October 16, 2021

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Universities can turbo-charge UK innovation policy

Innovation updates

The writer is president of Imperial College London

The British government’s innovation strategy aims to “cement the UK’s position as a world-leader in science, research and innovation”. If we are to achieve that laudable goal, we must focus on the ecosystems that help innovators to thrive. Places such as Silicon Valley and Cambridge, Massachusetts, offer lessons for a country at an inflection point for science, innovation and growth.

A successful innovation economy has three catalysts: people, places and funding. Entrepreneurs know that access to talented colleagues and mentors, the right workspaces and investment are critical. They determine whether innovative ideas thrive or fail.

The UK can nurture that talent, space and investment through policies that support innovation districts and clusters built around one of our foremost competitive advantages: universities. This calls for smarter tax incentives, a clearer embrace of international innovators, and more collaboration between government, the private sector and academia. 

Britain has an exceptionally strong and productive research and education base with top universities attracting world-class talent. The students, alumni, staff and business partners in and around universities contribute to the collaborative support, exchange of ideas, ability to take risks and the energy required for innovation to thrive.

Internationalism is also indispensable. In the US, more than 40 per cent of Fortune 500 companies have an immigrant or child of an immigrant founder. Most of the UK’s start-ups worth more than $1bn have at least one foreign founder. 

This is why the government’s proposed “scale-up” visas matter so much, as do recently relaunched post-study work visas. Both will help international entrepreneurial teams to thrive in the UK. But we must go further in offering visas targeted at exceptional researchers, PhD students, those with high-quality Stem qualifications and graduate entrepreneurs. The UK should roll out the red carpet for such visa applicants.

Talented communities require conducive environments and places to interact. We need to build ecosystems that are right for their locality. It’s no surprise that these places are typically near universities, which are ideal locations for early-stage innovation. They have flexible spaces, including laboratories, collaborative cultures and supportive environments. 

ScaleSpace, Imperial College’s joint venture with Blenheim Chalcot in London’s White City, offers a prototype. It provides science and tech-friendly workspaces and laboratories, mentoring and access to investors all focused on overcoming the funding problems that often hold back high-growth and high-promise British start-ups. 

Venture funding is essential. The British Business Bank’s Life Sciences Investment Programme to target the growth-stage funding gap is a good start. But the UK should follow the lead of the American state of Massachusetts and offer start-ups easier access to loans and investments. It also ought to eliminate business rates on incubators and scale-up spaces. 

The BBB’s capitalisation is too modest. It should be investing billions, not just millions, in life sciences start-ups, with clearer incentives for private capital to follow. 

The foundations exist and the ambition is there for the UK to build something that is more than a pale imitation of Silicon Valley. The moment has come for co-ordinated policies to expand innovation districts around universities in places such as Glasgow, Manchester, Cambridge and London. 

The government’s strategy has pointed us in the right direction. Now we need concrete investments and specific timeframes. The UK’s great universities are ready to play their part. 

 

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