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Scaling the edge: the people side of innovation

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Support

How will companies survive in the economic aftermath of a global pandemic?

Some reports predict the economy is on a slow rebuild post Covid-19, others of a delayed bounce-back as headlines warn us of the worst recession in our lifetime.

In high technology driven sectors professionals are highlighting a more optimistic view, referring to nearer-term bounce-back opportunities.

The question remains: what does this really mean?

What does it mean to the survival of high technology companies in the short-term, their ability to adapt to a new normal in the medium term and their resilience against future disruptions in the long-term?

Let me start with a brief story when it comes to the people side of innovation.

A Chief Financial Officer (CFO) is wary about investing in the training and education of company employees. He asks the Chief Executive Officer (CEO), “What happens if we invest in developing our people and then they leave the company?”

The CEO replies, “What happens if we don’t and they stay?” The CEO recognises that at a time when there is much talk about business model innovation and innovation culture, the most significant element to anything related to innovation has always been and always will be people.

The right people at the right time

When it comes to projects involving innovation with radical or breakthrough potential, you need people who have their heart and skin in the game. You also need different people for the different phases of the innovation process.

Scaling the Edge: what is it?

UK SMEs recognise the potential of value of transformative innovation in terms of driving revenue growth leading some of them to this pro-actively. Despite this, several barriers both perceived and actual are also cited:

  • Considered a distraction from core business
  • Don't have the bandwidth to put time into non-core activity
  • Don't have resources to invest into non-core activity
  • Don’t have in-house skills and experience
  • Don’t have access into other markets

One such support for addressing bandwidth, resources and skills can be through the provision of intrapreneurship support, a people centric, bottom-up approach to developing radical innovations in-house.

In a competitive environment, entrepreneurship is an essential and indispensable element in business; whether small or large, start-up or mature.

Intrapreneurship can be defined as the process by which teams within an established company conceive and initiate new products or innovations; or exploit existing resources within their business.

Scaling the Edge is Innovate UK’s pilot activity to service this need.


Our approach is to deliver an intrapreneurship development programme for SMEs which is based on a proven lean start-up methodology, design thinking, digital testing and data driven decision making.

This methodology can radically change SMEs approach to innovation thinking, particularly around new product development, product enhancement, and identifying new markets or applications for existing technologies and products.

SMEs need to minimise their risks. Internal ventures should be invested in incrementally, and as the ventures progress with evidence from the market and validated learnings, the uncertainty decreases.

This training will enable frontier-pushing SMEs to nurture intrapreneurial talent through a ‘best in class’ programme and receive expert training to explore ideas, digitally test market assumptions, and engage in a market discovery journey.

We encourage rapid business strategy development and dramatically de-risk new product/market exploration through a data driven digital testing methodology.

What is being offered?

  • Expert training by seasoned entrepreneurs at an online bootcamp delivered by a renowned team with substantial innovation to commercialisation expertise
  • Corporate entrepreneurship audit of current and past activity
  • Four step methodology with ongoing tailored support and guidance for market discovery and digital testing
  • Improved staff morale and radically change innovation culture
  • Cutting time to market and improved bottom line through commercially validating new/improved product ideas and markets

The sought-after outcome of Intrapreneurship is the practice of using entrepreneurial skills without taking on the risks or accountability associated with entrepreneurial activities (starting your own business).

Instead, the practitioners build new businesses within the existing company while behaving as entrepreneurs; they just have the resources and capabilities of the firm to draw upon. Intrapreneurs have a very operational role.

They need to make things happen and develop new business opportunities that meet the needs of demanding customers.

Of course, this also includes coordination with stakeholders from the company mothership and other external partners, but intrapreneurs must have a special talent for addressing the needs of paying customers.

For further information on Scaling the Edge, or the commercialisation of academic research, please contact:

Dr Colin Cooper, Head of Commercialisation and Collaboration,

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  1. Comment by Matthew Bleasdale posted on

    This brings up an excellent point about the need for education within society and why the tax system should mitigate companies' risk for investing in their workforce - i.e. that educated populous benefits the country while any individual company runs the risk of that person leaving them. However, I'm sorry, it also demonstrates a lack of understanding of innovation origination, innovation types and where they originate, as well as what types of company need for support. What's ironic is that the blog succinctly states the reasons for the problem, yet still comes to an erroneous conclusion.

    Medium and large enterprises focus on incremental innovation of existing products to improve margin in existing markets. They don't need support as they should have established revenue streams from their operations, e.g. the funding that H2020 has given Siemens, et al, in i4Offshore is virtually criminal if you ask me - why is a multinational mega-corporation such as Siemens being given public funding to develop technology for a market where it already dominates?

    As stated in the blog, for established businesses disruptive innovation, especially in new markets, is a distraction to their core business, and typically they don't have the expertise to understand the issues around a new technology or market as they are focused on investing in optimising their existing business model - it is the nature of economics, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. While they may occasionally want to, and talk about, extending into new markets, coming up with new products, etc. there are a host of issues that mean that is nigh on impossible. There have been a handful of examples of large companies being able to respond to disruptive innovation (e.g. IBM responding to the rise of Apple desktop computing), however, those are clearly the exception and they only respond to a threat in their market as opposed to originating the underpinning technology.

    All significant growth originates in disruptive innovation, that for a host of reasons come from start-ups, which inherently are small companies. That's not to say that small companies are innovative, it is to say that innovative individuals start new companies and new companies are inherently small. The reasons those innovative individuals start companies include insight into a particular market and technology, most likely combined with a frustration with the inefficiencies of the organisation and lack of foresight/insight of the middle management (administrative officials who are astute in relation to office politics, not the typical personality type for someone who is innovative), a disjoint in remuneration and value, desire to benefit from their own creativity, have control over the way it develops, etc.

    Unfortunately, to me, this "Scaling the Edge" initiative shows a type of misunderstanding about innovation and how to support it that from my engagement with the innovation funding system in the UK seems to be pervasive. Whether that is in the Catapult network, Innovate UK, or BEIS, and so I suspect Treasury and the Cabinet Office as well. The money spent on this 8 week programme would be better spent on SBRI innovation contracts, based on proposals from young innovative companies evaluated against the interests of the government, and developing a demand for the innovation that those companies originate. That is because the complexity of issues that go into a good innovation means they are unpredictable, and trying to coordinate groups to innovate successfully is nigh on impossible (hence the old joke of a camel being a horse designed by committee).

    Take my own example, a background in rock climbing, rope access, offshore construction in subsea cables and oil and gas, alongside an in-depth understanding of the economics of offshore wind together with perfect timing and a bloody-minded determination mean that statistically, it's likely that I am unique (as we all are). I'm not special, it's just that my experience, education, and aptitude, all fell into the right place at the right time for game-changing innovation in a major market.

    In summary, trying to get existing companies to be more innovative is an inefficient use of funds. Supporting medium and large companies to innovate when they should have revenues from their existing activities begs the question as to why they need the money. Focus on small companies with new technology and developing a demand for orders, because businesses thrive on sales.

    And whatever you do, don't let any "expert" in the market review or rate the innovations, they are "experts" in the existing market, not the new one.

  2. Comment by Jamie Elliott posted on

    @Matthew Bleasdale I disagree with your assertion that getting existing companies to be more innovative is an inefficient use of funds. In my experience many medium and large companies do not have the processes and systems in place with which to drive innovation. They may be very good at the delivering their core products and services but their innovations occur due to serendipity rather than any coordinated effort.

    This initiative will support companies with an innovation framework within which they can grow. The impact that this will have on established organisations to support growth is far greater than for smaller start ups that as you point out may be more able to provide disruptive innovations. This then justifies the use of public funding in this way.

    I agree that the government should not tell organisations what to innovate but they can support organisations with the how, sharing best practice. In many ways this initiative is over due, for too long government has asked business to 'be more innovative' and possibly provided grants etc but not shown them how to do it.