After two and a half years as Interim Executive Chair of Innovate UK, I now embark on the next stage of my career as Chief Business Officer at medical research charity, LifeArc.
As I reflect on my tenure at Innovate UK, I am exceptionally proud to have led the organisation through many complex challenges – from organisational transformations to UKRI integration to preparing for the myriad eventualities of Brexit. However, as any business leader will now attest, nothing could have prepared me for the challenges (and opportunities) of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Necessity is the Mother of Invention
“By 2020, there’ll be 8,000 offshore wind turbines around the UK coast”
“By 2020, there’ll be 20 billion connected devices on the Internet of Things”
“By 2020, there’ll be 5,200 gigabytes of data for every person on Earth”
For years, futurists and industry pundits have used ‘2020’ has the reference point for tech predictions. So much so, that you would be forgiven for thinking that 2020 would be an innovation utopia, filled with jet packs, Mars colonies and robot butlers!
But what did we get instead? COVID-19 and the biggest socioeconomic crisis of a generation.
Innovate UK quickly recognised the immediate challenges facing innovation-led businesses and, back in March, my leadership team spent an intensive weekend designing a portfolio of new, ambitious investment programmes for delivering targeted support to innovative UK businesses when they needed it most.
This enabled us to agree a £750 million COVID-19 response package from government, which we split between protecting existing investments, expanding business growth advisory services, and delivering new funding competitions that responded to urgent societal needs, such as the Sustainable Innovation Fund
Appetite for innovation
The UK is home to almost six million small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which account for over half of our private sector turnover. These companies are widely considered to be the engine of economic growth and will be critical to rebuilding our post-COVID-19 economy. However, as their size defines, they are particularly vulnerable to economic volatility.
When faced with financial crisis, SMEs will often adopt cost-cutting measures, like curbing travel, recruitment, and advertising spend. Typically, you would also see a significant reduction in R&D.
However, there is something different about the current crisis.
Our COVID-response programmes were met with unprecedented demand. Our first fast-start competition, just one component of our COVID-19 response, received over 8,600 applications – more than we received across all competitions throughout 2019!
Within just six months, our COVID-19 response programmes have fuelled R&D activity at over 2,100 companies across the UK. Through our Enterprise Europe Network partners, we also extended business growth advisory services to a further 2,000 companies.
I am incredibly proud of our COVID-19 response. However, I’m equally proud that we were able to maintain our core funding programmes, including smart grants, energy catalyst, AgriTech catalyst, and diversity-focused programmes, like Women in Innovation and Young Innovators.
Many of these programmes also saw double, sometimes triple, figure growth in 2020 - illustrating the UK’s burgeoning appetite for innovation and entrepreneurialism.
Turning challenges into opportunities
I’m inspired to see so many of our customers flourishing through the pandemic. Here’s a couple of examples.
Cauldron fast-tracked the development of the Gorilla Experiment Builder - an intuitive, online behavioural research platform, which allows scientists to undertake complex behavioural studies on large, diverse cohorts of participants.
Since COVID-19 restrictions made lab-based experiments impossible, Cauldron’s online platform has seen explosive growth – this year, the company more than doubled headcount and revenue, supplying 15,000 user licences to leading universities around the world.
VET-AI unleashed a revolutionary service, which enables pet-owners to diagnose symptoms, access advisory services, and request online consultations all through their flagship app, Joii.
The pandemic has fuelled unprecedented demand – leading to 100,000 new pets being registered for the service, a 900% increase in their paid-for consultations, and the creation of 50 new jobs. The team are now preparing to further enhance the Joii functionality, using video-based machine learning models to detect gait abnormalities, such as arthritis and hip dysplasia.
2020: The year the world did not stand still
This year, across all award programmes, Innovate UK received applications from over 30,000 companies - exceeding the total of the past 3 years. Exactly 1 year ago, Innovate UK was managing 3,400 live projects. Today, we manage 6,800.
Delivering our ambitious COVID-19 response plan whilst maintaining our core funding programmes was a herculean effort. Every single member of my staff worked tirelessly to deliver three years of work within just six months, supporting over 9,000 organisations in every corner of the UK.
Knowing that, in 2020, our role within the UK innovation ecosystem was more critical than ever, the staff at Innovate UK displayed enormous drive, resilience, expertise and compassion. Whenever I am asked what I will miss most about Innovate UK, the answer is simple – the brilliant people.
In times of turmoil, it’s better to get a speeding ticket than a parking fine. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s the importance of being nimble, taking risks and delivering at speed. If we want to be sustainable and disruptive force for good, then we cannot simply repeat the behaviours of others and we can never stand still.
Farewell for now
With the government’s ambitions to build back better, business-led innovation will play a key role in steering the UK out of recession and towards a brighter, more resilient, more sustainable future.
I have absolute faith that Innovate UK will play a key role in empowering UK businesses to innovate, scale, collaborate, and enter new markets. And I am confident that the companies that embrace innovation won’t just weather the pandemic, but they will emerge from it even stronger.
Be bold. Be disruptive. Be innovative.
Farewell for now.
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You can go to the Innovate UK website
You can go to the UKRI website