Angus Horner, director of science and innovation centre Harwell Campus, explores how UK tech innovation can continue to grow in the 21st century.
The British have had many national characters, as befitted the ages that we have lived through. In the 18th century Adam Smith and Napoleon reportedly described us as a nation of shopkeepers. As we move through the 21st century we should become a nation of ‘merchant inventors’.
The Prime Minister’s recent industrial strategy sought to soothe Britain’s industrial sector, following up on earlier promises to invest in digital and physical infrastructure, as well as the creation of a new £4.7bn fund for innovation. This shows a government that is aware of the great challenges and opportunities facing our economy via the fourth Industrial Revolution.
The UK is demonstrably leading the pack in the global tech race. Boston Consulting has found that our digital economy accounts for 10% of GDP (US is at 5%), the highest share of any major economy. Research shows that 17 of Europe’s 40 unicorns were founded in UK, placing us firmly in the number one spot for the region. But given the speed of change, remaining competitive is a long term, multi-generational exercise.
We can learn from history; too many times before we have created and then squandered competitive advantage in crucial areas. Our civil nuclear power industry, which originated in Harwell, dwindled to a shadow of its former self during the latter quarter of the 20th century. Yet ongoing work in Oxfordshire is providing a new lease of life for the industry, as research in the sector leads to breakthroughs in advanced robotics, super computing and advanced materials, which are driving the fourth Industrial Revolution.
While the Prime Minister’s macro strategy is important, it is only half of the battle. The startups and scaleups that provide the lion’s share and some of the most surprising and disruptive of UK innovation will benefit, but it is important not to forget that these micro enterprises have different needs. We need support both to rebrand as a nation of ‘merchant inventors’ and prosper in the twenty first century.
Advanced manufacturing companies require a revolving door between commerce and research. Tech startups need the best possible access to academic bodies and laboratories, making it easier to convert ideas into action and ultimately revenue. This challenge was described by a commons committee on science and technology as “bridging the valley of death”, and it is a priority for a country like the UK with excellent universities and a commitment to investing in high tech. We now have little excuse with regard to the availability of investment capital. Fund’s such as Neil Woodford’s Oxford Sciences Innovation platform of over £500m is, alongside other major funds and capital, playing a crucial role in turbocharging our knowledge economy by providing capital.
What we need to focus on is the fact that innovation takes place at the overlaps and interface between different sectors, which is why partnerships between companies and universities are so important. Collaboration is not simply a case of banging heads together; academic and commercial research have different motivations and drivers. Companies need to frame research goals in terms of prestige and novelty to appeal to academics motivated by peer recognition. Educators need to be mindful of the deadline-driven nature of private companies and to buy into corporate goals in order to make research that is commercially viable.
Business incubators also help to create the conditions for innovation. Talented young people graduate with viable research ideas every year, and business incubators provide an opportunity to access shared facilities that SMEs themselves could never afford. These tech incubator units give a leg up to companies at the beginning, when they need it most. Improving access to advanced engineering technology will pay for itself many times over; providing ambitious young scientists and entrepreneurs access to advanced lasers or neutron generators allows them to go from concept to practice quickly, and taps into the excellent science graduates our universities produce every year.
The work of Tech City UK and similar digital organisations is to be applauded, but tech growth will not only come from internet and software-driven companies. There are many tech sectors in the UK ready to grow and wanting help with research, from the space sector to agricultural biotech. Marc Andreessen likes to say that software is eating the world, but it is the lab work in biotech that is feeding the world, making crop growth more efficient and resistant to global warming.
Innovation requires an ecosystem, and no single actor can take all the credit for breakthroughs. Government can provide tax incentives for collaborative projects and encourage universities to seek more corporate partnerships for research courses. But one thing common to almost all innovation is collaboration and the sharing of knowledge between us. Acting in concert the combination of these macro and micro conditions, more than the quantum invested, will be what leads to UK research progress and to a happier, wealthier and healthier nation.