Last month, the Conservative Government launched its “Productivity Plan” – an ambitious document which aims ‘to reverse the long-term productivity problem and secure rising living standards and a better quality of life for our citizens’.
The 15-point plan includes a chapter on high-quality science and innovation, and the role that the creation and application of new ideas plays in promoting productivity and growth. This is an area of great UK strength – perhaps, since collaboration so often drives innovation, because the UK is ranked 4th in the world for business and university collaboration.
But this excellence is not distributed throughout our economy. We perform poorly on SMEs introducing product or process innovations. We need to do more to help them capitalise on the knowledge generated by our world-class research base and to innovate boldly.
This is a priority for our group of universities – and we have a wealth of experience, dating back from the industrial revolution when most of us were founded, to share. We have a higher proportion of industry-funded research than other UK universities. Rapidly-growing, innovative companies – especially smaller ones – rely on Alliance universities’ knowledge and networks to expand and succeed.
At a University Alliance workshop on innovation funding earlier this week, hosted by Sheffield Hallam University, we brought together industry and business representatives from across Sheffield and the Yorkshire region with government officials and university staff to talk about how best to target the government help and funding that’s already out there.
We heard four messages. The first was that the current complex and inflexible nature of much of the available innovation funding is limiting our business community from taking advantage of these schemes. But universities can and do step up here – as local partners and intermediaries demystifying the complex funding landscape.
As well as being rooted in their city or region, universities are also globally connected. They use their wide networks to signpost business to relevant expertise all over the country and the world. This can play out in unexpected ways. For example, a Sheffield business expanded into Brazil following student placements with Science Beyond Borders students from Sheffield Hallam.
The second message was that Government support needs to be flexible. Businesses should not have to contort their proposals to suit specific themes or timescales. Knowledge Transfer Partnerships and R&D tax credits work well. As do responsive university interventions which provide businesses with easy and open access to expertise – such as Sheffield Hallam University’s Fix It Fridays which provide drop-sessions providing local SMEs with free help for their problems. This is happening across the Alliance – for example, the GAIN network run by Plymouth University and Coventry University’s KEEN network, one-stop shops for local SMEs in the South West and the West Midlands.
Thirdly, innovation funding should support local strengths and involve local authorities and local people to build on local capital. However networks do not form automatically – they need support. Universities are ideally placed to do that.
None of this is possible without nurturing the right talent. The final point was that people are key to innovation. Businesses want to recruit creative graduates with problem solving skills who are likely to innovate. This requires leaders and managers who are capable of creating the right culture to attract and nurture such graduates – people who know how to learn from failure as well as celebrate success.
This is where universities again can play a vital role – their courses should instil experience of working creatively and collaboratively in graduates. Placements are particularly effective – these provide a two-way relationship and a strong basis from which to develop long-term connections between businesses and universities and future talent, and create expanding networks.
So to help deliver a 15-point plan for Productivity, we suggest a 4-point plan for the future of innovation funding, underpinned by our universities’ crucial role in helping our businesses, cities and regions to flourish.
 Global Competitiveness Index 2014-15, The World Economic Forum, 2014; Main Science and Technology Indicators, OECD, 2015
 The Global Innovation Index 2014, Cornell University, INSEAD and WIPO, 2014; EU Innovation Union Scoreboard, European Union, 2015