The UK’s transport failings are constraining its spin-out potential

Unlocking potential will need huge injections of funding, proper devolution and the type of long-term planning that has long been absent, says Sue Hartley

November 24, 2023
A spinning steel wool firework between 2 train carriages, symbolising spinouts
Source: iStock

The government’s independent review of university spin-outs, published this week, made a number of recommendations to help the UK create a world-leading innovation ecosystem that is “more ambitious than a replica of Silicon Valley”. This is exactly what we should be striving for, and the chancellor’s Autumn Statement announcement of £20 million to help universities develop more spin-out companies is certainly welcome.

But the review also highlights that universities can’t achieve this vision on their own. We need to work with partners in our cities and regions and overcome infrastructure and transport challenges to ensure our spin-outs generate the desired benefits for our communities and the UK economy.

At the University of Sheffield, we have transformed how we help our researchers explore the commercial potential of their work. We have made innovation and commercialisation a strategic priority and have invested in a commercialisation journey that puts innovators at its heart. This includes providing them with the support, training and investment they need to make informed decisions about potential commercialisation routes. We de-risk these ideas and offer the space, time and, importantly, finance to test their technology and business plan development.

We are proud to be one of the three universities that founded Northern Gritstone – an investment company established to boost the commercialisation of university spin-outs and start-ups in the north of England. I sit on the Northern Gritstone Board and can see the difference it has made, not only to our spin-outs, but also to the wider community. Its activities have raised more than £300 million of venture investment.

We have done all this work to provide an environment where our academics, research students and technical staff can explore how commercialisation can enable a global impact from their research, as well as create opportunities in our local communities. As an anchor institution, built on penny donations from steelworkers, coal miners and factory workers to be a university for Sheffield, this is important to us.

We have seen how our research and development can create high-skilled jobs and that prioritising the “D” and not just the “R” of R&D is a key component, opening new market opportunities and attracting the type of large-scale inward investment that can drive growth and employment. We have also seen the success of our partnerships with industry in creating opportunities for our region, such as the partnership of more than 20 years between our Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) and Boeing, which led the company to open its own facility in Sheffield. Last week, we broke ground on a facility for a new £80 million manufacturing project with the company, the largest ever R&D initiative at the AMRC.

However, at a recent event the university hosted with the N8 research partnership of eight northern research-intensive universities and the Royal Society of Arts focused on opportunities for innovation-led growth, one topic kept coming up – infrastructure.

Universities such as Sheffield could create the best spin-outs in the world, but if those start-ups then move to London, say, or Cambridge, our region won’t capture the economic rewards. If they move abroad, the whole of the UK is deprived of the benefits. To scale spin-outs in our country, we need excellent lab and office spaces in our regions and better transport and interconnectivity around the north. It is welcome that the independent spin-out review acknowledges the transport and commercial infrastructure needed to help spin-outs make tangible differences to communities outside the south east. We now need the government to act.

In Sheffield, we are working with partners in our city and region to overcome some of these challenges. For example, our involvement in the South Yorkshire Investment Zone has led to work in the city to outline the Sheffield Innovation Spine concept – an area identified as a possible clustering, incubation and scale-up space to link the University of Sheffield’s spin-out pipeline growth with the growth of other technology-rich start-ups in the city.

However, getting the transport connections we need is going to take huge injections of funding, proper devolution to drive local needs and, to be frank, the type of long-term planning that has been absent for many years. Efficient and reliable travel is vital for collaboration, business interaction and investment to develop, and it ensures that the wealth created in our cities and innovation clusters can spread into nearby towns.

So my ask of UK higher education is this: let’s celebrate the ideas that come from our university’s innovators and the benefits they bring to the UK. Let’s continue to play our part in creating the ecosystem we need for commercialisation to thrive. But let’s also work together to lobby for public investment in the type of infrastructure needed to realise the huge potential in our regions and really level up the UK.

Sue Hartley is vice-president for research and innovation at the University of Sheffield.

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