How collaboration can deliver innovation…

The UK’s new and emerging industries are inevitably built around a series of services or products, spanning many sectors, involving a range of skills and often both large and small companies. Add to this investors, researchers and support organisations in both the public and private sector and it is easy to see that effective collaboration is a very real challenge. Iain Gray, Chief Executive, Technology Strategy Board investigates.
The publication of the Government’s Innovation and Research strategy towards the end of last year further reinforced the importance of business led innovation with a commitment of a £75m package to help companies innovate and grow. In our role as a non departmental public body, we sit at a pivot point between Government, businesses, research communities and academia.
We hope that this multi-discipline cross boundary approach will help to provide the spark that will drive innovation for growth and connect businesses to deliver increased opportunity and greater success. We want our support to ensure that businesses innovate faster and quicker than would otherwise be possible and I firmly believe that collaboration is one of the essential ingredients that will achieve this. 
But small businesses can be nervous at the prospect of collaboration – however I feel the greater danger is that while we are busy over estimating the risks associated with this we seriously underestimate the risk of being closed to new ideas, processes or sharing.
In a recent independent survey that the Technology Strategy Board commissioned by PACEC (Public and Corporate Economic Consultants) to evaluate the real business impact of the collaborative R and D projects that we have supported since 2007, 42 per cent of companies said they had actually increased jobs and 40 per cent said they had safeguarded jobs through their collaborative efforts.
This is a testament to the security that collaboration can actually provide to a small company – a total contrast to the risks that I made reference to before.
I also believe that vital to collaboration working effectively is for UK businesses to take advantage of the country’s fantastic scientific research base. In the past 10 years the country’s universities have changed to be far more open and engaged with business.
Today, every university has enterprise on the agenda of its senior management team and we have moved beyond seeing universities simply as sources of knowledge or intellectual property. 
A great example of this is a small radio and communications company that came to the Technology Strategy Board for funding back in 2009. The Morecombe based company called In Touch had recently joined forces for the first time with Lancaster University and highways maintenance company Carillion plc.
Managing Director John Walden attributes this collaboration with ‘totally transforming’ the 26 year old company – ‘we knew that to take a long term strategic look at the data and communications industry and predict the likely advances in innovation that we needed academic input,’ he says.
In the past three years In Touch has increased its workforce by eight people and now undertakes all its own system development work in house. Next month it will launch a revolutionary two way community travel information system called Our Travel. 
John says collaboration and working within a consortium has actually helped to strengthen the long term viability of the company.  Today he urges ‘more small companies to take advantage of how universities have opened up their fantastic resources to businesses like ours.’
Our strategy of ‘Concept to Commercialisation’ is built upon the premise of how we as an organisation intend to help shorten the commercial journey that delivers a product or service from an idea or concept. Recent evidence in the report by PACEC showed that having university partners in a collaborative consortium correlated with higher economic returns and increased success as measured by return on investment.
We know that for many companies investment often comes too late or too little to make a significant impact. This is all the more frustrating when you consider just how much innovation in the UK happens within SMEs. In a global market success will not just depend upon managing the knowledge we have, but how we rapidly commercialise the technologies that subsequently develop.
The economic and societal benefits of a thriving and dynamic research community are vast but if innovation is to flourish there needs to be a more concerted effort to connect the landscape of public and private sector players to the ambitious businesses. 
Being the UK’s main innovation agency is an important role and we hope that our input can have a positive impact on the collaborations we work with. Helping businesses to make purposeful connections, facilitating collaborative consortiums and developing long term sustainable business partnerships will ultimately deliver commercial success for UK plc. In building the UK’s innovation community and we hope to engage, to inform and to inspire the brightest and best people and businesses in the UK.
To find out more about how the Technology Strategy Board works with businesses and Collaborative Research and Development opportunities please visit: www.innovateuk.org
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