Jessica Corner is Executive Chair of Research England, part of UK Research and Innovation

Today, Michelle Donelan, Secretary of State for Science Innovation and Technology, announced a new pilot Regional Innovation Fund.

This represents a £60m commitment which will enable university initiatives, staff and facilities that support local innovation, commercialisation and economic growth.

This is new funding and to be directed at areas where they may be best served by it, with insights gained from the use of these funds over the coming year helping shape future policy and funding.

Speedy allocation

As there is an urgency to deploy these funds in support of innovation ecosystems we will publish further details of method and key terms shortly. In England £48.8m is available and universities will receive an additional allocation calculated as a percentage of their already published main Higher Education Innovation Funding (HEIF) 2023-24 allocation (available at Research England grant allocation data (Table 3)).

The percentages vary by regions, with weightings calculated to reflect key government priorities for this fund and rooted in the levelling-up agenda – a focus on helping, as a priority, areas with lower research and development (R&D) investment and where universities have had particular strength in local growth and regeneration activity. The weighting takes account of both low R&D investment in a region as well as where regeneration funds have until now been directed, though of course as European Regional Development Funding ends these drivers would need to be reviewed for any future funding allocations.

Universities can direct allocated funding at projects and initiatives where they believe they may have the most impact, and funding can be for revenue or capital.

Connecting capability

Alongside the regional innovation fund, there’s an exciting list of fourteen new Connecting Capability Fund (CCF) awards in England to be published in the very near future. These allocations will provide funding to reinforce the critical innovation ecosystem building that is already playing a vital part in levelling up, and to contribute to technology sector developments. As an example, we have been able to put new funding into entrepreneurial talent development to sit alongside the great success in establishing the new investment vehicle Northern Gritstone (supported by a previous CCF award) and to support a collaboration of the universities of Surrey and Warwick and the University of the Creative Arts, to develop a Games Innovation Network to embed university commercialisation in the UK’s two largest games clusters outside of London.

Projects here address a range of technologies, and an impressive set of university and private partner collaborations. It has been a real pleasure to chair an expert group to advise on how the Connecting Capability Fund should be best directed – the group is made up of investors and international experts alongside other partners, and has provided invaluable insights on innovation ecosystem development and wise counsel in funding decisions.

Taken together these initiatives underline an acknowledged lynchpin role for universities in supporting local, regional and national economic growth; wherever there are universities, and if the number and intensity of universities grow, there is a commensurate growth in national and local/regional GDP. Since 1998, universities in England have been receiving funds to support the development of interactions with business and to grow local innovation ecosystem capacity, facilities and teams through knowledge exchange. The Higher Education Innovation Funding has proved a powerful vehicle for building these capabilities over the long-term, indeed over decades.

The new Regional Innovation Fund seeks to harness these capabilities, and to direct them to places across the UK that have been underserved, and where there are also foundations for strong delivery of outcomes. The Connecting Capability Fund projects also build powerful regional and national alliances connecting the strong and experienced to where there is potential for innovation and for faster exploitation of technologies. And we also have our Expanding Excellence in England scheme (E3), funding the strategic and sustainable growth of pockets of research excellence. This funding will recognise the impact research units can have on and in their local region and I look forward to making funding announcements for E3 round 2 in the next few months.

First year

It is now a year since I joined Research England as Executive Chair. It has been an extraordinary privilege to engage with all parts of the university sector, with business leaders and experience first-hand through many institutional visits how in really tangible ways universities create the foundations for a knowledge driven, R&D intensive economy firmly anchored in the places where they sit. This week has brought further recognition for this.

At the outset I placed very high priority on improving data and evidence. This is both to improve transparency of our strategic institutional research funding and its outcomes, but also to develop our capability as a national centre for knowledge exchange metrics.

A national centre advisory team to support Research England is now in place at the University Commercialisation and Innovation (UCI) unit at the University of Cambridge with Tomas Ulrichsen as National Adviser, and we are forging a close working arrangement across our knowledge exchange experts, the UCI team and HESA – critical partners to improving the end-to-end pipeline from data design to collection and use, as well as engaging partners across UKRI, other funders, government and the sector.

A year ago, I placed emphasis on data and evidence on commercialisation. I am now asking for early attention to be given to improving local/regional growth metrics and to understanding impacts of collaborative R&D and licensing with businesses. This is so we can do better in future on regional and local funding programmes and targeting of funds. It is also so we have sound evidence on the importance of the full range of contributions that higher education makes to the economy and society – the ambition of our Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF).

I relish the challenges ahead, building on so much that has been achieved to date.

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