Sharing ideas in science, technology and innovation

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Innovation Economy Perspectives from Amanda Brooks, Director of Innovation at BIS

The Birmingham Science City Chief Technology Officers Group’s May event was hosted at Birmingham Research Park. We were delighted to welcome Amanda Brooks, Director of Innovation, at the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). Amanda presented on the role of her department and, in particular, her ambition for it to maximize its proactive stance in response to the opportunities and challenges present within both innovation and economic ecosystems.

Adopting an open, discursive and dialogue-rich approach towards CTO members, Amanda nurtured lively debate and conversation. This enabled both attendees and Amanda herself to come away with much food for thought with which to shape collaborative local, national and pan-European approaches to increasing innovation in science and technology capabilities- all whilst achieving wealth creation.

Amanda shared that she had learned from experience that success in developing and attaining the joint goals of innovation and economic prosperity come down to listening and co-operating whilst leading. For her CTO audience, this translates as a call to members- in their senior leadership capacities- to respond to existing networks and relationships in science, technology and business, and so create the best ‘climate for connectivity’. For Amanda, this is also key to her department’s effectiveness and the measure by which she feels it will thrive or fail to make itself worthy of the ‘Innovation’ in its title. To make this leadership approach work properly, she noted some ingredients necessary for turning this connectivity maxim from simply looking good on paper into creating tangible results. These are: accessibility, investment, internationalization and scalability.


Capturing real results for the UK means making innovation and wealth-creation opportunities easily accessible to businesses. This starts with ensuring that innovation policies are right for us, as a UK economy, and making certain that the structures and tools through which these policies operate allow businesses of all sizes a clear and accessible route to opportunity. A priority for Amanda and her department is supporting the Technology Strategy Board and encouraging its evolution in a way that makes accessibility central to what it does.


Creating accessibility is only part-way down to policy, structures and tools, says Amanda. At the end of the day, progressing in the right direction means committing investment and, more specifically, investment in the right places- sectorally and geographically throughout the UK. As she explains, our historical legacy has not given us too much of a head-start: ‘The UK industrial structure has a distorted pattern in terms of where our research and development spending is going… National research and development proportions of public and private spend are low in comparison to other countries’. But we can make this paradigm shift happen from here on in. No easy task, granted; but a necessary one, for certain. (We may note that these views, reassuringly, answer some of the questions and observations from our last blog on balancing national excellence and local need.)

Putting forward a request to the audience, Amanda asked attendees to help the government understand why it is important to invest more in science, technology and innovation. Her ‘ask’ was not for just a one-off consultation, but a call for regular dialogue, to which the CTO group responded enthusiastically.


Prior to her current position, Amanda spent a number of years in the Far East. She played a crucial role in creating growth policies and industrial strategies, in Singapore, as the UK’s Deputy High Commissioner. The experience, she explained, has made a lasting impression on her and is shaping her approach towards what she does today.   Fundamental to her views on innovation for economic growth is the reliance of this growth on international collaboration- connecting the dots between local, national and international environments, and not treating their dynamics as separate and unrelated. This means encouraging trade and industry relationships, but it is also about adopting and adapting to new ways of working. All of these points were met with considerable approval by the audience and formed the basis for constructive discussions throughout the morning.

Some of the insightful and useful points made by CTO members comprised the following:

  • Science parks are great centres with which to bring together localized innovation networks, strengths and energies.  We can use them to connect to wider national and international dynamics.
  • European Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF) provide an excellent way to lever not only finances but common goals and priorities from sub-national to international levels. (The audience articulated strongly the need to create and pursue ways of using local and national funds to leverage ESIF, especially those funds from the Local Economic Partnerships and from the Technology Strategy Board.)
  • Our respective organisations, and the ecosystems that we create between us need to be co-ordinated and must work towards the right kind of outputs and objectives. We can look to the international stage for examples of how to do this effectively.

Coming out of the internationalization discussion arose exchanges around scalability.


The group was keen to understand how, given the disappearance of regional- level governance, a coordinated innovation offering could be made by and in partnership with the 39 Local Economic Partnerships. Members found this a challenging prospect, particularly as LEP boundaries do not necessarily overlap with natural innovation and economic boundaries, in geographical terms. Amanda acknowledged the limitations, expressing desire for BIS to facilitate support for LEPs to ensure that they do work with these natural boundaries. (Although she noted two significant realities. One- not being able to change the current LEP boundaries and their inherent limitations; and, two- the more fundamental issue of vulnerabilities inherent in changing political administrations and the operational shifts caused by their respective ways of working.)

Amanda explained that the TSB could help by linking in with the regions, but that this will most likely be in the form of embedding their activities within and with existing environments and organisations, rather than setting up new regional hubs of their own.

Other crucial ingredients of effective scalability identified were: the creation of well-coordinated business support mechanisms; effective procurement channels; and training, knowledge-sharing and up-skilling for businesses in order for them to make the most of opportunities for themselves. So, first, we must foster the creation of business support products with particularly strong co-ordination of both their control mechanisms and content.  (This will avoid the proliferation of near-duplicate initiatives and individual projects, and the confusion and resource inefficiencies that would ensue). Second, there must be recognition that there is a necessarily steep learning curve for public sector organisations to climb, to share good practice in providing a critical mass of procurement routes and means that are realistic for the most innovative businesses (be they large or small). Lastly, there should be greater promotion of schemes such as Horizon 2020- already with a high UK uptake, but which can be promoted even further- where businesses and, of late  most especially SMEs, can lead research and development projects designed specifically to further their own innovation potential and market competitiveness- ideas to wealth in a nutshell.

Amanda posed two questions to the audience:

  • What is working well with BIS’ approach and what needs to be improved? (Where are the successes? Where are the gaps? Where should we spend or not spend? What and where is the evidence for our responses to these questions?)
  • What does the interaction with local, national and European landscapes look like for your organisations and partnerships? How can we make things clearer and easier to access and work with?

What are your views? Do let us know and help us to keep the dialogue with Amanda and BIS very much open and alive.


Amanda can be followed on Twitter: @AmandaBrooksBIS


The Chief Technology Officers Group provides a forum for science and technology innovation leads from larger private and public sector organisations to network, share ideas, increase best practice and discover business opportunities. If you and/or your organisation would like to find out more, please go to:


Our thanks to Dr James Wilkie, CEO of Birmingham Research Park Ltd, and his team for hosting the event.


Susannah Goh, Demonstrator Development Manager, Birmingham Science City



Research and development need not always be complex and expensive.  R and D Tax Credits can make a great difference to your company’s financial development and innovation potential.

Our government has continued the last administration’s commitments in providing tax credit opportunities to innovative enterprises.  To date, this has helped businesses carrying out R and D to the total tune of £5.6bn.  Yet, there is often reticence by many companies to claim the corporation tax help for which they are eligible.  Each company will have its reasons for applying or not applying.  However, there are common misconceptions about viability that we hope to challenge in this blog:

Myth 1: You’ll need to do ‘never-done-before’ R and D

Fact: Eligibility doesn’t mean brand new R and D

To claim, you don’t have to come up up with completely new R and D.  Unless a company’s knowledge has been in the public domain, any duplication of research and development may well still qualify.  This marks a change from the original R and D tax credit scheme rules.

Myth 2: Applications are relatively easy, reflecting the fact that you can only get small amounts of money

Fact: Tax credits need not be peppercorn.

Credits claimed may be substantial.  Making a claim and qualifying is not an onerous process, but this does not mean peppercorn sums.  For example, under some circumstances, the tax credits released on a company’s qualifying expenditure can be as much as 56%.

Myth 3: It’s for large companies

Fact: The R and D Tax credit scheme is designed as a workable SME alternative to the R and D tax relief scheme for larger businesses.

Size often matters in terms of a company’s ability to do R and D.  But so does context.  Given that we are not necessarily talking about needing groundbreaking research to qualify, or the employment of additional scientists and technologists, or hefty expenditure on laboratories and equipment, the scheme is designed to fit comfortably into the operations of small and medium-sized businesses.

(Image: )

So having established a few vital truths, how is the viability of a claim decided?

The activity has to be for a project that attempts to:

  • Advance the level of knowledge in a field of science/technology and
  • Resolve scientific or technological uncertainty

This is a very broad definition, so it can also help to remember that:

  • Only part of a project may be thought of as ‘difficult’ R&D but frequently large routine elements will also qualify if they are essential to proving the R&D
  • You do not need to share that information with anyone else in the industry
  • Success of the project is not essential

R&D costs eligible for the incentive are as follows:

  • Staffing costs –  including salary, national insurance costs, pension contributions
  • Consumable and transformable materials – materials consumed/transformed in the R&D process, as well as software used directly in the R&D
  • Limited overhead payments for power, fuel and water
  • Externally provided workers, including agency staff and sub-contractors

(Image: )

If your claim fits the above criteria, you may well be in with a good chance of a successful claim.  You may think that your R and D is what you do in your ordinary workaday life, but these workaday activities  could well be worth many thousands of pounds in saved or reclaimed corporation tax.

Phil Arch

Phil is an Associate at Business Solutions ( ) and a member of Birmingham Science City’s Digital Working Group

The legacy of Birmingham’s noble history of invention, entrepreneurship and manufacture provide the foundations for the future. However, approaches to stimulating its 21st Century economy need to be creative to address the needs and ways of today’s economies and societal norms.

One of the biggest drivers for innovation today is the knowledge economy and its intimate linkage to digital technologies. New industries have been created based on intangible products and services, and as these technologies mature they are increasingly being applied in more traditional businesses. As such ICT is a valuable and successful standalone sector, but it is also an ever increasing driver of innovation across all sectors and needs to be recognised as such.

National and local innovation and growth strategies are focusing on key sectors, business support, skills and access to finance.  All are issues in their own right, but in reality they are components of a complex and interactive ecology. As a consequence, strengthening one component in isolation just moves the factor limiting successful growth to another component.
In order to strengthen the ecology, holistic interventions need to be cognisant of implications for the whole, not delivered as separate components that generate imbalance. Interventions, whether public or private sector led, cannot be directed at short term out-puts, gratification or returns; in such a dynamic environment delivery must be achieved in a sustainable, additive and supportive manner that can move to reflect prevailing needs.

Success in terms of Darwinian evolution determines that it is those most fit for the prevailing conditions that will prosper; this means decisions about component levels that change the local enterprise environment will in themselves drive selection.

For example, lack of skills and expertise in a local community will mean companies requiring those skills either adapt or die. They can adapt by bringing the necessary skills in from outside the region by relocating staff or by utilising today’s digital connectivity to work with remote skills, or they can train up their own people. A longer-term intervention would be to provide targeted skills sets through the educational system.
Birmingham needs its knowledge economies to thrive so we need to promote environments that enable them to operate in a networked, horizontal manner.  This city’s very size is a strength in a knowledge-based economy, but at the same time it is a weakness. The necessary horizontal connections are harder to secure, simply due to the societal and physical complexity of the city. Even in a world where distance is far less of a barrier than it has ever been, local relationships are still required; people want to interact and serendipity is far more likely to flourish when regular face time is an organic occurrence. As is widely quoted, ‘innovation is a contact sport’.

Birmingham must grab hold of the innovators who dream up winning ideas in their academic laboratories, corporate offices, homes or garden sheds and show them that the most rapid and effective way to translate their concepts into commercial reality is to become immersed in a driven community of the like-minded. It is in this context that Birmingham requires ‘urban innovation engines’ to trigger, generate, nurture and so catalyse economic growth in the city.

Birmingham already has a number of focal points, beacons: physical locations within the city that pull together communities, such as the Innovation Birmingham Campus. Here, digital and tech entrepreneurs rub shoulders with their gaming, media, medtech, low carbon and built environment counterparts, along with the professional service providers and supportive services. Consequently, they drive forward their novel ideas, business opportunities and innovate.

More open innovation and cross-fertilisation between our talented entrepreneurs will happen once the different enterprise hubs work more closely together. So, we need to link the businesses on our Campus with businesses in the other beacons of sector-specific communities such as Fazeley Studios, the Custard Factory, Birmingham Research Park and the Longbridge Technology Park; with locations such as Millennium Point and the Library of Birmingham and the city’s universities. Then you have a truly connected knowledge economy and a Smart city.

A critical next step, to further widen the effects, is to connect existing SMEs around Greater Birmingham into these innovation ecologies and help them ‘know what they don’t know’ and so drive innovation.

These SMEs may also be from the knowledge economies, but the real opportunities will be derived from connecting new and old economy businesses. It will drive access to new markets, maximising opportunities arising from our excellent track record of attracting inward investment. It will also further boost our export performance, generate or accelerate new growth in established businesses and create opportunities for start-ups.

Successful beacons are those where management actively engages and understands clients’ needs, and where there is – at the same time – intimate engagement with local economies. Successful beacons understand and build on legacy strengths and help to create complete innovation ecologies. As such, they are very different from general office offerings.

This holistic approach generates local clusters of businesses; the locations are then beacons where next generation entrepreneurs know they can locate to, to mix with expertise and experience and like-minded people in an actively managed ecology, and so gain benefit and more rapidly deliver their businesses.

So where do talented entrepreneurs currently find such holistic support?  The unfortunate answer is that – although a plethora of support is available – it tends to be accessed by the small minority of businesses who are already ‘in the system’. The lack of clarity in the local offering means that many businesses do not find their way into the innovation ecology and so miss out on potential growth to the detriment of the local economy and jobs market.

It seems obvious that Public Sector business support should be simplified, and that a focus on the Enterprise Beacons is a way forward such that they become the access points for this support. In doing this, we take a major step towards addressing the current lack of clarity in such offerings, helping unpack the complexities and drive awareness.

The nature of these beacon-based communities is that they will provide automatic signposting to the support, largely delivered by word-of-mouth from the converted – those that have already benefited from public funding – to those needing it. This is nothing new, the SMART Awards offered by the then Department of Trade and Industry in the 1990s were delivered locally, and previous winners were used to market the offering to the next generation of applicants. The result was a fully subscribed programme and a sense of local pride in achieving an award as a result of the local recognition.

By engaging at the coal face of the city’s entrepreneurial vein, these funds would be readily accessed in a much more timely fashion, and so address the urgency of the start-up and SME needs. Whilst it is important to recognise that a new venture’s market will be global, in the early days its business needs will require very local engagement.

For inward investment and marketing, the Birmingham tech-brand also benefits from the beacon approach. Recognising these beacons provides the visible evidence of what is already happening in the city, and provides tangible activity on which to base the marketing of the city as a true tech-cluster.

Successful economies exude confidence.  False confidence can be delivered through marketing a brand without substance, one without a complete ecology, but knowledge communities establishing in such environs will soon falter and dissipate and the economic benefit will stall. New industries have been developed out of informal discussions literally for centuries but they only become an economic success when the entrepreneurs have stopped talking and started doing.

Birmingham’s streets and coffee shops are as good as those in London or any of the other core cities. We have many examples of highly successful world-leading tech companies in this city – they show it can be done. Indeed, there are over 3,000 tech-companies with a Birmingham postcode. Birmingham has a digital knowledge economy so where is our confidence?

The connected economy approach links the beacons to the existing SMEs and larger corporates in the region providing the magnets with which to attract inward investment. We have exemplified substance behind the marketing campaigns we now need a range of city stakeholders to become actively involved; connecting, communicating collaborating; the reality is developing a digital economy is not a spectator sport………………. so let’s do it.

Dr David Hardman

CEO of Innovation Birmingham

You’ve been developing a great idea that you think will help to solve a societal challenge.  You’ve spotted an opportunity, but you want to make sure that you understand the market before diving in and committing a large helping of time and money. Excellent! Please read on.

Here, at Birmingham Science City, we keep an eye out for connections and resources that can help you to make things happen.  You will probably have heard of the Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI, for short), but you might have passed it by.  We’d urge you to take another look, as it’s a highly accessible and useful scheme for the innovation-minded.

A few important points of clarification…

SBRI is there to help you develop commercialisable solutions rather than engage in ‘pure’ research.

It’s not only for ‘small businesses’  -although it’s very suitable for SMEs.  The ‘small’ refers to the funding of small but important steps between concept to commercialisation.  So, as long as you can show potential to commercialise your successful ideas, you can be  from the public, private and third sectors (including universities) or be a consortium containing one or more of these.

Lastly, it enables innovators to address public sector delivery challenges affecting our everyday lives.  You may deliver real and widespread social and economic impact in what you will develop.  You’ll be developing resources that could be purchased by local authorities, NHS trusts and educational establishments throughout the UK.

Will I need lots of match funding?

No.  Indeed, you may not need any.  Financially, winners can  access funding for  development contracts of up to £100K or 100% eligible costs. So you will not necessarily need much in the way of money to enter the competition.

What’s the focus in the current round?

(Image from Engineering and Technology Magazine)

Future Cities and, particularly, the use of Open Data to develop data or energy or transport/ mobility solutions.

What happens and what do I do now?

You’ll enter a two-staged competition.  You apply, this August, to win resources for a feasibility study (Phase 1).  If successful, you’ll start it in November 2013.  Once you’ve performed your study you’ll be eligible for a second competition round (Phase 2). Here you will pitch for a chance to test out your ideas in practice (applying in early June 2014).  If you win a second stage award, you’ll start working with a city that will offer itself as a free testbed for your idea in August 2014.

Registration for Phase 1 closes on 7th August (noon) and the application deadline is on 14th August (noon).  Please don’t be phased by timescales- remember that you’re applying to resource a feasibility study, initially, so you need a good concept and proposal, not proven answers and a masterplan.

Prepare well and concisely.  SBRIs have been running for a number of years, so the teams involved have tried their best to make the process swift and user-friendly.  The competition and application criteria, process and form are clear and concise, and can be found here (Click the purple box that says ‘Register and Apply’).  Also, to get a good background grasp of the priorities of the Future Cities round, download and read Solutions for Cities.

What is the scope of the competition? Do I have the right expertise?

You need to address  one of the three Future Cities challenges.  These are:

Develop a data platform for power and heat usage with sufficient granularity to identify community trends and individual usage patters in both domestic and commercial buildings.

Develop a non-proprietary, generic and open-source city management platform solution that can connect disparate data sets and data sources that exist within a city.

Develop a scalable, on demand mobility solution to help employees or visitors reach businesses within a city.

Note: Open data is the raw resource, but how you use it is up to you.

Can I pick a city?

(Image from

You’ll be careful matched to the city that best suits your innovative ideas.  A number of cities around the UK have succeeded in being granted testbed status.  You may or may not be allocated the city nearest to you.  But this should, I am told, not matter.  If you are chosen, you’ll have demonstrated criteria for scalability and replicability.   Being a competition winner, you’ll have the IP to take away with you to use wherever you wish.

Good luck!

Wishing for your success…

Susannah Goh

Continuing to support and stimulate business growth through innovation, the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) recently set out its delivery plan for the year ahead.  We have had a look at their plans and this blog has been written to provide a snapshot of their priorities and an overview of some of the key resources and opportunities that will be available to you.

The Budget

With a total budget of £440m for the 2013-2014 financial year, TSB will be committing £300m worth of opportunities, through 75 competitions.

SMEs Opportunities

Recognising the enormous potential that SMEs, in particular,  play in the commercialisation of  innovation, TSB will continue to provide a number of opportunities, including the following resources:

Innovation Vouchers

These will help businesses to look outside their existing networks to find the knowledge they need to increase their chances of commercialising innovation.

Smart Awards

These will help single businesses to assess the commercial viability of their projects.

Small Business Research Initiatives (SBRI) Grants

These 100% grants will help businesses to engage with the public sector consumer and customer.

Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTPs)

KTPs will enable businesses to access the knowledge of specialists through partnerships with  universities.

Key Themes and Priorities

Thematic strands for the 2013-2014 year will include:

Energy… obtaining up to £35m for business-led projects and missions, and £10m for the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult,  focusing on sustainability, security and affordability of supply.

Resource Efficiency … receiving up to £8m for competitions, special interest groups and missions.  Emphasis will be on substituting at-risk and high-environmental-impact materials; resource life-cycles; and reducing material use and energy intensity.

Built Environment… opportunities offering up to £16m to business -led projects, and £10m for the Future Cities Catapult, prioritising systems integration, systems users and designed performance.

Food…seeing up to £14m committed to business-led projects, with engineering solutions, integrated farming systems and measurement technologies being priorities.

Transport… seeing business-led projects, studies and workshops receive up to £35m between them, and £10m going to the new Transport Systems Catapult.  Funds will be distributed enable to exploration of integrated transport systems, low-carbon vehicles, rail systems, marine vessel efficiency and aerospace.

Health…remaining a key priority with a £68m budget dedicated to activities, the Cell Therapy Catapult and the Biomedical Catalyst.  Priorities will include  disease detection, prevention and management; tailored treatments for disease; and progress towards potential cures for diseases.

High Value Manufacturing (HVM)… receiving up to £63m for the HVM Catapult, collaboration competitions, Knowledge Transfer Partnerships, special interest groups  and building links with China.  Priorities will include resource efficiency, manufacturing systems and processes, new business models and the integration of new materials.

Digital Economy… having £37m dedicated to competitions, and £10m going to the Connected Digital Economy Catapult.  Priorities lie in exploiting data, new value models, resilient and interoperable digital systems and linking services to customers.

Enabling Technologies… focusing on challenge-based, cross-sector collaborations in areas such as robotics and autonomous systems, advanced materials, biosciences, electronics, sensors, photonics and ICT.  Up to £30m will be dedicated to activities in these areas.

Space Application… receiving up to £10m for the Satellite Applications Catapult, and a further £11m for TechDemoSat (industry and academia mission) and UKube (miniature technology pioneer), Knowledge Transfer Partnerships, special interest groups and competitions.  The emphasis will be on satellite data, space-based satellite systems, national and European space programmes and demonstration.

Emerging Technologies… developing, with a £7m budget for  special interest groups  and an innovation and knowledge centre in synthetic biology. Priority areas will include disruptive technologies, particularly synthetic biology, energy efficient computing and energy harvesting.

Keeping Up-to-Date

There will be many opportunities in the year ahead.  To make sure that you are one of the first to hear about competitions, events and discussions, why not sign up to the TSB’s _connect   network?  Simply join up and then browse the topical networks and special interest groups that interest you most.  A tip for you is to join groups that relate directly to your business or area of specialisation, and  also explore groups with specialisms that may interest you as potential areas of business.  There is a lot of cross- sector and cross-industry working going on, so you may find new and unexpected opportunities.

Good luck!

All the best


Last month, I was invited by our colleagues, at Birmingham  City University, to be part of their international Interreg Policy Clinic for Cross-Innovation, in Stockholm.  The theme of the clinic was ‘Using Space to Promote Innovation‘, with particular reference to the creative digital industry.

I was more than happy to take up BCU’s offer, especially as there is lots of  new and exciting work being done in our region to transform physical spaces for the enhancement of science, technology and business interplay.  Philip Singleton and his team at Millennium Point– as per our last blog- are bringing several science and technology innovation fields under one roof through their ‘Play, Move, Work, Live’ theme; thus creating dynamic synergies between the diverse fields of  digital media, health, low-carbon, infrastructure and the arts. David Hardman and his team, at Birmingham Science Park Aston, are creating a ‘Science Park Without Walls’ which links the use of physical and virtual space to create a science park with a truly global reach.

Millennium Point, Birmingham

digital plaza Birmingham

Visions of the Future- Digital Plaza, at Birmingham Science Park Aston

By visiting Sweden, I saw the opportunity to both showcase our good-practice and learn about what other delegates and, in particular, our Swedish hosts, wished to share about their own space-based innovations and observations.

I took away a few good tips:

To achieve success, don’t carbon-copy success from elsewhere…

Although business manuals sell millions of copies by telling us how to do this or that to get amazing results, there is no off-the-shelf solution for success.

Whilst it is fine to aspire to be as successful as Silicon Valley (albeit on a different scale), we should avoid trying to be Silicon Valley.  Emulating its business models and structures too closely is unlikely to work well.  Agreed.  Space is a tangible and quantifiable thing, but the relationships that inhabit it are much less so.  Each space has an existing or incoming community with a unique ecosystem of needs, capabilities, limitations and working dynamics.  Enforcing alien templates is likely to stifle creativity and that vital sense of community and ownership which is crucial to the cohesion and success of the space’s function.

[Image by Georgia Institute of Technology]

Particularly important in achieving success is being able to understand what motivates current and potential residents.  Success and wealth creation may be  key to the commercial viability of the space, but these should not dominate the host’s relationship with and selection of tenants. Sara Loenroth of Stockholm’s Transit Kultur creative business incubator keeps things creative.  She explained:  ‘an artist is an entrepreneur by definition… by helping them to find structure and helping them them to understand entrepreneurialism through how they understand their art… you can produce great results’.  Help companies to understand business in a way that means something to them.  Soft touch and gradual business guidance are better than pushing homogenous working cultures.

Champion connectivity…

Understanding an innovation space means understanding what and who is in the space, as above; but it also means understanding what and who is around the space.  Spaces should play a role as centres of connectivity- as open catalysts rather than fortresses.  It is healthy for relevant interest-based communities around as well as in them to determine their nature and function.  Allowing this fluidity and dialogue is often key to their success and longevity.

An interesting example of this connected longeivity is Stockholm’s Royal Sea Port Media Cluster.  This is not wholly a science and technology  innovation space, but its life-story to date can be taken as a case study of a thriving space and place-based centre that is self-growing and replenishing- a kind of biosphere, I suppose.  Interestingly, it has received no government intervention whatsoever- funding or otherwise- to grow and prosper.  Businesses  like to congregate and develop of their own accord. RSP’s canned history reads thus:

A move of the docks to another area of the city left acres of brownfield land vacant.  Television companies initially seeking low-price real-estate and lots of it (to build their studios) settled.  Then came designers and technologists to service the film and television offering.  Now, it is truly an ecosystem: with companies collaborating; staff moving freely between them to enhance their skills and knowledge, and then returning to more senior positions years later; new start-ups developing upon finding their niche, etc.

Of course, RSP is in a capital city that has considerable industry pull.  But, size aside, what makes it work is, arguably scalable.  The questioning is about harnessing interest, getting known as a space for dialogue and collaboration, and letting these developments go on to reap their own rewards and benefits.  Reputation travels, and if it is the right reputation, opportunities are likely to gravitate towards you.

Royal Seaport Stockholm [Image by]

Combine wisdom and a sizable helping of chance…

My conversations, in Stockholm, reminded me of a recent talk by David Hardman which featured the Three  Princes of Serendip and their discoveries resulting from a mixture of wisdom and accident.

The Three Prices of Serendip [Image by Nina Spencer]

No matter how well thought-out your plans, don’t be too swift to handpick your network based on what you think you want to achieve.  You may have  certain industry strengths in your area, so- as above-  make efforts to welcome the relevant communities.  But don’t prevent those who are not of your target  industries from developing active roles in your space.

Fredrik Helgostam, runs the highly successful co-working space Kolonien.  It is located in what is best described as the ‘innovation campus’ of Telefonplan- the former site of Ericsson’s telephone factory.  Kolonien is a well known for its technology-based achievements.  However, the majority of companies are not technology companies, but design, form, media and creative enterprises .  Helgostam is not too concerned.  He’s quite the opposite, in fact. He boils high levels of occupancy and innovation down to ‘a climate of co-operation’.  Diverse individuals and diverse disciplines meet and synergies form.  By giving companies windows into different worlds, on a daily basis, they become flexible and open-minded.  They find new ways to solve challenges in ways that their training and professional mindset would not automatically proffer.

Images of Telefonplan (Images by]

Between Order and Chaos

So, successful innovation spaces should promote something  in between order and chaos-  something like planned openness and serendipity if there can be such a thing.

When we talk about spaces, it is easy to focus on their physical characteristics.  But whilst the right levels of comfort and aesthetics are undoubtedly conducive  to creativity and productivity, innovation spaces are largely about the people that fill them and even more about how they interact.  Innovation spaces should, perhaps,  be called ‘canvasses’- areas designated for creativity, imagination, skills and expertise to bloom.  Those like David and Philip are on the right lines- successful spaces should be without walls and have plenty of room for enjoyment, interaction, diligence and a sense of belonging that come with playing, moving, working and living.

And finally… I would like to extend a big ‘thank you’ to Steve Harding, Tom Cahill-Jones and Alexa Torlo-Hartwell, of BCU, for their invitation and support in inviting me to represent Birmingham Science City.  Also, very many thanks to our wonderful hosts in Stockholm, especially Monica Slama.

All the best


Stimulating presentations at the latest Science Capital event-  Drugs, Diagnostics and Delivery: Pharmaceutical discovery through partnership- got me thinking about how much innovation is down to chance and how much is down to expertise and strategic thinking.  We like it when something good occurs out of happenstance.  We also get satisfaction from knowing that efficient planning, organisation and hard work have given us the results we want.  But how do we strike the balance to achieve optimal benefits? Speakers for the evening gave plenty of food for thought on how to go about achieving success.  The examples given related directly to pharmaceutical and medical solutions, but much of what I garnered could quite happily be applied to wider fields of science and tech innovation and, I would say, general good business practice, too. So, I would like to share the following, in particular:

Collaboration is key to understanding reality.  Innovation of any kind will not happen if you don’t have a culture of dialogue, collaboration and reflection to make this happen.  Your technology may be cutting-edge and your staff highly-intelligent and skilled, but if they don’t check and apply their expertise against what key stakeholders and end-users need and work together with them, they are likely to  solve only a perceived rather than  a real problem.

Industries need a way of capturing the expected and the unexpectedeffects and side-effects.   There are numerous unintended positive consequences- almost ‘innovations by accident’- in what we do in our everyday scientific and technological work.  We need to keep a look out for them.  The University of Birmingham’s Prof. Jim Parle is currently working on spotting trends in beneficial drug reactions.  He noted that patients, as well as researchers and clinicians, should be encouraged to report good and bad side-effects of medication in order to capture other uses for the drugs or their ingredients.  After all, that’s how the better known use of Viagra was discovered!


The best innovations are often unlocked over time via, if you like, a codebreaking approach.  Accounts of innovative successes reported in the media can give the impression that scientists and technologists achieve  big breakthroughs in ‘Eureka moments’.  But the reality is not so instantaneous.  Farhat Khanim, of University of Birmingham’s School of Biosciences,  spoke about her research in drug redeployment- experimenting on  different safe permutations of drugs in order to unlock medical solutions gradually.  This is an important approach within stratified medicine, where patients are treated individually-according to their unique health needs and backgrounds-  and not as a member of an homogenous group with one condition requiring identical treatments.


Weigh up the value of innovating  and producing innovation.  This balance is an important ingredient for success for Astra Zeneca.  Sarah Maxfield, Alliance Manager, explained: ‘The importance of trust and flexibility is (not to be underestimated)…  softer benefits might be more significant than predicted tangibles’.

Overall, innovators agree that pursuing innovation is a process wherein people are as important as their knowledge and planning and structure are important in enabling your team to capture chance.  Reflecting upon this, it was very appropriate that the presentations for the evening finished with an insight into the forthcoming Institute of Translational Medicine, which will be located in Birmingham.   Prof. Charlie Craddock, Director of the Blood and Marrow Transplant Unit at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, noted that there will be a mixture of clinical and academic groups, pharmaceutical companies, SMEs, educators and health economists working on-site.  Significantly, the Institute will also engage with the large and diverse population of Birmingham and its surrounds for the answers to better health for today and tomorrow.  Encouraging collaboration and appreciating very different but equally crucial knowledge and expertise  sets are evidently very high on the ITM ‘s agenda.

It’s reassuring that, if we want to, we can all play a part in determining innovative health solutions whatever our background.  And its not just the health arena that’s opening up. Science Capital’s next offering on 17th October  brings us to the equally diverse playing field of the Digital World . Yes, some of this world is about digital technology and Smart Cities, but above all its about smart people.  No, not just technologists, but people who can think differently and people who want to make a difference.  I think it’s a safe bet to say that if you are reading this you are probably one of them.  So, I’ll look forward to seeing you there!

All the best


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