I first submitted bids for UK government innovation money when Innovate UK was called the ‘Technology Strategy Board’ and, as an ardent free marketer, was sceptical of how effective government can be in ‘picking winners’ on the industrial landscape. However, as years have passed I have come to realise that, in practice, Innovate UK has proven its worth as a part of Britain’s sophisticated digital economy. This is not to say that I am convinced that the Prime Minister’s latest push for a much more comprehensive ‘industrial strategy’ is either desirable in Global Britain or has much chance of being effective given our short political time frames (think NHS reforms) – but this is a matter for another blog post.
Having given this some serious thought over past year since the UK's EU Referendum, I now see Innovate UK having three core strengths that can boost Britain’s economy in a post-Brexit world:
First the UK's Innovation Agency, is very good at identifying broad ‘future problem areas’ which will need innovative solutions. Post the 2007/8 Great Global Financial Correction, most government’s around the world must make do with getting more from less in trying to solve some of the greatest problems facing their citizens. These may be health issues associated with aging populations or issues surrounding the quality of life in urban environments as more people move into cities. A look at the Innovate UK website shows that they have a good understanding of where future problems are likely to crop up or, more importantly, get worse.
Second, Calls for bids for Innovate UK funds show that they understand that “the trend is your friend.” They appear to be staffed with knowledgeable people who are tapped into the latest cutting edge thinking which is driving momentum in a whole range of areas from biomedical, digital health to connected autonomous vehicles, innovation in rail, connected transport and emerging and enabling technologies. In some cases, Innovate UK money may be awarded to ‘bleeding edge’ technology within an emerging trend that would never get funding from elsewhere, like those in its First of a Kind competitions.
Third, Innovate UK has developed world class processes for both awarding and tracking the success of taxpayers’ money spent on innovation. From whether such leading-edge technology solutions pass the informed ‘Sniff Test’ (which is all you may have to go on in the most bloody of bleeding edge innovations) to a robust but flexible analysis of how the money is spent, Innovate UK leads the world, surpassing in many instances even the accountability benchmark procedures of Britain’s VC companies.
Today, it is not surprising that other countries which are trying to understand how to finance their own national innovation schemes are looking to Britain as source of best practice in this area. As a result, Innovate UK are sending some of their brightest across the globe to set up Innovate UK-type Calls in which British firms can link up with partners in distant markets (India, China). Clearly, as Britain Brexits (and the EU’s share of the world economy falls to only 13% without us) the Government hopes that Britain’s entrepreneurs will open their eyes to the opportunities in these markets.
Whether it is possible to set up an Innovate UK style body in countries with higher levels of corruption than in the UK is open to question. Robust integrity in awarding public money may turn out to be the most significant prerequisite for any state to successfully seed fund national businesses who have the best ideas to solve future problems. In this case, these less scrupulous countries can let the UK innovate these ideas and then steal them as they have done in the past.