The mind, the gap and the maker – innovation and manufacturing in the UK

The jet engine, polyester, graphene: indicative of a problem that has been grappled with by successive Governments – the innovation gap in the UK, menacingly referred to as ‘the valley of death’.

All of the products above were invented by UK companies, universities or individuals. After invention, however, their development and much of their commercialisation occurred abroad.

The fear among policy makers is that something peculiar to the UK economy prevents home-grown ideas from generating profit for UK companies, creating jobs in the UK and boosting the economy.

Graphene is already widely quoted as an example of this problem despite only existing for a decade. Invented by two Manchester University scientists, this strong, light, highly conductive material is viewed as potentially transformative for fields as diverse as medicine, quantum computing and desalinisation. But of the 3,500 graphene related patent applications in 2012, the UK only contributed 50.

Arguably, the UK’s innovation gap is a product of the UK’s strong university and research base (“the jewel in the crown of UK innovation activity,” according to the Science and Technology Select Committee) combined with globalisation. World leading universities and research institutions continue to attract great scholars and generate internationally important ideas. But larger, cheaper industrial bases now exist elsewhere and so UK manufacturers are not best placed to capitalise on these new inventions.

However, some commentators see the issue as one of culture –UK companies are technically and financially risk adverse; they lack the means or the will to innovate; they are not sufficiently aware of potentially useful innovations.

The body tasked by successive Governments with finding solutions to this problem is the Technology Strategy Board (TSB). Since 2007, the TSB has used public funds to develop policies which aim to bridge the innovation gap. Their main approach is to strengthen the relationship between research institutions and industry.

A key policy is Catapult Centres. These research organisations work to enable businesses to make use of academic research. There are currently nine Catapults, focusing on areas such as cell therapy, transport systems and offshore renewable energy.

The largest Catapult is the High Value Manufacturing Catapult (HVMC), which seeks to provide manufacturers with the means to make the most of new ideas in materials, processes and products. The HVMC is based at several research centres across Britain, including in Glasgow, Bristol and Sheffield. At these centres, businesses can access expertise, equipment and information.

Other TSB policies include:

  • Innovation Vouchers, £5,000 grants to SMEs to be used to buy technology or information from a specialist that the firm has never used before.
  • The Small Business Research Initiative, which connects parts of the public sector with specific technology challenges to SMEs offering solutions.
  • Launchpads which provide funding and support for the development of ‘clusters’ of firms in specific locations.

Measuring the success of these policies will always be difficult, since the eradication of the innovation gap is almost inconceivable – most economies not only permit but positively encourage the global exchange of ideas, meaning that inventions cannot always be capitalised on in the area they were dreamt up. The HVMC states that it will consider itself a success when manufacturing’s contribution to GDP doubles. If this could be achieved, it would provide a manufacturing base on a scale more able to complete globally for the right to carry UK ideas to market. But that is a big ‘if’.

Author: Chris Rhodes