May 21st saw the announcement of the new Strength in Places Fund (SIPF), administered by UKRI to help deliver against Government’s ambitions for place-based innovation. Given the principal lead organisations invited to bid into this pot are universities and businesses, we have broken down some of the key elements of the call documents as a high-level summary for National Centre members; for more information, please go to the UKRI website.

First, a little background. The SIPF was part of a programme of measures announced in November’s Industrial Strategy white paper; aligned principally with the place-based strands of the Strategy, it was framed as an opportunity to reward excellence in research and innovation rooted in local capability. It is a complementary fund to other UKRI and UK national programmes, as part of the National Productivity Investment Fund, and will be invested based on robust, evidence-led bids. UKRI’s stated ambition was, and remains, to demonstrably catalyse local economic growth. The SIPF – an initial, competed £115m to fund up to around eight projects – is seen as a lever to that end.

All the pieces need to be in place before money begins to flow. Many complex moving parts make up a successful cluster. Additional funds do not necessarily translate into additional impact, particularly when one tries to reconcile place and excellence to the benefit of both.

So when talking about the correct pieces being in place, it seems sensible to understand this in the round. One key ‘piece’ is business need; research strengths will be playing their part in meeting that need. Another is a strong, sensibly-constituted consortium; a collaborative group with clearly defined roles drawn from research organisations, businesses and other local partners. UKRI have made clear that those partners should include, where appropriate, local leaders – Local Enterprise Partnerships; combined authorities; and the economic development agencies of the devolved administrations for bids emerging from those geographies. These actors could be well-placed to brigade stakeholders, offer insight on fit with broader strategies and draw down the views of local people.
That ‘local’ element is prominent. This is, after all, about drawing value from place-based strengths. UKRI are asking functional economic geographies to come together around existing research excellence and high-quality innovation capability, aligned to the needs of local industry and supply chains, and demonstrate that channelling funding from the SIPF will power up regional growth.

As announced on May 21st, a call for expressions of interest is now open; it can be accessed through the Innovation Funding Service, linked to via this page. Expressions of interest are being invited from regional consortia by July 25th. This phase should be considered pre-qualifying for the full application process. An expert panel will assess the bids and those most aligned with the Fund’s criteria and best able to demonstrate potential additionality will be invited to a closed competition, with £50k seeding to support the development of this application. Ultimately, UKRI expects to fund projects ranging in value from £10m to £50m, which obviously constrains the number which can be supported through the SIPF in this first call.

These outcomes, however, can be driven by a variety of sectors, and UKRI do not wish to constrain bids to a select number or typology of sectoral loci. The SIPF is therefore open to any technological area, sector or research discipline focus. UKRI do, however, encourage bids to focus their attention on a specific strength, rather than to attempt to drive innovation across a large number of a place’s perceived strengths or capabilities. More concentrated impact could be effectively ensured through a tighter application and direction of the Fund.

We have explored the consortium composition, geography and innovative focus UKRI have stated they are seeking to engage via the SIPF. However, the call documents also set out examples of interventions or solutions they anticipate the Fund supporting. Though of course this is not an exhaustive list, and innovative proposals may fall outside these parameters and yet within the scope of the Fund. UKRI have described enlarging a critical mass of researchers’ capacity to commercialise; assessing potential for demand and scale-up of technologies, products and services; drawing overseas R&D and business into a locality; applying underlying technologies to revive a legacy industrial base; transferring technologies between industries, and collaboration between research organisations, and tech-focused SMEs in specific geographic clusters as potential suitable applications for the Fund.

National Centre members should review the full scope of the Strength in Places Fund, via the guidance published this week, and engage with UKRI if they wish to explore this timely and significant funding stream. The rebalancing context is clear. There are proven and deep-rooted inequalities across the UK in productivity, growth and skills development. Our research and innovation capabilities can and should be leveraged to their fullest potential. The Strength in Places Fund can serve as the shot in the arm that our clusters need to amplify their impacts into every corner of their locality and begin to address these disparities. Set against the broader backdrop of increasing public and private investment in R&D to 2.4% of GDP by 2027, the relevance of the SIPF could not be more apparent.

By Andrew Basu-McGowan, Policy Manager, National Centre for Universities and Business