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Innovation clusters and the rural powerhouse

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The agri-food sector is a powerhouse of the UK economy. It generates £103 billion GVA pa and as I mentioned in a previous blog, is attracting keen interest from investors. Our Director of Innovation recently highlighted the importance of ‘place’ and Innovate UK’s role in delivering the Smart Specialisation Hub for local innovation and this gets you thinking - what of a regional rural powerhouse?

Agri-food regional strengths

A recent report by McKinsey highlighted 31 economically significant clusters in the UK. It identified regional strengths from ‘oil and gas’ to ‘aerospace’ but with the exception of ‘whisky’, no significant area leadership was identified for the agri-food industry.

Yet we know that there are very conspicuous hotspots of activity that are delivering both a local agenda and supporting the growth of the national economy.

What does the AgriTech Catalyst data tell us?

To share a snapshot of this - grant funding of innovation is a good indicator of regional strength. It is set by national competition, investing in the best with awards to consortia of both business and academia covering the whole innovation community.

For example, our analysis of the first three rounds of the AgriTech Catalyst provides some useful insights about pre-farmgate innovation.

Total project value (grant + industry co-funding) awarded to regional participants for rounds 1 – 3 of AgriTech Catalyst
Total project value (grant + industry co-funding) awarded to regional participants for rounds 1 – 3 of AgriTech Catalyst

Physical geography dictates farming type

Whilst at first glance this looks a very distributed picture, physical geography tends to dictate a bias toward crops or livestock, which can be generalised east (crops) and west (livestock) and north of the Scottish border (livestock and aquaculture) – in other words it broadly follows land type such as lowlands, uplands etc. Whilst only a single dataset, this triangulates with other data such as that contained in the recent report published by BIS on comparative advantage.

So what does this mean for clusters?

- In the East: abundance of grade ‘A’ agricultural land

For England, the East of the country dominates and this is not surprising given the abundance of grade ‘A’ agricultural land and co-located downstream processing businesses, emphasising the importance of clustered supply chains. This ‘mega-block’ has a well-connected research base with major scientific assets from North to South and a particular focus on innovation for arable production.

- In the NorthEast: agri-food initiative

In the North, the N8 Universities new agrifood initiative aligns well with interests on the Sand Hutton science and innovation campus in the Vale of York.

- East Midlands toward the SouthEast: “golden research triangle”

Towards the South, the so-called golden research triangle aligns to those interests around the Norwich science park - it is therefore no surprise that the ‘Agri Tech East’ cluster organisation has become synonymous with the sector.

- In the West: pasture based livestock production

….and not forgetting the West of England which highlights the principle of smart specialisation and understanding core competencies – in this case a niche focus around excellence in pasture based livestock production.

- Greater London: headquarter of large brands and retailers

However, whilst Greater London appears to be notable, this actually represents the headquarter addresses of the large brands and retailers. This underlines the importance of being able to combine good data with a deeper working knowledge of the project portfolio.

- Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland: wealth of activity

Taking a broader UK perspective, there is also a wealth of activity in the devolved administrations. It is striking that in this snapshot, Scotland accounts for almost 25% of all project value and 40% of livestock and aquaculture activity. There are also some very exciting developments in Wales, such as the NutriWales cluster, again a region looking to play to its strengths.

Ambition and leadership must match geography and expertise

Finally, ‘place’ and ‘assets’ are only part of the picture. Ambition and leadership must match geography and expertise, if these clusters are to compete globally. To this end, it is encouraging how the Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) are thinking strategically about optimum scale and the need to work across boundaries with other LEPs.

Of course the insights I present in this snapshot are a deliberate simplification of what is a dynamic and complex sector. This being the case, we look forward to working with the LEPs and colleagues in the devolved governments as things develop.

You can follow me on Twitter - @Dean_Cook_71597

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