Private sector backs hub to tackle innovation drought

An article published by The Telegraph on 6 September 2011

Written by James Hurley

Featuring: Big Innovation Centre Launch! It has primarily been funded by private sector backers to act as a bridge between universities and business to help commercialise research

Corporations, universities and small businesses are to join forces in the Big Innovation Centre, a “hub” designed to improve the UK’s ability to commercialise innovation.

BAE Systems, GSK, Unilever, Google and EDF Energy are among 11 companies, together with Oxford University on behalf of seven of research institutions from the Russell Group of leading institutions, that have invested in the Big Innovation Centre (BIC), which is due to be launched by Business Secretary Vince Cable on Thursday.

One of the functions of BIC, which has primarily been funded by its private sector backers, will be to act as a bridge between universities and business to help commercialise research.

It is also aiming to boost investment in emerging sectors such as health science, low carbon technology, virtual reality and cyber-security. While the body, which will be part of the Work Foundation think-tank, will also make “evidence-based” policy recommendations, its director Birgitte Andersen said this will only form part of its remit: “Just talking about tax cuts and R&D [research and development] tax credits is not going to do the job,” she said.

“The UK has a fantastic history in innovation but that hasn’t been the case for the last decade. Radical action is needed if we’re to avoid another decade of stagnation.”

Ms Andersen said BIC was hoping to establish regional consortiums of small businesses to participate in its projects, which will include establishing joint research projects and ‘pilot-companies’.

“[Our sponsors are] opening their doors, supplying data and allowing us to trial test research to see if it works in practice,” Ms Andersen said.

“You might have [companies and organisations] collaborating on product development and working together [as] a pilot-company to take a risk and try something new.”

Only 46pc of UK companies are undertaking some form of “innovation activity” – whether product or process based – compared to 80pc of German firms and half of French companies, according to research from IPPR.

BIC has been funded with an initial £1.5m, around 80pc of which comes from its private sector backers.

Experian, the credit-scoring group, is also backing the initiative. Ms Andersen said the company is helping BIC research the efficiency of bank lending in terms of financing innovation.

“Our preliminary research shows the banks have been lending to large companies in decline rather than growing businesses,” she said.

BIC has also been backed by Nesta and the Technology Strategy Board, an agency that funds applied science and innovation.

The Work Foundation’s Will Hutton has left his role as executive vice chair of the organisation to chair the new initiative.