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New Strategies for Backing the UK’s Leading Innovators in Wales

05 Mar 2018

CaSE, Cardiff University, and the Learned Society of Wales welcomed the Chief Executive of Innovate UK, Dr Ruth McKernan CBE, to Cardiff to give a lecture on the innovation opportunities and challenges facing Wales and the UK.

On the evening of Wednesday 28th February over 150 attendees from across the science and engineering sector made their way to the award-winning Hadyn Ellis Building in Cardiff to hear Dr Ruth McKernan give her thoughts on the latest developments in Innovate UK’s support for UK innovators, with particular focus on Wales.

Professor Hywel Thomas, Pro Vice-Chancellor of Research, Innovation and Engagement at Cardiff University, opened the proceedings by welcoming Dr McKernan and guests to the lecture theatre, highlighting the cutting-edge research and innovation being carried out by the university.

Sir Emyr Jones Parry, President of the Learned Society of Wales, spoke next on the breadth and quality of Welsh science and innovation, before welcoming Dr McKernan to the stage.

Ruth joined Innovate UK as Chief Executive in May 2015, with 25 years of research and commercial experience in the pharmaceutical industry, including heading up research units in the UK and the United States. As well as being a member of the Ministry of Defence’s Innovation Advisory Panel and the Royal Society’s Science, Industry and Translation Committee, Dr McKernan is also a Council Member for the Medical Research Council for five years. She was awarded a CBE in 2013 for services to business, innovation and skills.

(L-R) Sir Emyr Jones Parry (President, Learned Society of Wales), Dr Sarah Main (Executive Director, CaSE), Dr Ruth McKernan (Chief Executive, Innovate UK), Professor Graeme Reid (Chair, CaSE), and Professor Hywel Thomas (Pro Vice-Chancellor, Research, Innovation and Engagement, Cardiff University).

Dr McKernan started by thanking all three organisations for arranging such a welcoming and timely opportunity to speak in Wales.

Whenever the Chief Executive of Innovate UK asked why we put money into research and innovation, she replies ‘this is where the Government is placing its bet’. They are banking on research and innovation to drive future economic growth. The role of Innovate UK is to secure this growth by supporting businesses in realising the potential of new technologies, develop ideas and make them a commercial success.

With Brexit approaching, its vitally important that businesses learns how to grow outside the UK and find international markets. To stay competitive as an advanced economy, we need to do things that others cannot do, or to do things in different and better ways. For Dr McKernan this is the defining challenge for the whole of the UK, including Wales.

Innovate UK has invested £2.2 billion since its founding in 2007, with industry match funding taking the total value of those projects to over £3.75 billion. Up to £7.30 is generated for every £1 invested by Innovate UK, bringing the total added value to the economy since 2007 to nearly £16 billion.

Dr McKernan made clear that Innovate UK’s support for business is found across the whole of the UK, and not just restricted to the ‘golden triangle’ of South East England. In her time as Chief Executive Ruth has put in place Regional Managers to help ensure that every part of the country is reached by Innovate UK.

For Wales, there are over 900 partners working on 864 Innovate UK projects that have been funded over the last ten years, with £108 million allocated to Welsh organisations over this period. While this figure may sound impressive, it accounts for just under 3% of total organisations funded by Innovate UK, well below the proportion it should be receiving. The reason for this low number? Fewer applications from Welsh businesses.

However for Dr McKernan this doesn’t tell the whole story.

Within that 3%, there are some highly successful and competitive clusters of innovation in Wales, in areas such as compound semiconductors, hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles, cell therapies, precision medicine and digital health, and biomaterials manufacturing.

So Wales is full of innovation but needs more applications.

Innovate UK supports businesses through a combination of open grants and a UK-wide network of Catapult Centres, including two in Wales. The Compound SemiConductor Applications Catapult Centre was created last year in South Wales and Dr McKernan is delighted with the early progress shown. 

Speaking about the creation of UKRI, Dr McKernan’s feelings were positive. The coordination of the Research Councils will encourage greater joined-up working to help meet the Government’s Industrial Strategy and secure future economic growth. Innovate UK will play a crucial role in supporting this work, promoting partnerships and securing funding.

Dr McKernan next took the audience through the Industrial Strategy Grand Challenges, helping businesses remain competitive and anchored in the UK. 

The funding for Wave 1 has already been allocated around key challenges, which include medicines manufacturing technologies, robots, clean-energy batteries, self-driving vehicles, manufacturing and materials of the future, and space technology. £6 million of this Wave 1 funding has been apportioned to Welsh partners in three particular projects; 3D printing, paper recycling, and non-animal testing for cosmetics.

The funding for Wave 2 is currently being rolled out, a process that started last year with a series of UK-wide roundtables in conversation with industry. There has now been whittled down a final list of 8 challenges, which includes early diagnosis and precision medicine. Dr McKernan took this opportunity to highlight the ground-breaking work on schizophrenia research being carried out by Cardiff University meeting this particular challenge.

Wave 3 funding is a more open call for businesses to submit their own proposals and appoint their own challenge leaders, details of which have just been announced.

There are further opportunities for funding outside of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, including the £115 million Strength in Places Fund, which helps regions develop their own innovation strategies and build on local strengths. Details of this funding will published later in the year.

Dr McKernan also highlighted two new programmes designed for SMEs looking to scale up; the Investment Accelerator and the Innovation Loan Programme. The move to loans over grants is not an either/or, but has been designed for specific companies who need further investment in innovation.

Dr McKernan concluded her lecture by hoping she had shown the audience there were many different opportunities for creating and supporting innovation across the UK. The best way forward starts with putting together an excellent proposal.

Professor Thomas thanked Dr McKernan for her excellent lecture and then welcomed CaSE Executive Director Dr Sarah Main to the stage for an audience Q&A with the Innovate UK Chief Executive.

CaSE Chair Professor Graeme Reid concluded the evening by thanking Dr McKernan for her highly informative and engaging lecture, a sentiment shared by all those in the room. CaSE would also like to thank its two partner organisations for the event; Cardiff University and the Learned Society of Wales.

Note: Earlier that day CaSE organised a roundtable between Dr McKernan and key stakeholders from the Welsh research and innovation community, to share views on the science and engineering priorities and policies needed to advance the regions’s research and innovation ecosystem. The roundtable, was chaired by Professor Reid, and kindly hosted by the Welsh Government.