Smart Innovation, Universities and Economic Growth

Smart Innovation, Universities and Economic Growth

The Headquarters of Anglo American provided an excellent environment for a stimulating and robust discussion on Smart Innovation, Universities and Economic Growth hosted by Sir John Parker, one of NCUB's Chairs' Breakfasts events. 

"Our discussion considered whether the channels for collaboration in different sectors were well understood"

The subject contained inbuilt tensions. What might unsmart innovation look like? Within Universities, innovation has become inextricably linked to the "third mission" or exploitation of Intellectual Property agenda; whilst this is an important ingredient in developing an entrepreneurial community, the contribution of a university to economic growth extends well beyond this narrow aspect of our work.

Thirdly, there is no shortage of grounded evidence and wise counsel upon which to develop the debate - Richard Lambert, James Dyson, Herman Hauser, Tim Wilson and Andrew Witty together with Sherry Coutu whose 'Scale-up Report' has been published since the meeting.

And what about Business and Government? The DNA of Innovation is the triple helix of Business, Government and Universities, and especially their interdependencies.

Whilst universities may have a very significant impact on the economic growth of their region, business is the driver of innovation and economic growth. And the direct dependence of business on universities is reflected in the £2.2b per annum invested by business in UK Higher Education.

Engagement with the Corporate world is highly sector specific; aerospace and pharmaceuticals are held up as role models, but profound collaborations between the construction sector and universities are much less widespread. Our discussion considered whether the channels for collaboration in different sectors were well understood - for example by the owner asset managers in the case of the construction sector?

"We must continue to improve the access points to companies who could leverage our knowledge, expertise and facilities to grow their businesses."

Whilst links with high technology high growth companies on our Science Parks are excellent, Government and the CBI have identified growing the mid-cap supply chain companies as the current national priority to provide sustained economic growth. In promoting Scale Up, Sherry Coutu's recommendations make interesting reading. In universities we must continue to improve the access points to companies who could leverage our knowledge, expertise and facilities to grow their businesses.

Government shapes the environment, and the current alignment between industrial strategy, targeted investments through Innovate UK and attempts to enhance supply chain finance through for example the new British Business Bank is to be welcomed. Government should consider how public procurement might be influenced to support sustained development of the medium sized companies, and there may be greater opportunities for investment of private equity than has historically been the case.

Universities have always supported the cultural, social and economic development of society, locally, nationally and internationally. This continues through a period of radical reform in the funding of higher education, for which we have still to understand the long-term implications of growing student debt or address the absence of a sustainable model for the funding for postgraduate education.

Each of our universities will have developed its own priorities to support economic growth. It is pleasing to record the growing collaboration between universities on a regional basis to support innovation and economic growth, but we must do more to support the scale-up of supply chain mid-cap companies upon which sustainable economic growth depends.

Professor Sir Peter Gregson is Chief Executive and Vice-Chancellor Cranfield University.

NCUB Chairs' Breakfasts are Chatham House events hosted by business members of the Leadership Council and focusing on a particular issue. They allow a unique mix of business and university leaders to network and discuss in small groups and start work on how to solve specific challenges. Find out more.

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