creative artists. The move towards the 24/7 urban live-work-play culture means that city-based and integrated innovation campuses will become the real sites of innovation.

The social evolution that has influenced the lives of tomorrow’s entrepreneurs leads them to readily accept a non-spatial definition of ‘place’ as one driven by a sense of belonging, a sense of ‘place’, not a geographically bounded location. Hence, ‘GenZ’ entrepreneurs will naturally look beyond their locations in their working lives and the very nature of science parks will need to keep pace with these changes to ensure they meet the needs and work patterns of their future clients.

The future effectiveness of these ‘places’ will be determined by the availability, quality and efficiency of the web infrastructure serving the location; in turn the web infrastructure will determine the strength of affiliated digital communities and that will determine the pace of innovation. It is with this outlook that we have developed a strategic plan for what was Aston Science Park and created the Innovation Birmingham Campus.

Innovation Birmingham’s aim is to work within Birmingham’s city centre to address the needs of Greater Birmingham’s knowledge-based economy. It is based on a belief that the lives of Greater Birmingham’s citizens will be improved considerably by catalysing the connections, communication and collaboration between digitally-driven start-ups, corporations, the public sector, academia and the city’s inhabitants. Innovation Birmingham orchestrates a connected innovation community through the provision of facilities linked to its 30 Gig/s web infrastructure. We aim to catalyse digital entrepreneurship through an accelerator, two incubator programmes and a community of digital businesses, through technology and demand-led innovation.

There are currently over 150 businesses, employing 1,100 people, located in the three buildings on the Innovation Birmingham Campus. The connected real-estate ethos has been embodied in the design, delivery and now operation of the new iCentrum® building which opened in April 2016. The building has been designed to promote community dynamics, striking a balance between order and chaos with a proactive and energetic management catalysing interaction. A physical community is connected to the citizens and business community of Birmingham across all sectors through an active meeting and events programme.

Through this ‘without walls’ strategy Innovation Birmingham looks to empower borderless innovation by engaging digital champions and communicators in globally connected local debates to overcome local limiting factors on growth in Birmingham’s knowledge economy.

The metrics suggest that science parks do not apparently achieve their full catalytic potential in terms of GDP impact. Arguably, in part this is because few of them have exploited the whole opportunity offered by global, even regional/local exchange, collaboration, partnerships and resource sharing. Stakeholder requirements and cultural differences have prevented the development of powerful and sustainable alliances. It is our contention that an alliance of trusted interconnected centres with common interests and requirements around knowledge economy-led regeneration is the way forward; indeed may become essential in a post Brexit world where Public sector financial support becomes even more scarce.

Innovation Birmingham is a founding member of Cisco’s National Virtual Incubator network, which currently links seven centres across the UK utilising the latest video collaboration technology to promote connected collaboration; we also have agreements with the DMZ incubator in Toronto. Whilst more needs to be done to develop and expand on these initial linkages, they exemplify the concept of an alliance of centres of innovation.

Innovation Birmingham operates the Innovation Birmingham Campus, but it is a Knowledge Economy business. Whilst our main income is generated from property, business success is driven by the continued development and support of a thriving creative community of collaborating entrepreneurs and innovators; based on the campus, integrated into the city and connected to world.

As we continue to develop our strategy, with three further buildings planned – the first to be started in 2017 with pre-lets confirmed – the Board of Innovation Birmingham and Birmingham City Council are actively seeking investment in exchange for equity to support the continued development of Innovation Birmingham and the Campus as a next generation innovation community. For those interested in the further development of this alliance model, we would be keen to open a dialogue. We are also keen to explore means of providing ready access to early stage and growth venture capital to accelerate the growth of our clients.

Industrial Strategy Green Paper Response from the Birmingham Science City (BSC) Alliance

Introduction

This is the response of the Birmingham Science City (BSC) Alliance to the Green Paper “Building Our Industrial Strategy” (https://beisgovuk.citizenspace.com/strategy/industrial-strategy/supporting_documents/buildingourindustrialstrategygreenpaper.pdf).

Birmingham Science City (BSC) is an Alliance of public, private and university stakeholders working together to stimulate and promote science and technology driven innovation in the West Midlands (http://www.birminghamsciencecity.co.uk/).  This response has been compiled following extensive consultation via a BSC Board discussion, a consultation event with BEIS and about 40 members of the BSC Alliance, and via a blog and social media activity.

This process results in a robust West Midlands response from an innovation perspective – not just focusing on pillar 1, but also on other pillars that interact strongly with innovation.

Draft general comments on the Industrial Strategy

  • The creation of a UK Industrial Strategy is welcome as it acknowledges that there are major issues in the UK economy that require strategic actions with long term impact, and BEIS’s efforts to engage around this Green Paper are appreciated.
  • In particular the goal of addressing disparities in productivity across the country is applauded.
  • There is a lack of longer term outlook or proposals, however, with the paper concentrating on tactical, short term approaches and focusing excessively on current market trends, including immediate responses to Brexit, rather than considering global competition and how wealth creation is likely to change into the 2020s. The youth of the West Midlands population gives us a particular opportunity to think innovatively and long-term
  • The 10 Pillars provide a good structure for analysis and action, providing a framework within which business, local government, public sector, universities and others can contribute.
  • The importance placed on science and innovation is particularly welcome, not just in pillar 1, but as a cross-cutting theme interacting across numerous pillars.
  • We welcome the commitment to work closely with key local agencies and businesses to drive inclusive growth across the country. This will allow understanding of variation in local conditions, and enable flex and shifts in balance of interventions according to loc al needs.  It will also require appropriate flow of responsibility and resources to regions.
  • There needs to be a stronger focus on manufacturing if the objective is to really change UK productivity – the West Midlands is strongly positioned to lead a drive towards innovation to improve manufacturing productivity, through adoption of existing and emerging technologies.
  • Science and Innovation Audits (SIAs) should strongly influence delivery of the Industrial Strategy as they evidence strength and opportunity in places – including the Midland Engine SIA (https://www.midlandsengine.org/our-five-themes/innovation/) and the supplementary West Midlands SIA (Framework at http://www.birminghamsciencecity.co.uk/groups-and-networks/advisory-and-steering-groups-2/wmca-innovation-working-group/). However, by definition SIAs tend to be backward looking and it is also important to look forward to opportunities to exploit emerging knowledge, technologies and markets.

Draft comments on Pillar 1 – Investing in Science, Research and Innovation

  • Much of this section is to be welcomed, but the perspective is limited as it consistently implies a linear system (with all new knowledge and technologies originating in universities). The reality is a much more complex ecosystem with knowledge and know-how flowing in multiple directions.
  • Universities are undoubtedly critical originators of ideas and technologies, but the following types of organisations also generate new ideas and technologies (as well as exploiting them): business R&D and intrapreneurship, public and third sector, translational organisations (including Catapult Centres which are barely mentioned), cross-sector innovation etc. Therefore encouragement and support for exploitation of all sources of new ideas is important.
  • Universities also do more than just generate ideas and technologies. They can act as catalysts and support to stimulate others to exploit knowledge and collaborate, the Midlands Engine and West Midlands Science and Innovation Audits provide many good examples.
  • Business investment in R&D is clearly a UK weakness that needs to be addressed. Therefore actions such as the review of tax incentives (though noting many start ups are too small to pay tax), and a focus on demand-led innovation are welcomed, including the possibility of extending SBRI, of business-led ‘RPIFs’ and the launch of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund.
  • Work is needed with local authorities and combined authorities, to develop local incentives to innovate as well as national.
  • Serious effort is required to increase the inclination or capacity of businesses to innovate. Some of this may be linked to skills and leadership, but some of it may be local promotion and brokerage to help business to understand and access one organisation’s challenge being their business opportunity. Also consider schemes that help companies working with the Knowledge Base, eg joint PhDs or a postgraduate equivalent of Degree Apprenticeships, to provide research leadership skills into a firm.
  • We should not be tempted only to consider ‘big things’ – for example enhancing innovation in supply chains or supporting small companies with needs for digital and innovation skills may have greater impact on business innovation in the longer term.
  • Local innovation ecosystems are all different– each with its own barriers to adoption of innovation, which can be deeply systemic, taking time to understand and change. It is hard, but essential, to sell this sort of support/ intervention to government as the outcomes underpin and enable more effective innovation, rather than cause it directly.
  • The Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF) is welcome, but we offer the following comments:
    • Some of the proposed ISCF priorities are challenge-led, but others are very technology led and the details sound more research than challenge driven
    • In developing a place-based angle to ISCF it seems clear that the evidence of Science and Innovation Audits should be used, but Innovate UK also needs to go further in understanding local innovation ecosystems and adapting to their needs
    • Thought needs to be given not just to funding themes, but also to the funding means. For example, can it help to address the systemic issue of lack of development phase funding by business after initial public research funding, and be constructed to simplify the connections between phases of investment to smooth path, with gradually less public intervention as move towards market. ISCF should also not be too risk averse – innovation naturally carries a higher risk of failure
    • It is not clear the extend to which access to ISCF is restricted to business – business-led is appropriate, but universities may be important partners in challenge-led activity
    • It should maintain flexibility to respond to cross-cutting themes and new economic opportunities
    • It should recognise the facilitative role of Social Science research in the introduction of new technologies and business models
    • What happens after 2021? Assurance of longevity of ISCF (and ability to carry finance from one year to the next) would have huge impact on deliverability.
  • The emphasis on survival as well as creation of university spin-outs is important, but not all science and technology start-ups are university spin-outs so this objective should be widened. Some of the excellent support offered by the diverse range of members of the UK Science Park Alliance (UKSPA) should be considered and further supported.
  • Funding for innovative businesses to start and grow is always a challenge, but with different pinch-points in different geographies. For example, in Midlands the new Midlands Engine Investment Fund will help hugely with loan and equity under £500k, but angel funding is still very short as it is concentrated in the South East.
  • It is recognised that strengths, weaknesses and opportunities in science and innovation vary across the country, and the Science and Innovation Audits have been very helpful in providing local evidence for action and investment. Thus it is inappropriate to simply seek to replicate without taking account of local conditions and organisations.
  • The work started with the SIAs needs to be continued nationally and locally – for example, the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) has conducted a supplementary, detailed SIA http://www.birminghamsciencecity.co.uk/groups-and-networks/advisory-and-steering-groups-2/wmca-innovation-working-group/ to the Midlands Engine SIA.  This can be used to shape/ influence the following:
    • The WMCA Productivity and Skills Commission chapter on innovation
    • Material for attracting inward investment
    • Catalysis of significant new innovation projects targeting local or national (ISCF) funds
  • European Structural Funds will end in 2020.  These have been extensively used in business support activities around innovation at a local level to good effect. A UK replacement would be welcome but must recognise regional economic weakness, allow local decisions to be made based on local need, and seek to reduce the administrative and bureaucratic burden.
  • Likewise, accesses to European Research funds, and the international collaborations at scale that these enable, have been a critical component of the UK R&D success. Cross-party commitment to remaining part of the European Research Area and Horizon 2020 Programme must be sought as soon as possible, to maintain confidence in UK partners.

Draft Comments on other Pillars with respect to innovation

Developing Skills

  • Clearly critical – low skills is a real challenge in the West Midlands. Brexit is a huge threat as free mobility of skilled technical people and their dependents (with freedom to work) to provide scarce skills, as determined by employers, is essential for any industrial strategy to work.
  • We welcome the strong emphasis on STEM skills, and on technical education, though the paper fails to mention creative skills and critical higher skills that are known bottle-necks to industrial development, such as training in design, systems engineering, coding etc. However, care should be taken not to artificially separate technical and academic education – it should be recognised that a considerable amount of vocational education is already delivered through higher education providers (e.g. Nursing, Education and Engineering).
  • As digital and emerging technologies are likely to revolutionise work in the coming years, along with more cross-sector working, provision must be made to enable continuous learning, fast and flexible learning, and adaptation of the workforce if the UK is to remain competitive. This may include the need for new professional institutions or incentives for businesses to train.

Upgrading infrastructure

  • This affords opportunities for innovation that are not mentioned, for example by application of systems integration to overcoming transportation challenges or innovative sustainable construction – areas of strength recognised in the West Midlands SIA.
  • Consistency and upgrading of digital infrastructure is essential on an ongoing basis if the UK is to continue to compete as a ‘Tech Nation’.
  • Energy infrastructure is also critical and is currently a constraint to growth of manufacturing in some places, including parts of the West Midlands – relaxation of regulation to allow innovative, local energy solutions is urged.

Supporting Businesses to start and grow

  • This needs to have a strong connection to pillar 1, and to include science and technology businesses and their particular needs, such as proof of concept funding.
  • The work of the Science Parks and similar organisations in incubating and growing science and technology businesses should be acknowledged and supported.

Improving Procurement

  • We are delighted to see the emphasis on stimulating innovation through procurement, including the extension of SBRI and driving changes in conservative public sector procurement practices, as BSC has long been an advocate of this as one approach to demand-led innovation.
  • However, the Paper should go further to consider how government procurement can be used to fosters innovation to deliver value for money/ reform in public services, for example by considering a directed innovation approach along the lines of DARPA, or encouragement of co-creation of solution between public services, innovative business and universities).
  • Private sector procurement can also drive innovation, in effect OEMS can be custodians of innovation across their supply chains, but only a few adopt this stance. How can we engender this type of approach more widely?

Encouraging trade and inward investment

  • This section is very imbalanced with relatively little on inward investment.
  • The Science and Innovation Audits give strong evidence to be used to promote investment from science and technology businesses into the UK that should be exploited.

Delivering affordable energy and clean growth

  • The investments in energy innovation are welcome.
  • More freedom should be allowed for local energy demands to be met with local, innovative solutions, as above.

Cultivating world-leading sectors

  • A focus on sector deals and emerging sectors may be effective if a long-term view is taken and includes the whole supply/ value chain, and allows for new entrants from innovative start-ups.
  • The Science and Innovation Audits may be helpful in mapping sector or market strengths in different regions, and we would welcome place based sector deals.
  • Care should be taken with sector definitions and strengths though, for example SIC codes are notoriously narrow and also some ‘big things’ can cut across traditional sectors, such as batteries, so market strengths may be a more useful term.
  • Attention needs also to be paid to enabling competencies, as we found in the Midlands Engine and West Midlands Science and Innovation Audits. These are strengths that can have impact across markets/ sectors, can encourage cross-sector innovation and can build flexibility and resilience in local economies.

Driving growth across the whole country

  • This is fundamental to the rationale for having an industrial strategy, so every pillar should consider the local dimension.
  • This requires genuine, long-term, two-way engagement and exchange of central government and local structures, evidence and strategic plans, and the resources and freedom to operate. The way HS2 has been allowed to operate is a good model.
  • Sufficient responsiveness needs to be maintained to adapt to changes, such as in demographics and in business/ economic models (eg how do we share wealth created largely by robots?)

Creating the right institutions to bring together institutions and place

  • Although this is a natural extension of the previous pillar, it only deals with new structures and does not address whether current structures are wrong or inadequate.  Science and Innovation Audits might help to understand existing institutions in the innovation space.
  • New local institutions will only be effective if they are granted sufficient authority and resource to operate.
  • We would also like to see this pillar extended to include support for networks and alliances that work across and between existing and new institutions to enable and catalyse collaborative approaches, and cross-sector and cross-organisational learning and innovation.

Debating the power of innovation with the West Midlands Mayoral candidates

By Jane Holmes, Project and Partnership Manager, Birmingham Science City

Developing the region’s expertise in innovation was discussed earlier this month by candidates for the role of West Midlands Mayor.

Birmingham Science City invited all of the candidates to take part in hustings focused on innovation at the West Bromwich Albion football ground. Four candidates took part: James Burns (Green), Beverley Nielsen (Liberal Democrat), Pete Durnell (UKIP) and Andy Street (Conservatives). The event was chaired by Andrew Sleigh, deputy chair of Birmingham Science City.

Each candidate gave an open address to the audience, highlighting their views on the topic. Every speaker praised the West Midlands for its continuing record in delivering cutting-edge work and products, and preparing itself for the future of science and technology.

Funding was raised as a key issue, with the West Midlands needing to attract more investment into science and innovation. Street noted that there needs to be an economic solution to improve the region’s productivity – such as investing in infrastructure and skills development. Meanwhile Burns proposed that support for SMEs should be consolidated, a West Midlands bank should be set up to provide more capital, and community development financial institutions should cater for those without capital.

Nielsen proposed the creation of a £1 billion innovation fund, while Durnell agreed that some of the region’s towns needed more finance and mentoring.

Each candidate also welcomed the West Midlands Combined Authority’s Science and Innovation Audit (SIA), which is currently underway, as identifying areas of excellence and new opportunities for the region.

Further devolution to the region would have a positive impact on the West Midlands according to Burns, allowing the region to explore its untapped potential – a comment echoed by other candidates. Street also noted that innovation was not locked into the governance of the West Midlands Combined Authority yet, but felt it needed to be.

While health isn’t part of the mayoral remit, the speakers were asked to comment on how innovation in the NHS, and reform through its Sustainable Transformation Plans (STPs), could make it more economically sustainable. Nielsen recognised that health is a massive area of opportunity, with the West Midlands able to become a health innovation lab. Street noted that sharing best practice would be vital to promoting innovation and encouraging greater efficiencies. Health was also an area for concern, with Durnell raising issues over cuts to the NHS, while Burns mentioned a lack of transparency around STPs.

The candidates were also told that there is a severe lack of available power in the region – so how would they provide enough power for innovative companies? Both Street and Burns emphasised the importance of energy efficiency, with Burns pointing out that a localised resilient supply such as a local community energy company could plough back profits into generating more energy. Nielsen and Street both highlighted the need for innovation in areas such as housing, with Nielsen also wanting to secure more funding for battery storage or Combined Heat & Power (CHP) systems, building on local research and development.

Another question focused on promoting the region as young, digital and diverse, and a number of the speakers emphasised the importance of digital skills in the West Midlands. Nielsen stated that more money should be invested in digital inclusion in less deprived and privileged areas. Digital skills are critical, explained Street, who proposed a ‘Digital Boot Camp’ with Further Education colleges. Durnell explained how he supported the roll-out of broadband and educating people about how to use it best.

To round off the discussion, Andrew Sleigh asked the candidates about the role of public services as an early adopter and a driver for innovation.  How can the Mayor re-architect how public services adopt and procure services?

Street and Durnell responded by highlighting the importance of working with, and learning from, the private sector. Burns explained that cross-sector working would be crucial for this issue, while Nielsen would use procurement to drive the multiplier effect and help to grow SMEs.

The event was very well attended, with all candidates agreeing that hustings focused on a topic like innovation allowed them to take part in some in-depth discussions and thinking.


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