By Estelle Blanks, Executive Director at the Innovation SuperNetwork North East England
As an ‘outsider’ to the region, I am well aware that innovation is not the first thing that comes to mind when Newcastle or the North East of England is mentioned and unfortunately this perception is hard to shift.
Despite 20 years of living in this region and a career focused on economic development through innovation and regeneration, I still get the same intrigued and slightly cynical look as the one I got from colleagues in Sophia Antipolis, France, back in 2001 when we started discussions with the then largest European Science and Technology park about how their networks could help to support high-tech businesses from the North East.
The traditional statistical data don’t help either. In 2008, the OECD found that the North East was ‘below average’ against most key metrics (R&D expenditure or patent applications sought) and this is still the trend.
And yet, over the years and during my time at Newcastle Science City and now with the Innovation SuperNetwork, I have seen some tremendous examples of innovation through highly creative SMEs, leading-edge research and larger corporate open innovation practices. Some highlights have been:
- Helping Arnab Basu and the team at Kromek, then Durham Scientific Crystals, to prepare for one of their first pitches at the International Venture Capital Summit in 2003/4 in Sophia Antipolis. Innovative products, a talented team and desire to expand their exposure and networks has led to the success story that it is today.
- Supporting and promoting the work of Professor Paul Watson at Newcastle University that led to the creation of the £30m National Institute for Smart Data Innovation (NISDI). Leading-edge research combined with industry and public sector partnership made this possible.
- Reading, back in 2014, in the Guardian, the Financial Times and Computer Weekly how the North of England and Newcastle had become Tech-Hubs and serious contenders to London for start-ups and highly skilled tech graduates thanks to the work of Sunderland Software City, Ignite 100, Dynamo and many others involved in supporting the growth of the digital sector in the region.
- Taking part in consultations for the first Proof of Concept and Co-investment funds and even JEREMIE 1 when we had to make a case that there would be enough innovative and investable propositions in the North East to spend all this money. According to the European Investment Bank, the £142m JEREMIE 1 funds also known as Finance for Business North East is one of the most successful in Europe! Through the return on investment from successful businesses, it has created a legacy that can now be re-invested in JEREMIE 2.
So, somehow, we are getting quite a few things right in the region when it comes to innovation. We have some real strengths and we have to work hard to leverage those assets.
From my experience, long-term vision and planning, partnership working, effective national and international networks and good communication and PR channels which promote existing innovative businesses, risk taking, novel practices and good role models will help us grow our innovation assets and our presence on the innovation map.
We have to be realistic – there is still some way to go. A couple of weeks ago I heard stories from colleagues at Generator which indicate that even our local market place does not source existing innovative solutions in the region… because they don’t know it’s there.
We need to be more visible and promote all kinds of innovation to ensure North East companies benefit from local, national and international opportunities.
This is what we are aiming to do through VentureFest North East and the Innovation Showcase.
We want to give companies the opportunity to demonstrate what they can do and expose the great innovation that is taking place here and now. Large corporate organisations, small start-ups and anything in between are welcome to take part. You don’t need to give away trade secrets and we can help you promote what you do efficiently.
Last year we showcased everything from a seaweed farm to fingerprint biometric readers and wheelchair adaptations to 3D scanning booths.