Tackling the Covid-19 pandemic confirmed the vital importance of research and innovation to all our everyday lives.  We now need “vaccines” against sluggish productivity and growth that jeapordise our livelihoods.

As with the pandemic, we need approaches that focus on our domestic challenges, but remain globally connected – to international partners and wide societal concerns.

We also need to focus sharply on the short-term challenges outlined by the UK Government but seek, as well, transformations for long-term and sustainable growth.

Not just getting by, but being able to embrace creativity, innovation and knowledge.

I know that this priority is shared by our partners – across UKRI, in Universities UK reflected in “Our universities: generating growth and opportunities” and in work of the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB).

Action we have taken: funding

We have already taken action in Research England in our allocations this year to get behind the Government’s growth agenda. Today we are announcing an additional £20 million of knowledge exchange funding specifically targeted at business collaboration and commercialisation, building on top of the £260 million per annum now allocated through Higher Education Innovation Funding (HEIF).

We are also putting in place targeted project funding for commercialization, and I will chair a specialist group of international and academic experts, investors and entrepreneurs, providing advice on how these funds can help keep us at the leading edge of global best practice.

We have already increased business QR funding by 36% supporting research partnerships with business and launched another round of £100 million funding for the UK Research Partnerships and Investment Fund (RPIF) – a highly successful scheme already leveraging over £1 billion of industry investment for collaborative spaces and seeding regional clusters of innovation.

The need to go further

Building on valuable legacies from David Sweeney, as Research England Executive Chair I want to go further.  As well as support of my expert team at Research England, I also benefit from advice from such as Mike Rees and Professor Trevor McMillan on my Council, who have made important recommendations in this area.

I know that university research and knowledge exchange make a tremendous contribution to the economic success of established and new businesses. However, university approaches are complex, and we could do better to communicate how we drive through these barriers vigorously. We all recognize that entrepreneurs and small companies need support at pace to survive.

We could express our passion and commitment to entrepreneurship and innovation more forcefully, celebrating the innovators and entrepreneurs in our academic and student bodies, as well as in our partnerships, and better support their careers. I feel more could be done on people and culture drivers. I welcome then the National Centre for University and Business’ task force on mobility between academia and business. I have asked my team to consider measures such as Trevor McMillan’s proposal for an institutional benchmark for academic entrepreneurship support, as a means to sharpen publicly visible performance measures.

Having the right evidence: further action

High quality evidence is vitally important – to identify and tackle the real challenges, celebrate success and acknowledge and overcome failures, and hold ourselves to account for long-term progress.

I welcome the research contributions being made by the University Commercialisation and Innovation (UCI) evidence unit, University of Cambridge, and understand that they are working closely with universities to provide better data and analysis on important challenges, such as on equity stakes in University spin-out companies.

We will use data managed by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) and the evidence provided by UCI to monitor that our investments into university growth contributions are targeted and we see results.

To drive further on this agenda, I have asked my team at Research England led by Alice Frost Director of Knowledge Exchange, to work with UCI and key partners to start a consultation with the HE sector on how to produce a comprehensive list of spin-outs. This would enable us to track long-term impacts with low burden. This would help Research England with our partners to build rapidly the evidence base as to what and how spin-out companies can be better supported.

Clarity of purpose

Today we have made clear that we are using a suite of indicators derived through the annual HE- BCI survey to allocate these new funds to universities. For the avoidance of any doubt – we use income from contract research, consultancy, facilities and equipment and intellectual property including sale of shares, as a measure of demand and activity in our allocations of funding, and not as a driver for income into the Higher Education sector. For the future I want to devise and use better measures, such as of economic impacts, which are already used in the Knowledge Exchange Framework, though this may take time.

Further for the avoidance of any doubt – I believe that a broad approach is necessary to support businesses, and to unlock the economic value of university knowledge assets. Different tools are important for different types of knowledge and technology, and in different contexts, and contribute differently to different growth targets. Work with large and small businesses, spin-outs and startups all matter.

I hope and expect that universities will use the funds allocated today to trial innovative approaches to making spin-outs, start-ups and SMEs to feel better supported and to be more successful as crucial contributors to the future economy.

  • UK Research and Innovation’s KE publication on business & commercialisation is available from its website.