The role of the ‘intermediaries’ in innovation

The role of the ‘intermediaries’ in innovation

"The agri-food sector is now recognised as a major contributor and employer in the UK economy."

I feel both proud and fortunate to lead Campden BRI, an organisation originally created in 1919 to help develop the preserved foods industry by bridging the gap between the work in universities and this evolving industry sector.

Over the subsequent 95 years we have broadened our scope to cover the entire agri-food chain, but still remain committed to working in this 'intermediate' space. As an independent membership-based company without any core Government funding, we have a strong customer and commercial focus to help ensure our current and future longevity. We are a classic example of an 'intermediary'.

The agri-food sector is now recognised as a major contributor and employer in the UK economy. This sector is however, highly complex and convoluted. There have been a number of challenges for the sector over recent years including food safety, authenticity, diet and health and sustainability often compounded by the considerable pressure on food prices and some deskilling of the industry.

Whilst the largest multinationals and a few high-tech SMEs are well equipped to communicate directly with the academic sector, many cannot access the opportunity. They often don't know what is available, or where to go, or are unable to articulate their problem, or are simply need a timely solution.

"We work with over 20 universities and academic institutes and support the Research Councils in their activities."

As an 'intermediary' we, like others in this sector, help to de-risk the innovation process. The companies that work in this sector are characterised by being market led, commercial, customer focused, extremely well connected, objective and skilled in the application of science, technology and insights. A recent report by Oxford Economics1 has suggested that the 'intermediary sector' should be renamed the Innovation, Research & Technology (IRT) sector and identified some key metrics(from data collected 2012/13):

  • The IRT sector turnover is £6.9 billion;
  • This turnover is 3.7 times that for the well known Fraunhofer network in Germany;
  • The IRT sector supported an estimated £7.6 billion in Gross Value Added for the UK;
  • The IRT sector directly employed 57,200 people; this is similar to the total academic staff at the Russell Group of universities.

At Campden BRI we work with over 20 universities and academic institutes and support the Research Councils in their activities, particularly with the research impact agenda. We are a membership based organisation and are actively engaged with 2,400 food, drink and allied companies in 75 countries around the world.

This gives us a unique insight to the opportunities for innovation. We have recently undertaken the largest survey of its kind on Innovation for the Food and Drink Supply Chain2. It has articulated and distilled the industry needs. Not only will it inform our own activities, but also will feed in to the various national and international funding bodies as a statement of needs by the industry for the industry.

"I strongly believe that the excellence in UK science deserves excellence in translation to innovation in business."

In the agri-food sector the scientific and technical requirements of the industry are many and varied. Some are seeking innovative approaches to address the long-term global drivers (diet & health, population growth dynamics, global warming), others need rapid solutions and understanding of best practice. We seek to address this through a balanced portfolio of support ranging from pre-competitive R&D (much of which is collectively funded from our members), client bespoke work, a wide ranging analysis and testing service to an active knowledge management and training activity.

In addition to our well-recognised technical skills, the keys to our successful innovation activities are the relationships with our clients, a high degree of trust around commercially sensitive issues and our independence. These attributes are something that cannot be developed overnight and often take many years to build.

I strongly believe that the excellence in UK science deserves excellence in translation to innovation in business – hence our mission statement, the practical application of technical excellence in food and drink.

"The IRT/Intermediate sector is a phenomenal, but under-recognised asset for the UK."

The IRT/Intermediate sector is a phenomenal, but under-recognised asset for the UK. Increased collaboration along the research-to-innovation chain, coupled with increased support for this, will accelerate the take up of technology by business and industry and so drive the economy.

1 The impact of the innovation, research and technology sector on the UK economy (2014), Oxford Economics

2 Innovation for the food and drink supply chain – scientific and technical needs (2015), Campden BRI

Steven Walker is Director General at Campden BRI.

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