Sharing ideas in science, technology and innovation

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


This is the response of the Birmingham Science City (BSC) Alliance to the Green Paper “Building Our Industrial Strategy” (

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 (  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 ( and the supplementary West Midlands SIA (Framework at 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 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.

Developing partnerships through the art of networking

By Ravi Kumar, Project and Partnership Manager, Birmingham Science City

The Birmingham Science City Alliance is all about partnerships and collaborations across the local innovation ecosystem.  Networking is an invaluable tool to help develop successful partnerships. Done correctly, it helps to create new relationships, leading to successful collaborations, new opportunities, cultivated friendships and a source of professional support and inspiration.

Image result for venturefest west midlands

In the following blog I will share invaluable tips that have helped me make the most of all networking events that I attend, and point you to some innovation related events and networks that you may wish to get involved in.

1. Arrive early. It’s almost counter-intuitive, but showing up early at a networking event is a much better strategy than getting there at a later time. As an early attendee, you’ll notice that it’s calmer and quieter – and people won’t have settled into groups yet. It’s easier to find other people who don’t have conversation partners yet.

2. Have a plan. Since every person has value, it’s essential that you know what yours is. Before you attend any networking event, get clear on what talents, strengths, skill sets and connections you can bring to the table. Map out what you want to talk about, particularly how you may be able to help other people, either now or in the future.

3. Ask easy questions. Don’t wait around the edges of the room, waiting for someone to approach you. To get the conversation started, simply walk up to a person or a group, and say, “May I join you” or “What brings you to this event?” Don’t forget to listen intently to their replies. If you’re not a natural extrovert, you’re probably a very good listener – and listening can be an excellent way to get to know a person.

4. Forget your personal agenda. Remember, networking is all about relationship building. Keep your exchange fun, light and informal – you don’t need to do the hard sell within minutes of meeting a person. The idea is to get the conversation started. People are more apt to do business with – or partner with – people whose company they enjoy.

If a potential partner does ask you about your skills, product or service, be ready with an easy description of your organisation. Before the event, create a mental list of recent accomplishments, such as a new collaborations you have started, business you’ve landed or project you’ve completed. That way, you can easily pull an item off that list and into the conversation.

5. Share your passion. Win people over with your enthusiasm for your organisation, product or service. Leave a lasting impression by telling a story about why you were inspired to create your company or pursue your professional interests. Talking about what you enjoy is often contagious, too. When you get other people to share their passion, it creates a memorable two-way conversation.

6. Smile. It’s a simple – but often overlooked – rule of engagement. By smiling, you’ll put your nervous self at ease, and you’ll also come across as warm and inviting to others. Remember to smile before you enter the room, or before you start your next conversation. And if you’re really dreading the event? Check the negative attitude at the door.

7. Never dismiss anyone as unimportant. Make it your mission to discover the value in each person you talk to. Ask questions and listen with interest. Don’t make the mistake of discounting people due to their titles. Someone you meet may appear ‘junior’, but they may have valuable connections or knowledge you’d never learn about if you’d dismissed them.

Then, when the conversation ends, remember what that person has to offer as you move to the next.

8. Connect the dots. Once you begin to listen to people and learn what they can bring to the table, you’ll start realizing how one person in the room may be able to help another. Make it a point to connect people you feel have something of genuine value to each other. When you go out of your way to make those potentially promising connections, you’re doing your part to make the networking event a success.

9. Remember to follow up. It’s often said that networking is where the conversation begins, not ends. If you’ve had a great exchange, ask your conversation partner the best way to stay in touch. Some people like email or phone; others prefer social networks like LinkedIn. Get in touch within 48 hours of the event to show you’re interested and available, and reference something you discussed, so your contact remembers you.

10. Believe in the power of networking. When you believe that the true value of networking lies in helping others and you do your part, you’ll soon discover magic happening all around you. The beauty of this approach is that you never know when that magic may cast its spell on you.


On the events page of Birmingham Science City Alliance website you will find a whole range of innovation-related networking opportunities taking place in the West Midlands all the time.  There are also a number of Groups and Networks regularly convened with or by Birmingham Science City, with each group contributes towards achieving our objective of building and maintaining a thriving innovation ecosystem, catalysing collaborative activity and strengthening our collective expert voice for innovation.

Image result for venturefest west midlandsBut perhaps the best event of the year to extend your innovation networks is Venturefest West Midlands, where 600-700 innovators, entrepreneurs and investors will be convening on 27th June 2017.

The Birmingham Science City Alliance – 2016 achievements in a page

By Dr Pam Waddell, Director of Birmingham Science City

The revised Constitution of the Birmingham Science City (BSC) Alliance was adopted in December 2015, stating:

Birmingham Science City is an alliance of public, private and university stakeholders working together to stimulate and promote science and technology driven innovation for business growth and improved quality of life in Birmingham and the West Midlands.

This blog lists key achievements across the BSC Alliance in 2016 against each of the three objectives of the new constitution. Those in italics have been significantly enabled by the BSC Executive Team.

1. Building and maintaining a thriving local innovation ecosystem

  • The second Venturefest West Midlands was held at the NEC with over 600 innovators, entrepreneurs and investors attending with a wide range of partners contributing to the event
  • The BSC Executive ran/ co-ran over 20 Working Group, 4 Board and 4 Chief Technology Officers meetings, averaging about 15 attendees, with a presentations and wide-ranging discussion
  • The BSC website was refreshed and the Blog was relaunched as a tools to inform and encourage debate on innovation strategy, support and delivery
  • The Energy Systems Catapult moved into its premises in central Birmingham
  • Both the i-Centrum Building (including Serendip Incubator) and the Universities Centre were opened on the Innovation Birmingham Campus
  • £250m Midlands Engine Investment Fund (Fund of Funds) was approved and will launch early 2017

2. Catalysing collaborative activity that drives Science and technology based innovation

  • Midlands Engine was one of first wave of Science and Innovation Audits selected by BIS (now BEIS) and audit was conducted and published. Work is underway to develop funding asks against the market-driven priorities that emerged
  • A supplementary WMCA Science and Innovation Audit is underway funded by 3 LEPs
  • WM Academic Health Science Network launched Meridian, an online health innovation exchange
  • Nine projects are live in the Priority 1 (R&D and Innovation) strand of the current GBS LEP ERDF Programme, with 5 more approved, including Innovation Engine 2 and the Medical Devices Testing and Evaluation Centre
  • The Consortium for the Demonstration of Intelligent Systems (CDIS) proposal was developed to the point that phase 1 (£5m) has started the approval process of the WM Combined Authority
  • Midlands Innovation (6 universities) launched the £60m Energy Research Accelerator
  • Birmingham City University secured £14m of government funding toward the STEAMHouse Innovation Centre at Digbeth working with the Creative sector.

3. The collective expert voice for innovation

  • The West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) Innovation Working Group ensured that the WMCA Strategic Economic Plan included innovation as a strong priority
  • GBS LEP formed an Innovation sub-Board (of Business Pillar Board) and an Innovation Executive post
  • Innovate UK has established a regional manager post that has linked well to the BSC Alliance.

It has been a busy but successful year for the small BSC Executive team and all the BSC Alliance partners – but we look forward to more connecting, catalysing and comment in 2017!

West Midlands Finance for Small Business

29 November 2016

Dr Norman Price, OBE, Chair of Birmingham Science City and Chair of Regional Finance Forum

Access to Finance is a perennial need and challenge for small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs).  This post summarises the current status of access to external finance (not grants) of less than £2million and associated activity for SMEs both at the Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) and West Midlands regional level.  This summary has been put together with members of Regional Finance Forum (RFF) and the Cross-LEP Finance Group, and draws on the reports mentioned at the end of this blog.

This document must not be seen as totally comprehensive and authoritative as it is a complex and changing scene. Web provided throughout this blog are a good and necessary check if any approaches or schemes are to be pursued.

1. Banking relationships and products:

  • Normal lending. Bank lending is still tight for SMEs. There is recognition by Government that banks are having difficulty lending to SMEs, affected by the new capital rules and the prevalence of risk adjusted credit assessment. Supply dropped in spite of initiatives designed to reduce these constraints, but recently there has been some improvement. The small business community believe that beyond banking weaknesses there is real inherent market failure in this space which needs public intervention. This will be worse now that Brexit is imminent as EU money was crucial in helping to fill the market failure gap. ( see reference).
  • Banking Referral. The Chancellor announced that from 1 November 2016 ‘refusing banks’ must refer requests to 1 of 3 broker mechanisms accessing other finance, namely Funding Options; Funding Xchange; Business Finance Compared. This new referral system which is statutory after an unsuccessful voluntary arrangements, is being overseen by British Business Bank and its web site shows more detail. It has developed from government consultation with small business, particularly the Federation of Small Business (FSB). We all encourage this approach with interest.
  • Bank of England are studying small firm funding, amongst other things, and ran a regional forum in October 2016 in Birmingham which was attended by many individuals active in the market. RFF members contributed and have also had separate meeting with officials.
  • Other Banks. There is recognition by intermediaries that different banks are operating differently, with varying degrees of appetite and imagination, and a range of personal approaches; this variation is not always explicitly acknowledged. The RFF believes that there are many companies constrained by cash and the issues are that banks do not wish to lend without security, or at rates that get nearer to the actual risks, and are affected particularly by the risk constraints imposed by official regulation and their shortage/cost of local competence to make detailed assessment. Trust of banks is still low, reinforced by recent Royal Bank of Scotland disclosures.
  • Guarantee schemes. Enterprise Finance Guarantee (EFG) Scheme continues supporting the main banks while two local CDFIs (see definitions and detail below): BCRS and CWRT are accredited and ART and Impetus are in course of accreditation. The offers nationally are now at the reduced rate of around £300m/year. Whilst there are many complaints particularly around the demand for personal guarantees as well as the EFG, it is still an important option for companies, in particular where security is scarce. It has full national distribution (nominally), is one of the largest public interventions and is a real recognition of the inherent market failure possibilities, as it is also in other countries. There has been publicity about Banks miss-selling but actually the situation is much more complex, with arguably the government restrictions and demands being the main issues.
  • Asset backed investment. Normal Invoice discounting (with modern variations), and factoring continues to grow and in spite of the reservations of ‘traditional accountants’ can be extremely valuable in funding working capital growth. Fixed asset leasing schemes are endemic and supplied by most lenders. There are also some schemes for government support run through the banks with support for asset investment to the extent of 10/20%, and it goes well alongside normal asset based lending.
  • Exporting. Support for this is a national and company concern. Positively, there is now interest by government in helping exports, including SMEs, with a new EFG scheme, though the 60% guarantee is not widely exploited. For further information refer to the Government UK Export Finance pages.

2. Non Bank Loans:

  • New entrants. National emphasis is continuing to encouraging new entrants of all kinds into the market. The new referral legislation, as above, could be a very significant move in this respect as they will now have new guided access to existing banks’ customers.
  • CDFIs (Community Development Finance Institutions) These institutions with some public support are crucial to dealing with market failures below around £150k. They lend after a bank decline as an additional source of finance. BCRS business loans, based in the Black Country , extended into Staffordshire and Shropshire over the last few years, lending up to £150k. It now lends across the West Midlands including specific targeted local funds, such as Worcestershire with a new Business Loans fund up to £50k from September 2016. ART Business Loans originally active in the Birmingham area has also extended to the wider region in the last three years on loans up to £150k. CWRT Business Loans in Cov/Warwick CDFI is active and lending up to £75k and Impetus Business Loans in Pershore also lends throughout the West Midlands but mostly in Worcestershire and the Marches. There is strong concern about government negative attitude to agreed and contracted recycling which is currently denuding the CDFIs of expected cash.
  • Other public funding. Finance Birmingham are still lending in the £100k to £1m space now expanded to the whole Greater Birmingham LEP area, including Solihull. A government Start-Up Loan Programme also targets businesses up to two years old with soft loans of up to £25K delivered by local and national partners.
  • Internet Based/peer to peer activity. General sites identified, include Zopa, Funding Circle, Lending Works, Ratesetter, Assetz, and Funding Knight, all with their merits. The major local player is Business Loan Network’s Thincats, whose lending is now above £200m and continuing to develop with larger loans up to £500k. The whole market is growing fast and there are many different models for reducing risk including credit reference, security, and sometimes like Thincats, knowledgeable assessment and combinations of all these. Rates are high (above 10%?) and mostly security is required but they lend when banks will not or are not trusted. There is some concern that new regulations might constrain, and most established lenders have applied for FCA approvals. Financial intermediaries are now starting to understand them and specialise in recommendations. The market activity is an exciting development, and is often now close to traditional lending with less inherent costs. However it is generally still expensive and security based for clients. Peer to peer for equity including crowd funding is not so established and there are more doubts about its viability.
  • Supply chain funding. Advanced Manufacturing Supply Chain Initiative (AMSCI) was mainly from West Midlands LEPs run nationally by Birmingham City Council/Finance Birmingham. It originated locally to help the automotive supply chain serve growing automotive development and tooling but has expanded to a national scheme. Broadly it supplies grants/ loans of minimum £200k for the local scheme (total available was £25m), or £2m for the national scheme (total available £100m). For more information talk to Finance Birmingham.

3. Specific Regional Venture capital (VC) and support

Lack of VC is very rapidly becoming a priority throughout the region as the former-Regional Development Agency established funds, from single pot and also European Regional Development funding is starting to run down (see reference). The region has also not been too successful in accessing regional growth funds for this gap. In detail, remaining sources are:

  • Midven is continuing to run many early stage companies but is virtually out of new money.
  • Mercia Fund Management, run out of Henley in Arden, has recently had very significant changes in its operation, to make it arguably the most significant national fund for high tech spin-outs nationwide after Imperial Innovations in London. Most of the money can be used anywhere but it has expressed a policy of concentrating on the Midlands and North of the UK, with Universities a focus. Currently/ recently Mercia (i) continues to run its original evergreen fund for spinouts supported continually by ERDF investments although money is short until realisations; (ii) floated on Aim in December 2104 with the support of well known investors including Neil Woodford formerly of Invesco and has since acquired Enterprise Venture group which operated mainly in the North; (iii) raises Enterprise Investment Schemes (EIS) and Seed EIS of over £1m per year, using the latest government tax benefits to support early stage businesses carrying on the practice of the last 4 years; (iv) has Funds under management of £228m and direct investment capability of around £50m available for start ups, follow on and other investments; (v) broadly provides a ladder of investment from start up to maturity with experienced staff to help identify, control and develop technological opportunities.
  • Advantage Early Growth Fund received more ERDF to match with angels at point of investment and is still investing but at very low level.
  • Finance Birmingham has a comprehensive set of funds available to Greater Birmingham LEP area but also sometimes to the rest of the West Midlands and others. These include: High tech /early stage companies, £50k up to £500k; Creative £50k to £500k; Equity £250k to£1m; Loan £100k to £1m; Mezzanine to £2m.
  • National funds. There are many national and other commercial venture capital providers in the region, some part of British Business Bank (BBB), but generally are interested in investments larger than £1m.

4. Angel/ Start up activity

  • Tax relief for private individuals, investing by Enterprise Investment Scheme (EIS) and Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme (SEIS) are very generous with over £1.5B raised nationwide in the last year at a cost to the exchequer of over £500m in lost tax. Mercia has funds, as above and there are others operating on a smaller scale. Minerva with HQ at Warwick Science Park, but presence throughout the region and beyond, is the major independent regional Angel network with 22 investments in the last 3 years. However a recent report (reference below) has calculated that SMEs in the West Midlands use less than a third of EIS UK average per SME. The RFF was very keen that focused encouragement of angels should be part of the Fund of Funds (now Midlands Engine Investment Fund – see below) development as there are issues with network costs but it was not accepted. Thus further initiatives are still required – potentially each LEP could develop its own Business Angel networks either independent, linked to larger players in funds, or to others using the Business Services community.
  • Science Parks. Many of the science parks have incubation centres, both actual and virtual, which can provide signposting to finance people and services to help, often with the support of public funds and are considered amongst the best in the country. These include the Innovation Birmingham Campus at Birmingham Science Park Aston, the University of Birmingham’s Bizz Inn, Warwick Science Park, Keele University Science and Innovation Park, Malvern Hills Science Park; Coventry University Technology Park and Wolverhampton Science Park, and new ones are emerging. They normally specialise in particular technologies.
  • Support through Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) and Growth Hubs. There were formerly ERDF funded activities in virtually every LEP area in support of start-ups. In the new programme it is not so clear as but the local Growth Hubs are the best place to start to identify LEP-level programmes of support.
  • Proof of concept. There were formerly funds in various geographies – they still exist in Worcestershire and Coventry and Warwickshire, and could be replicated elsewhere.

5. Fund of Funds/Midlands Engine Investment Fund( MEIF)

The Regional Finance Forum identified the need for a ‘fund of funds’ mechanism using recycled AWM and ERDF funds, and European Investment Bank borrowings, when AWM closed, and has been researching and developing the idea with all the 6 West Midlands LEPs and national government departments since 2012. It is a game changer in the amount of funds available and is to be delivered by the British Business Bank (BBB) in cooperation with all the local LEPS. The MEIF/ Fund of Funds will have the following characteristics, as announced by the BBB on 17/20 October 2016.

  • Approximately £250m has been allocated from ERDF, EIB, BBB, and RDA legacy funds over approx 5 years, across the whole Midlands i.e. including East and some South East Midlands with the Midlands Engine Investment Fund (MEIF) label.
  • The funds are in the procurement stage in late October 2016 with the objective of being available in the market from February /March 2017.
  • Four lots are being procured (see BBB web site) (i) Equity: initial allocation of c £80m; 20% below £250k. (ii) Debt: initial allocation of c £120; 25% below £200k; 70% below £500k. (iii) Small business loans of c £30m; 25% below £50k; 70% below £75k. (iv) Proof of concept/ early stage funds; initial allocation of c £20m; 50% below 250k.

6. Further reading

  • A full independent review, driven by RFF, of West Midland’s access to finance, by Regeneris under the supervision of European Investment Bank (EIB), for consideration by EIB and DCLG in potential use of EU funds 2010-2020 is a fact based background reference for this paper – this is very enlightening.
  • The Business Finance Guide is a new helpful national publication on sourcing finance and other support that has just been issued, written by the ICAEW.

Evidenced and integrated action to drive innovation in Birmingham & the Midlands

By Pam Waddell, Director of Birmingham Science City

The Leader of Birmingham City Council recently described Greater Birmingham and the West Midlands as ‘the mother of invention and the father of enterprise’ and the Chair of the Midlands Engine talked about ‘the start of a golden decade for the Midlands’ – a sign of growing confidence, particularly in our potential for innovation fuelled growth. At the same Conservative Party Conference Fringe Event the Prime Minister anticipated that ‘with the election of West Midlands mayor … we will fire up the Midlands Engine, we will make sure that this economy truly does work for everyone.’

The layers of Midlands geography may seem complex, perhaps a barrier to realising these ambitions, but they are in fact highly complimentary, offering different scales and specialisms for investment and action. A summary of the layers is given below:
At each layer of geography, the role of science and innovation in driving increased productivity is given prominence:

Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership (GBS LEP) is a business-led partnership of private, public and academic centres, that works to deliver economic growth in ‘Greater Birmingham’ and raise the quality of life for its 2 million residents. The GBS LEP Strategic Economic Plan is included as one of its three priorities ‘to be a world leader in innovation and creativity’, with a particular focus on stimulating demand led innovation.

Image result for GBS LEP             Image result for west midlands combined authority

The West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) is a legal body that brings together GBS LEP and neighbouring LEPs in the Black Country and Coventry & Warwickshire. The West Midlands Mayor (from 2017) will have devolved powers and budgets allowing big issues to be tackled more effectively and coherently. The Strategic Economic Plan of the WMCA, which complements and supports the LEPs’ individual plans, has innovation as one of its underlying principles, threading through the eight priority actions.

The Midlands Engine is a collaboration involving 11 LEPs (including the three WMCA LEPs), 86 local authorities, 27 universities and 25 science parks – a geography of 11.5 million people. The Midlands Engine is a banner to promote the region, and a collaboration of such scale to allow direct bidding to government for programmes and projects. The Midlands Engine prospectus states innovation as one of its five priorities.

There is, therefore, clear commitment to stimulating science and innovation as a driver of the economy and quality of life at all our layers of geography.  There is also consistent commitment that an evidenced approach to prioritising investments and actions, in keeping with the definition of Smart Specialisation adopted by the UK government:

Smart Specialisation seeks to ensure that proposed actions are based upon sound evidence that properly reflects the comparative advantages of the physical and human assets of particular places in the global economy. It emphasises the need to ensure that activities are fully integrated in the local economy and its supply and value chains.

In the light of this commitment the Midlands Engine embraced the opportunity to be in the first wave of Science and Innovation Audits (SIAs) in England, backed and published by by BEIS (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy; formerly BIS). The Midlands Engine SIA report was successfully submitted in September for publication by BEIS, as above, after an intense summer of data analysis, extensive stakeholder consultation and debate amongst business, LEPs, universities, science parks, Catapult centres and network organisations. The report presented a new framework for prioritising interventions in innovation to drive productivity – we are awaiting publication of the SIA reports by BEIS at the time of writing, but it will be the subject of a future blog post on this site. It moved our thinking on from sector based, to a framework where four market-driven priorities and three enabling competencies have been identified where investment will bring the greatest impact, based on our existing strengths and future opportunities. The process, as well as the findings, of the Midlands Engine SIA will be hugely beneficial. It has fostered new relationships, identified synergies, and helped to identify, develop and embed both the concept and content of the Midlands Engine innovation ecosystem.

There is recognition that the SIA forms only the first step to develop a competitive and integrated innovation ecosystem for the Midlands Engine, and its constituent areas, so more detailed and comprehensive action planning work will continue. Immediately, a supplementary piece of work is planned to identify in more detail the science and innovation strengths and opportunities in the WMCA and its three individual LEPs. This WMCA SIA will follow the same principles as the Midlands Engine report, to ensure that decisions and priorities for innovation at the LEP, WMCA and Midlands Engine geography, each at the appropriate scale, can complement each other.

As the Industrial Strategy for the UK develops (see previous post on this site) , it is clear that understanding the science and innovation strengths and opportunities of different geographies will be critical to optimise local action to exploit them to improve productivity. In a recent speech on the matter Greg Clarke stressed the importance of ‘Building upon … a powerful record on science and innovation’ and his view that ‘any successful industrial strategy has to be local’. In the approach we have been taking in Greater Birmingham and the West Midlands Combined Authority, with partners across the wider Midland Engine, we have been positioning ourselves to exploit our science and innovation assets and opportunities to become a major driver of productivity for the UK.

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