TSB catapults and government initiatives key to the Witty Review

I very much welcome the forthcoming publication of Sir Andrew Witty’s report and fully endorse the concept of “Smart Specialisation”.

My comments below are from the perspective of a large international industrial player, Finmeccanica, with a global turnover of circa Euro 20 billion and 70,000 employees worldwide. They are also based on my direct involvement in a practical example of smart specialisation in Essex, namely, the Anglia Ruskin University MedTech campus.

From both perspectives, I would like to see the report point the way to accelerating the economic impact of smart specialisation and how government initiatives can further catalyse this.

Therefore, we can define smart specialisation as the coincidence/colocation of:

  1. A significant and sustainable research capability of relevance to the market sector in question;
  2. An ability to harmonise the innovative power and delivery mechanisms of small and large industries;
  3. The direct involvement of user stakeholders.

In my view, the key to enabling this collective to deliver sustainable economic impact is to understand the mutual dependency of the 3 elements and how to leverage the interconnection.

Clearly, universities have the capacity to deliver world-leading research and this is recognised by the international community, not just in academia but also by international industrialists.

However, where the market sector in question involves public and private sectors (e.g. energy, health, and infrastructure) then the means to transform the delivery of solutions to these sectors demands a wider contribution from universities than pure research. Transformation requires new business models, new ways of envisaging solutions (virtual world, training and simulation) and the organisational impacts of delivering public services in a different way.

These factors need to be taken into account when assessing a university’s ability to be the centre of an economic development activity. Equally, although much is (rightly) made of the innovative capacity of SMEs, the ability to integrate their output into a practical solution mostly resides in larger industrial players.

Furthermore, the gearing of UK centres of economic development into the international market needs strong involvement from industries with global reach. To complete the picture, the proactive early engagement of user stakeholders is essential to shape solutions, influence budgets and facilitate early adoption.

A key enabler to the all of this is the role of an innovation centre/concepts lab, which exploits the interdependencies of the above mentioned elements in a practical way. Such a facility enables early trials of new technologies and products both to inform solutions and to provide feedback on the direction of research and product development. Additionally, it is an effective way of exposing “early solutions” and aggregates the capabilities of both SMEs and larger system integrators.

Most importantly perhaps, it also gives users a clear understanding of the impact of a new way of doing things which informs the business model and de-risks adoption.

In my experience, both in Finmeccanica (Aerospace) and the ARU MedTech campus (Health and social care) we are seeing the benefits of this approach.

I would like to see more in the Witty Review on how the potentially powerful TSB catapults work with regional/market centres of excellence to ensure reuse of core technologies and capabilities whilst enabling customised solutions for the user communities captured in the relevant smart specialisation.