Sharing ideas in science, technology and innovation

Transforming the energy landscape

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

Energy Systems Catapult (ESC) gave one of the most highly anticipated presentations for the SMEs attending Venturefest West Midlands. The talk was presented by Tony Diciccio and Phil Lawton of the ESC, along with Gavin Shone from the Energy Innovation Centre (EIC).

ESC is one of a national network of elite technology and innovation centres (Catapult Centres) set up by Innovate UK, based in central Birmingham.

It aims to stimulate innovation in UK industry and bridge the gap between businesses, research and government, to accelerate the development of new technology-based products and services in the energy sector.

The vision of the ESC, launched in April 2015, is to have a clean, intelligent energy system that unleashes the potential of this industry. This opportunity is realised through looking at the entire energy sector – from the generators, to the distributors, to us, the users.

Current infrastructure is becoming outdated as new technologies come to the fore, with the growth of electrification, decarbonisation, and digitalisation. The new technologies could lead to a potential £46 billion positive impact on UK GDP when the energy sector is transformed.

Furthermore, the increase in efficiency could achieve a saving of £27 billion. ESC does big things to meet these challenges across six different programmes, including its Future Power Systems Architecture and Smart Systems and Heat initiatives.

For SMEs, ESC offers a support scheme covering three basic principles: universal assistance, collaborative working, and commercial support. This can help SMEs to innovate in energy systems whilst saving money along the way.

Working with the EIC, ESC provides a list of rolling challenges to problems that SMEs can help to solve. Much of this is achieved through its dedicated EICHub – a digital platform that both the energy industry and SMEs can access. The industry can upload its problem and an SME can indicate that they have a solution to that problem in one click.

It is great to observe that the ESC, working in partnership with the EIC, is ensuring that the massive potential to innovate the energy industry is being made possible at grassroots level.

The ESC is also an active member of the Birmingham Science City-run Innovative Low Carbon Working Group (ILCWG) and recently hosted and presented at the latest ILCWG meeting on 21 September 2017 at its Birmingham headquarters. Many of the above initiatives were shared amongst ILCWG members.

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Taking advantage of overseas markets to grow your business

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

Companies must take advantage of the growing exports markets, according to the International Trade Advisor, Christine Hancock, at Venturefest West Midlands 2017.
Representing the Department for International Trade (DIT), Hancock led a lively and interactive session that explained how companies of all sizes are eligible for free, impartial and confidential advice from the DIT.

There is a dedicated DIT West Midlands Office to help companies to export and grow overseas. Their services, detailed at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/ukti-teams-in-the-english-regions/ukti-west-midlands-helping-companies-export-and-grow-oversea, include masterclasses, online training, tradeshow support and guidance on international communications. Further specialist support is available in market research, export finance, IP and online sales.

The export industry is increasing rapidly. More than a quarter of last year’s UK exports were by companies exporting for the first time, according to Hancock. The DIT has recently helped companies to export products in sectors as diverse as aerospace, animation, craft beers and medical technologies.
There are a range of factors that business leaders must consider when they are looking to export. In considering a location to trade with, companies must weigh up differing freight costs, package requirements, language barriers, currency costs, and local culture. Although this may seem complicated and risky, Hancock explained that exporting can bring new market share, new customers, and a higher profile for companies.

The DIT aims to make the transition into an exporting a company a smooth one, guiding businesses on information, research, and planning, including product and service tailoring. This is achieved through international trade advisors – such as Hancock – plus language and cultural advisers, and digital experts.
As a parting gift to guests, Hancock offered the sage words of James Dyson: “In the past, the UK got away with selling things that weren’t unusual. Now, it’s no use trying to export without having something that is unusual or better”. This means that there are particular opportunities for the innovative businesses that engage with Venturefest and the Birmingham Science City Alliance.
The West Midlands already records a strong exporting performance. It is the top exporting region in the UK outside of London and the South East, according to HM Revenue & Customs. Export businesses in the West Midlands grew by 12.3% in 2016, the highest of any UK region.

If you want to join this growing group of exporting companies in the West Midlands, the DIT West Midlands have events and support to help you. For more information, contact wmenquiries@mobile.trade.gov.uk or 0345 222 0159, or visit the website at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/ukti-teams-in-the-english-regions/ukti-west-midlands-helping-companies-export-and-grow-overseas.

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.

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.


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