Rechristened TSB turns a keener eye to market result

Innovate UK is shifting its focus to boosting academia-industry engagement

November 6, 2014

Source: Getty

Production line: to boost commercial prospects, Innovate UK wants ideas to mature in academia and a smoother spin-off process

Is it a bank or is it the UK’s innovation agency? This is one question that executives from the Technology Strategy Board – or the TSB as it came to be known – will no longer have to field. The TSB has rebranded itself as Innovate UK.

The name change may not come as a surprise to those familiar with the agency, which has used Innovate UK in its Twitter address and on its website for years, but for those less conversant with its work, the change is designed to dispel any uncertainty.

“There was some confusion from the customer,” explained chief executive Iain Gray, adding that some people thought the organisation worked only with technology and that the board element of the name conjured up images of a management or governing board. The new name “does what it says on the tin”, he said.

But Michael Hopkins, director of research at the Science Policy Research Unit of the University of Sussex, said the name change was a “missed opportunity”. “It helps to avoid confusion with the [TSB] bank,” he said, but “it will not be very clear immediately to stakeholders what kind of agency this is.” When coming up with the new name, Dr Hopkins said, the agency could have considered “less fashionable” terms such as applied or translational research that more accurately reflect its role.

Squabbles about branding are perhaps less important than the work the agency does, and Mr Gray told Times Higher Education that the name change is symbolic of a bigger journey the agency is on in terms of focusing on the universities and businesses it aims to help.

Some of these changes are outlined in the agency’s Delivery Plan for 2014-15, published earlier this year, which includes details of several new initiatives designed to boost the links between universities and businesses.

A pilot scheme on the commercialisation of academic research in collaboration with the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the SETsquared Partnership – an enterprise collaboration between five universities – is one of these. The scheme will look at how to simplify the process of spinning off companies from university research.

Although it was too early to comment on the specific details of the project, Mr Gray said that the trio are developing a model that can help ideas mature before spinning them off from within the walls of academia. In other countries there are funding schemes in place that support ideas to “nurture in the university”, he explained. “Finding the right point in time to move them out into the business world is a really important concept.”

In the UK, he said, people are “passing the baton over too early” because of the distinct funding systems for spin-offs inside and outside the university. This means that good ideas are not necessarily flowing out of institutions sufficiently developed to ensure that they can succeed in the business world.

More funding, mentoring and support is needed so that there is a better integrated support network between the research councils, universities and Hefce, he argued.

But Dr Hopkins warned that keeping the spin-offs inside the university system for longer would work only if universities are prepared to change. “Science and technology are fundamentally different things…We cannot just expect universities to do technology,” he added.

Academics will need access to people from industry who have a more applied skill set and the commercial nous needed to determine if a potential new drug, for example, has got legs. “It really does require proper resources and researchers whose career paths reflect that mission, [so] it is not just another thing for academics to do,” Dr Hopkins said.

Working partnerships

Developing stronger working relationships between the research councils and Innovate UK is another priority for the year ahead. Co-working is about more than the overlapping space between the agencies – where joint funding occurs, for example – but should be a more fundamental partnership linking early stage research and innovation, Mr Gray said.

“Many businesses are closely involved in early stage research, and many universities and spin-off companies are in the innovation space… It is a continuum of a relationship,” he said.

Working groups between the two parties have been established to help to develop this, and the move is reflected in competitions such as the Biomedical Catalyst, a £180 million scheme with the Medical Research Council that funds innovative research projects.

“[The Biomedical Catalyst] has really changed the landscape of how universities and businesses work together,” Mr Gray said. The success means that the catalyst model has been expanded into agricultural technologies, energy and industrial biotechnology research.

Kieron Flanagan, senior lecturer in science and technology policy at Manchester Business School, said that this joint working is a good thing. “Our scientists and engineers are arguably going to be better informed about the potential of new technologies than are many of our business people,” he explained.

“There is an issue in the UK system in that there is a tendency to look for advice from business figures about public investment in research and development, and innovation,” he said, adding that in his opinion businesses do not have a good track record of deciding how to invest their own innovation funds. “Why on earth would we trust business people to have good ideas on how best to invest taxpayer money?” Dr Flanagan asked.

The amount of taxpayer money that Innovate UK is given each year to invest has been a topic of hot debate. Earlier this year business secretary Vince Cable called on the government to provide it with more financial resources.

Mr Gray agreed there was a need for more investment but said it was not for him to speculate whether this is likely. He claimed that a growing body of evidence documents the economic growth resulting from the agency’s investments. Collaborative research and development programmes, for example, return somewhere between £7 and £8 for every £1 invested, he added.

He has suggested doubling Innovate UK’s annual budget to £1 billion – a recommendation also made in a report this week on the agency’s catapult centres – but stressed that it is “massively important” that this does not come at the expense of investment in science and research.

“I would contextualise it against the huge amount of government investment in procurement in things such as the health service, Ministry of Defence and transport. Even just a very small amount of that committed for innovation would make a very big difference,” he said.

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