National focus locally: How can the North East build on its innovation assets and ecosystem to level up the regional economy.

With the government white paper on levelling up now published, national focus on Britain’s regions presents an opportunity for the North East to seize a number of opportunities aligned with national innovation policy. Job creation and economic growth are dependent on maximizing our innovation assets and attracting private sector-investment, as well as in the deployment of public funds.

The session will be chaired by the Innovation SuperNetwork’s CEO, Estelle Blanks and will include panellists from national and regional organisations responsible for implementing national policy and delivering against local priorities. It will open with a speech by Henna Bains, a Mathematics and Engineering researcher who focuses on energy systems and handling uncertainty. In her work, Henna has developed a software tool for offshore wind planning and is now working towards bringing this innovation to a commercial environment. As an entrepreneur innovating in one of the North East’s priority sectors, we’ll ask our panel to consider the needs of similar innovators and discuss how the region can maximise the opportunities on offer.

Estelle Blanks (Chair)

CEO, Innovation SuperNetwork

With over 20 years’ experience in economic development through regeneration and innovation in the North East of England, and working across the UK and Europe, Estelle has a thorough understanding of the national and local innovation eco-system.

She has attracted and led multi-million-pound high-profile programmes in the North East region aimed at supporting new and growing innovative companies. Estelle has in-depth practical knowledge of open-innovation and challenge-led innovation to help address organisational and societal challenges. An expert in access to innovation finance, she has also supported hundreds of companies on their fundraising journeys.

Lee Viney

Regional Manager, Innovate UK

Lee Viney has a background in public sector economic development specialising in entrepreneurship, innovation, and commercialisation, with cross policy links into skills, trade and investment and business finance.

Innovate UK is the UK’s Innovation Agency and as part of UK Research & Innovation, they focus on helping businesses to commercialise new ideas – businesses that are leading the way and creating solutions to global challenges. Innovate UK helps them to grow, create jobs and realise the economic and societal benefits of their ideas.

As a non-departmental public body, Innovate UK is funded by Government via the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and has been fundamental to delivering the Industrial Strategy, and is now focused on delivering the UK Innovation and our Plan for Action.

Dr Sophie Dale-Black

Director, UK Network, British Business Bank

Dr Sophie Dale-Black is a Director within the British Business Bank’s UK Network, leading a team of senior managers in working with key organisations across the Midlands and the North of England to help the Bank understand and overcome the challenges facing smaller businesses in their access to finance journey.

A PhD-qualified scientist by training, Sophie previously worked at Innovate UK, the UK Government’s innovation agency, where she worked across the UK in various roles supporting the growth of innovative businesses, including through a Chief of Staff style role supporting the Chief Executive, Deputy Chief Executive and Chair.

Prior to that, Sophie built her career in research and innovation management at Loughborough and Nottingham universities, following an initial postdoctoral research position at Newcastle University.

Sophie holds voluntary roles at the University of Leicester, a £300-million income research-intensive institution, as Trustee, Council Member and Member of the Nominations and Remuneration Committees.

Rob Hamilton

Head of Investment & Economic Growth, North of Tyne Combined Authority

Rob returned to the North East fifteen years ago, to work in economic development.  Currently Chief Economist at the North of Tyne Combined Authority, he is responsible for their investment strategy and for the delivery of a range of programmes – including supporting businesses to start, grow, innovate, and create jobs.

Previously, Rob was Head of Economic Development at Newcastle City Council, working on projects including the NewcastleGateshead Accelerated Development Zone and NewcastleFutures, their novel partnership with Job Centre Plus.  Before that, he worked for a number of years at the Bank of England on monetary policy and financial stability issues.

Henna Bains

Mathematics and Engineering Researcher

Henna is a Mathematics and Engineering Researcher at Durham University, focusing on energy systems and handling uncertainty. In her work, Henna has developed a software tool for offshore wind planning and is now working towards bringing this innovation to a commercial environment.

Henna holds a Master of Mathematics degree and an Engineering PhD titled ‘Offshore transmission system planning under severe uncertainty’ from Durham University. In 2021, Henna became a Post Doctoral Research Associate in the Department of Engineering at Durham University. She is also a Fellow of the Durham Energy Institute (DEI). Henna is passionate about inspiring young people to get involved in STEM and has participated in and organised a range of science outreach events.

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