The Midlands is renowned for its strengths in manufacturing and engineering innovation, but how can the region support smaller businesses to be innovative? Professor Warren Manning, Pro Vice-Chancellor Dean of the College of Engineering and Technology at the University of Derby, discusses the vital role universities have to play in improving productivity and competitiveness of businesses across the region through innovation.
Contributing £73 billion a year to the UK economy, universities are a key driver in the innovation ecosystem across the world.
Through international collaborations, research and development, and knowledge exchange, universities help drive productivity growth, provide global solutions to sector needs and transform lives.
So it should come as no surprise that the UK sits within the top five countries of Innovation Leaders, with innovation performance well above the EU average.
However, while the statistics demonstrate an impressive picture of innovation taking place across the country, there still remains an ‘innovation gap’ resulting from a lack in national capability and productivity.
Within the Midlands, innovators and industrialists have made their mark on the world for hundreds of years, but it is no longer enough to focus solely on large companies and their innovation activity. SMEs need attention, and universities and businesses have a key role to play in helping to bring forward innovation and provide solutions for key sectors and their supply chains.
According to The Institution of Engineering and Technology, SMEs “have become the central driver of innovation in the UK” – and this is where the University of Derby is working hard to focus its support.
We are currently managing a portfolio of eight projects, funded regionally by European Structural and Investment Funds (both European Regional Development Fund and European Social Fund), with a total value of European grant funding of £9 million which we access through our Local Enterprise Partnership, D2N2.
The purpose of ERDF funding is to address gaps in productivity across Europe. It has been identified that, despite having successful global manufacturing firms such as Rolls-Royce in the region, the Midlands has a significant productivity gap and is 15% behind the UK average.
The funds are being used to deliver a wide range of support for SMES in our region, including research and innovation. In line with the Midlands Engine, we are focusing our efforts on the region’s innovation strengths, which include Next Generation Transport, Medical Technologies and Pharmaceuticals, and Energy and Low Carbon.
The University has established a Rail Research and Innovation Centre, to support collaborative research and innovation projects specifically linked to the local Rail Supply Chain focusing on Advanced Rail Composite Design and Manufacture, Rail Data Analytics and Artificial Intelligence, and Future Rail Propulsion.
In terms of Medical Technologies, the University of Derby is working with the Royal Derby Hospital and the University of Nottingham on a project called iTrend, funded by the MStart Trust, to personalise kidney dialysis treatment for patients so it does not cause long-term negative effects.
We are also working with Derby City and County Councils, providing a suite of services to help SMEs in the D2N2 area to make carbon savings, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and support the shift towards a low carbon economy. This is done through audits, business support, bespoke research and development consultancy, product development and prototyping.
Challenges for the region
The Midlands is home to a number of high-tech cities and within these are a growing number of small businesses which have become innovation trailblazers in data science and advanced manufacturing.
However, work needs to be done in the Midlands to align the areas that have successfully grown, and to help support larger businesses develop their supply chain. This works well in the aerospace sector, to a degree, but there’s a huge challenge in the rail sector. If you look at the aerospace and automotive industries, companies buy sub-assemblies – or integrated systems – to create products. In the rail sector, firms tend to buy many individual components from lots of separate companies, which is a critical and complicated supply chain issue. Innovation plays a huge role in system integration and this has not yet been addressed, meaning the industry is lagging behind.
To improve productivity, you have to improve skills and innovation and the University of Derby is strong at doing both. The higher education sector needs to continuously move forward to ensure students are developing skills relevant to business needs. Currently, there are few universities in the UK which are working in the ‘innovation gap’. Traditionally, universities have been very good at taking research funding and turning it into publications, but not as good at developing the research and helping businesses use it to create commercial products.
At Derby, we do the core research in the right areas and support businesses to use this to be more productive and innovative, and I believe this is our niche.
The government has put research and innovation at the heart of its Industrial Strategy, setting an ambition for the UK to become the most innovative country in the world and increasing its R&D expenditure to 2.4% of GDP by 2027. Some of this money will have to be leveraged from businesses, so we have to change the model of research in the UK so it leads to economic growth and not just research publications. To achieve this, universities must work with businesses, government and partners, capitalising on their expertise to help drive forward innovation and stay ahead of the game.