The goal of the government’s Innovation Strategy is to make the UK a global hub for innovation, placing it at the centre of everything the nation does.
This strategy will need to draw upon geographical and sector strengths across the UK. This focus on geographic regions will continue with the publication of the levelling-up white paper later this year.
Achieving this ambition will depend on having successful regional technology and innovation ecosystems across the UK. These ecosystems have a number of benefits including access to a wide range of capabilities and expertise, the ability to scale quicker than working alone, as well as flexibility and resilience – together bringing financial and non-financial value to the regions.
These ecosystems are not a new concept – regional ecosystems have been naturally evolving, and in some cases, are already flourishing in the UK, creating markets on a scale large enough to have a global impact.
Over the past three years, Whitecap Consulting has analysed a number of regional technology and innovation ecosystems in the UK, and it’s clear that universities need to play an active role in these ecosystems for them to be successful, and to position universities as central to the economic prosperity of the UK.
Using this ecosystem lens, we believe that each university needs to develop its own strategy and approach for active leadership within their regional ecosystem or ecosystems. This requires executive sponsorship, co-ordination as well as investment by each university.
Based on our ecosystem analyses, these strategies and approaches must incorporate the following:
Connectivity and collaboration
It is essential for a successful regional ecosystem to have a strong regional connectivity between businesses, start-ups, regional/local government, universities, colleges, investors, advisors, and other stakeholders.
The regional ecosystems provide a collaborative innovation culture in which universities can bring research, IP creation, and technology transfer as well as necessary specialist skills for businesses.
Universities, in cooperation with the other bodies in the ecosystem(s) they are supporting, must determine how to best support and participate in that ecosystem. This could include creating or strengthening collaborative networks, strategic partnerships, challenge-based projects, or joint innovation hubs and accelerators.
This also means that each university needs to determine how it participates and positions itself alongside the other universities in the region.
Our regional ecosystem analyses had pointed towards the need for universities to play a bigger part in their respective ecosystems. The innovation agenda and levelling-up agenda will reinforce that.
Examples from our analyses of the Bristol & Bath and Leeds City Region LegalTech ecosystems highlighted that links between universities and business should be strengthened, with greater alignment of business needs, research, and academic courses.
In York, the universities and businesses need to collaborate to make it a technology hub and to provide innovation opportunities which in turn would attract more tech start-ups to the city.
The importance and prevalence of ecosystems is and will continue to grow, and the pace of change continues to increase in part driven by the UK government wanting to bring urgency to the innovation agenda.
With that backdrop, each university should review how it can build on its existing relationships with its ecosystems such that it is best placed to both shape and support those ecosystems.
Curriculum and talent production
To make the most of their potential as innovation hubs, universities need to provide curricula relevant to support, develop, and also learn from their regional ecosystems.
FinTech (financial technology), for instance, is an important sector across regional hubs in the UK – its direct Gross Value Added contribution to the UK economy is estimated to be £11 billion, representing more than 10 per cent of the global FinTech market.
However, although the number of FinTech-focused university courses available across UK universities is growing, it remains limited. The recent Kalifa Review of UK FinTech found that “FinTech leaders engaged in the Review felt that universities had failed to adapt their services and were not producing the skills required for the jobs of today or tomorrow”.
In this, as with other technology-focused sectors, the ecosystem will need up-to-date curricula, hence there is a requirement for universities to produce more relevant and practical course content faster than usual, so co-creating materials with employers in the ecosystem must become the norm.
In addition, aligned to the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, there is a need for upskilling and reskilling existing employees. So a range of curriculum, including short Continuing Professional Development (CPD) courses, microcredentials, diplomas, postgraduate degrees, and pathways to do this will need to be developed, working with both employers and other education providers, such as further education colleges, within the ecosystem.
High-growth technology ecosystems demand significant numbers of skills in areas identified as core for that ecosystem (e.g. software development, robotics, quantum, cyber security, etc). The challenge is not just producing graduates with degrees ready to take jobs but with matching skills to meet regional sector needs. Unless the skills are relevant to the ecosystem, regional talent retention becomes much harder to achieve.
All universities are focused on their employability agenda, however, even more will need to be done to connect student projects and interns to regional businesses to strengthen the attractiveness of the ecosystems.
A key part of talent retention for the region’s economy is also providing, through relevant start-up programmes and facilities, a means for entrepreneurs graduating with ideas or IP to launch businesses.
The university support can and should extend to the assistance of these businesses to gain funding, connect with industry, and develop IP. Good entrepreneurial support can be the difference between growing the next unicorn in the region and losing all that opportunity to another region or country.
Entrepreneurs will go to where they think they will find success, so helping provide good stepping stones to achieve that will have a significant impact in the ecosystem.
IP and technology transfer
Although talent, for obvious reasons, is the most examined component, universities should play a key role within the ecosystem in generating IP and technology transfer.
Encouraging closer collaboration with research and industry will generate more meaningful and relevant IP for the ecosystem. Matching requirements and providing entrepreneurs a launch pad to develop that IP can act as a foundation for the future success of the ecosystem and talent retention.
Often the hurdle to successful ecosystem engagement is simply knowing where to start the conversations. Businesses typically find it hard to know who to engage with and how to navigate contacts across several faculties and schools.
Academics often have the same issue in reverse yet the industry engagement positions in universities are often focused on engagement with large corporates that may not even be relevant to the regional ecosystem.
However, those universities which do want to play a key part in regional ecosystems are required to play a leading role across the ecosystem – that means engagement with all parts of the ecosystem.
Our view is that this requires senior-level university executive leadership, ideally a Pro-Vice-Chancellor, to have accountability for developing and delivering the strategy for their ecosystems.
Successful ecosystems require universities to be at the heart of them – and with the UK’s economic recovery and future growth reliant on regional successes, universities are more critical than ever.