Highlights from Venturefest WM 2022 – The West Midlands Innovation Accelerator: Growing the Innovation Ecosystem

The Panel for this session included Mike Wright, Chair of the West Midlands Innovation Board, Dr Julie Nugent, Director of Productivity and Skills at the West Midlands Combined Authority, Dean Cook, (Interim Director) Senior Lead – Place, Levelling up and Regional Engagement at Innovate UK, and Nat McCaulay, CEO of JCM Contracts.

Mike Wright opened the session by emphasising that the Innovation Accelerator (IA) was a significant step in boosting the innovation capability in the West Midlands. The West Midlands was selected for the IA because of our distinct manufacturing base but also our established innovation ecosystem which is supported by the West Midlands Innovation programme. The region had demonstrated to Central Government that it was capable of delivering the benefits an IA could bring. This confidence from Government is also shown in the awarding of one of only two trailblazer devolution deals.

The role of the IA’s is to develop UK innovation clusters, boosting economic growth by investing in a strategic portfolio of projects to grow R&D strengths, attract private investment, boost innovation diffusion, and maximize the combined economic impact of R&D institutions. Each of the 3 IA’s develop a focused programme of transformational projects to grow their regional innovation ecosystem, in line with broader regional strategies. They will receive bespoke support from the UK Government, led by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) in partnership with other departments and their regional teams. Innovation Accelerators will be delivered day-to-day by UKRI and Innovate UK, and funding will be delivered through a process overseen by BEIS and UKRI.

Although the region was fortunate in being only one of three recipients of Innovation Accelerator funding in the UK it is only the starting point. The big prize is the increased UKRI funding to £20bn by 2024, 55% of which will be spent outside the south east.  This could mean our publicly funded R&D budget could increase by £500m over the next 3-4 years.

The panel agreed that this approach by Government felt different. The IA is an opportunity to ensure our innovation ecosystem is:

  • Connected: through places and aligning skills, business support, finance and infrastructure
  • Focused: aligned against our clusters of greatest growth potential to drive local impact
  • Aligned: both within the innovation ecosystem and with national initiatives including the other two IA regions.

It was clear that as the IA is developed a strong business voice will be required to ensure that the maximum benefit is received from the business community. One of the initiatives suggested was to using public procurement to drive innovation opportunities in the SME community.

The panel was unanimous in the thinking that the IA should not be about shiny new buildings but about programmes to drive the innovation ecosystem creating sustainable impact.

The region needs to reflect on how well it is already doing and build on this strength. We need to be appreciative, funds are coming, but need to be more risk aligned, let’s try things and get ideas and funding into the community.

You can find out more on how plans to give greater powers to the West Midlands has been welcomed here.

Author, Jamie Elliott

Innovation Lead, West Midlands Combined Authority