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How will Innovation drive our Future Economy?

When the Comprehensive Spending Review was announced on July 21st, it was encouraging to see that a core objective was the provision of new structures and investments to level up, ultimately enabling all regions to contribute to the success of the UK.
22 September, 2020

I have previously written on levelling up describing how R&D investment is regionally unbalanced in the UK, citing Nesta’s estimation that Northern Ireland would require an additional £250million to match the per capita spend on R&D seen in London, the South East, and East of England. In this report, Tom Forth and Richard Jones put forward the case for strategically directing more R&D spend towards regions with weaker economies. They explain that targeted R&D funding in East Germany has contributed to the development of innovation clusters in the region, which have played a role in the economic strengthening of East Germany, resulting in the regional inequality of GDP falling in Germany, while at the same time, it has risen in the UK.

Funding alone is no guarantee of innovation, nor is innovation a guarantee of economic prosperity. While there is no set formula, true innovation is achieved through several enabling factors and depends on those factors connecting to work towards a shared goal.  

This is illustrated in a recent report from The Royal Society titled ‘Research and Innovation Clusters’ which features eight notable innovation clusters from cities across the globe; one of which is Belfast. The report presents an example of an innovation from university-based technologists which through collaboration with government bodies and tech industry leaders, succeeded in creating a cluster based on digital technology. As a result, Belfast has the second fasted growing knowledge economy in the UK.

Working in partnership to drive Innovation

Collaboration is a fundamental part of the work we do at Queen’s, both with industrial partners and with world-leading academics. Queen’s has consistently been ranked as having the greatest number of Knowledge Transfer Partnerships. And with over 62.2% of our publications being co-authored with international colleagues, Queen’s is ranked in the top 25 universities in the world for international joint publications (U-Multirank 2020) and is regarded as one of the best connected universities in the UK.

Writing for The World Economic Forum, Farnam Jahanian, President of Carnagie Mellon University describes four key ways in which universities play an increasingly important role in our innovation ecosystems, namely;

  1. Fostering entrepreneurship
  2. Encouraging collaboration with the private sector
  3. Promoting diversity and inclusion
  4. Exploring the nexus of technology and society

Examining these points, it is easy to see how Queen’s, in collaboration with other HEIs, businesses and government organisations is exceptionally well placed to support the Government’s aims of levelling-up and driving innovation which translates into social and economic returns at a regional and national level.

1. Fostering Entrepreneurship

Queen’s leads in the delivery of Innovate UK’s core enterprise programme for universities- ICURe, In alliance with other universities in Scotland and Northern England (North by NorthWest Partners) as well as the pre-accelerator Lean Launch Programme. The programmes cultivate a culture of entrepreneurship among Early Career Researchers from across the UK and the Republic of Ireland and offers support, guidance and funding in commercialising their research. Similarly, Queen’s leads enterprise and commercialisation for Agri-tech across Europe, EIT Food Seedbed Incubator, demonstrating a commitment to developing effective translation for R&D into economic and social benefit across the UK and more widely. More recently, Queen’s launched Adapt4Growth, a business support programme designed for Northern Irish SMEs to help them realign their business models in the wake of disruption caused by COVID-19, enabling them to market-test novel ideas for future growth in a post COVID-19 environment.

Beyond enterprise programmes, Queen’s has a long tradition of success in commercialising its research through spin-out companies including LSE +£1bn valued Kainos Group Plc, Andor Technology, and Fusion Antibodies Plc, and is ranked No 1 in the UK for commercialising research (Independent analysis by Octopus Ventures, 2019).

2. Encouraging collaboration with the private sector

Through another Innovate UK initiative, the Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) scheme, Queen’s supports more businesses than any other university in the UK with 51 active partnerships assisting local SMEs to improve their competitiveness and productivity through the better use of knowledge, technology and skills that reside within the UK Knowledge Base.

Belfast has a series of emergent clusters in fintech, advanced manufacturing, creative industries, digital health and precision medicine, many of which are either co- located within the university, are heavily collaborating with or have directly emerged from the university.  

The Belfast Region City Deal (BRCD) is an ambitious £1bn programme to help grow the region’s business strengths in life and health sciences, ICT, digital and creative industries, and advanced manufacturing. As a leading partner in the delivery of the innovation pillar of BRCD, Queen’s will collaborate on the development of the Global Innovation Institute (GII). The Institute will serve as a hub for co-innovation between researchers and industry in data security, connectivity and analytics. It will be a place where local and global companies, entrepreneurs and researchers will come together in a multi-disciplinary innovation environment to accelerate innovation in priority growth sectors for the region particularly Health and Life Sciences, and Agri-food.

The University’s recent successes in securing funding from UKRI’s Strength in Places Fund (SIPF) further underlines our commitment to enhance collaboration between academia and industry to deliver economic impact, drive local growth, provide skills and create high-value jobs.

3. Promoting Diversity and Inclusion

Delivering research excellence, a range of enterprise initiatives and a portfolio of successful spinout organisations does not tell the full story. As an innovation-led economy emerges, it is critical that universities continue to focus on incorporating diverse perspectives into their research and enterprise activities.

This year the enterprise programmes management team at Queen’s has made a commitment to actively monitor the composition of our innovation programmes and pipeline with inclusion metrics to make positive efforts to promote better diversity and inclusion.The University has an extensive range of bursaries, scholarships and programmes which seek to raise educational aspirations among those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

Our commitment to equality and fairness is enshrined in the University Charter and Statutes and, as a University community, and we are always guided by these principles. In April this year, the University Senate approved a new Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Policy restating our duty to the promotion of equality of opportunity and to creating and sustaining an environment that not only values equality and inclusion, but also celebrates the diversity of its staff and student body, which so enriches our society. 

4. Exploring the nexus of technology and society

Queen’s is at the forefront of cutting-edge research, developing pioneering technologies and thinking on a global scale through four Global Research Institutes within the University; The Institute of Global Food Security,  The Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice, The Institute of Electronics, Communications and Information Technology  and The Institute for Health Sciences, each bringing different disciplines together on a scale that enables them to address major societal challenges.

By providing expertise and guidance in these areas at a local and national level and beyond, Queen’s serves an important role as a non-profit making partner in regional decisions. Working in constructive partnership with the Northern Ireland Executive, local businesses and stakeholders across the length and breadth of both the UK and Ireland, Queen’s makes a tangible difference to the lives of people in the community.

Connecting for a Better Future

Northern Ireland is primed to play a major role in a balanced innovation-led UK economy. For that to happen we must continue to build and strengthen our pipeline with more highly skilled jobs in the growth areas. To achieve this there is a need for further targeted interventions in key sectors, such as computer science, where data indicates that many jobs cannot be filled due to shortages of graduates.  More emphasis needs to be placed on ensuring R&D investment is uplifted consistently and that it remains a long-term commitment through ring-fenced government funding for innovation to match levels previously only seen in the south-east of England.  Additionally, to achieve maximum return on investment the region must be afforded the flexibility in funding to coordinate skills, talent, facilities and partnerships to enable us to move at pace and go further and faster in support of our ambition, not just in the interest of regional development, for the benefit of the UK economy as a whole.

The current possibility allows us not only to plug the decades-long ‘brain-drain’ that saw many of Northern Ireland’s brightest young minds leave home for opportunities in other countries, but an ability to attract and retain a highly skilled workforce to enrich Northern Ireland’s blossoming landscape of successful local businesses as well as bolster our continued success in attracting first class foreign direct investment.

As Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser, the Chief Executive of UKRI stated: “Our opportunity is to connect our research creativity and innovation with inclusive economic and social benefit, to connect the ability to research and innovate with people across the UK, and create a system that is embedded, collaborative and empowering. It is an inspiring opportunity. Working together, I am confident we will seize it."

Addressing Global Challenges

Excellence in research and innovation, and making a positive global impact, are central to what we do at Queen’s University Belfast. Find out more.

Photo: Professor Emma Flynn Professor Emma Flynn
Professor Emma Flynn joined Queen's in May 2019 as Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research and Enterprise. A developmental and comparative psychologist, Professor Flynn is a leader in her research field, with multiple international and inter-disciplinary collaborations.
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