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New reports on North East economy reveal impact of COVID-19 and EU Exit

The North East Local Enterprise Partnership has published two new reports, one, an annual state of the region report and the other exploring the impact of COVID-19 and EU Exit on the North East economy.

The LEP’s annual Our Economy report has been published in two parts in 2021. The first report tracks the long term performance of the North East LEP economy across a range of key economic indicators and provides an overview of how it is changing over time.

It also includes an update on progress towards the North East LEP’s aim of bringing 100,000 more and better jobs to the region by 2024, and analysis of the impact of emerging policy priorities, like levelling up and decarbonisation, on the North East.

The second report provides a comprehensive and in-depth look at the national and regional data, research, insights and commentary that shows how COVID-19 and EU exit has impacted the regional economy. Drawing on a range of additional and innovative sources of data, ‘Our Economy: Insights into the impact of COVID-19 and EU transition on the North East Economy’ gathers intelligence on the impacts of the pandemic and EU exit on the North East economy from March 2020 to the current day.

Lucy Winskell OBE, Chair of the North East LEP, said: “This year, perhaps more than any other, developing our shared understanding of change in the regional economy is crucial.

“The work we have done to track, analyse and interpret data and evidence about the performance of our regional economy is central to our role at the North East LEP and a core part of the support we offer our partners.

“It is integral to our economic leadership, our influencing work with government, and underpins our investment decisions and stewardship of public funds, ensuring that regional programmes of delivery are targeted at addressing the key opportunities and challenges we face.”

The reports state that whilst the short-term impact of COVID-19 on the North East was highly disruptive and challenging, the region has continued to sustain increased levels of employment compared with its baseline in 2014, with continued growth of the proportion of better jobs – managers, directors and senior officials; professional occupations; and associate professional and technical occupations – in the region.

They also show the impact of COVID-19 on business and the labour market has been significant. Some sectors, including retail, culture and hospitality, have seen severe changes. Local, regional and national intervention has had an impact in protecting businesses and jobs, but the impact now many of these support measures have ended is unclear.

Inequalities within the region have been exacerbated by the pandemic too, with employers in many industries struggling with skills shortages.

The reports also include data showing that the region’s engagement with the global economy is changing, with the impact of EU Exit creating barriers to trade and the future trading environment still evolving.

Our Economy 2021 also looks at the performance of our programmes and sectors – which have been identified as areas of opportunity for the region, including health and life sciences, digital and energy.

Richard Baker, Strategy and Policy Director at the North East LEP explained: “The economic shock has accelerated a number of opportunities for the North East, with growth and new jobs in some of the key areas of strength and opportunity we have been focused on – in energy, life sciences and digital industries for example.

“Many firms across the economy have changed their operational models, with rapid deployment of digital technology, changing approaches to delivery of goods and services locally and growth in online exporting. There are genuine opportunities for the region to drive forward greener businesses and to drive productivity.”

The evidence provided by Our Economy is used to inform the work of the North East LEP and partners across the region in delivering the North East Strategic Economic Plan – the roadmap for increasing economic growth in the North East.

Our Economy 2021 is available to view on evidencehub.northeastlep.co.uk.

Our Economy: Insights into the impact of COVID-19 and EU transition on the North East Economy is also available to view on evidencehub.northeastlep.co.uk.

The North East Strategic Economic Plan can be read at northeastlep.co.uk.

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In conversation with Vice-Chancellor of Newcastle University, Professor Chris Day, about the role of universities in local and national recovery

As Vice-Chancellor of Newcastle University – as well as a LEP board member representing further education – Professor Chris Day believes universities are absolutely central to our regional and national recovery. But to achieve all they can, they need to work together, and combine vision with the right support.

The day I started in this job, the first question that people asked me was: “How can you be a local and global university at the same time?”

For me, that’s not a conflict. Those two roles are totally complimentary.

If you’re an ambitious university, you need to deliver research that advances humanity’s shared knowledge. That means it needs to be as good as you’ll find anywhere in the world.

You need to offer an education that will help students to thrive in established and emerging industries, wherever they want to go.

But you also want that research – and those skills – to benefit the people who live here, in the North East of England. You want those people to see the results of your breakthroughs, whether that’s better cancer treatments or innovative processes and technologies.

And, above all, you want to create opportunity, and raise aspirations. A child growing up in the North East should be able to watch these new landmarks and industries rise on the skyline, and say, “One day, I’ll be a part of that. And it’ll change my life”.

Achieving all this needs vision, and dedication. But it also requires collaboration, transparency, and – sometimes – a willingness to try things a little differently.

Our role in the region

Newcastle University was founded in 1834 as a medical school, to produce doctors for the North East. It then became an engineering college, training workers for mining and shipbuilding.

Today, we produce graduates capable of pursuing careers in industries all over the world. But we’ve always taken our role in the region seriously.

When COVID-19 first made its presence felt, cities needed a decisive and connected response. And universities like ours had a key place at that table.

Due to our close links with the City Council and the Local Enterprise Partnerships in the region, we were meeting with major players in the city, managing students and vaccinations, and letting our medical students graduate early to assist with treatment and care.

As we start to allow ourselves to think about recovery, our role is as important as ever. Universities will undoubtedly come under pressure to justify their impact, as the Government considers tough decisions about funding. But the truth is this:

At a time when we need it most, universities have the power to become a valuable driver of our economy. With the right support, and vision.

In many ways, the addition of impact to the Research Excellence Framework has focused the minds of university leaders and academics. We’ve acknowledged that we need to show the benefit we bring to society more clearly, and pursue research that has a direct benefit. But it’s also important that universities undertake research that simply increases knowledge, and do the speculative work that enables us to take greater leaps forward.

Quantum physicists didn’t do research so that we could all have phones in our pockets. But we have these devices today because of what they learned.

Universities are the only place that can do work like this. In the R&D departments of companies with shareholders, you can’t have a few people in the corner simply “trying things out”. But that sort of work is absolutely essential.

If you want an example of that relationship, look at Oxford University and AstraZeneca. Researchers developing, and AstraZeneca putting cash in. The result is vaccines that we can all use, and two institutions playing to their strengths.

At Newcastle University, we’re investing in initiatives that will benefit both the world, and the region. Our Newcastle Helix site is the embodiment of our data and ageing science expertise. It’s home to 65 innovative companies, and more than 2,600 jobs. But it’s also crucial to our plans to assist with the regeneration of the West End of the city.

The old Newcastle General Hospital site will soon transform into the Campus for Ageing and Vitality, which will become a leading site for new drugs and discoveries, as well as a test bed for how to improve treatment and services for our ageing population.

Collaboration is absolutely vital to this work. Up in Blyth, Britishvolt is setting up a £2.6bn battery gigaplant, providing 3,000 highly skilled jobs as well as 5,000 down the supply chain.

One of the reasons that site was selected was because our university has fantastic battery researchers, and that we’re also able to provide the skills and training. We’re also linking our researchers with existing regional industries, such as our work with Nissan on the sustainable automotive industry.

That’s what a university can do, when it has the freedom to think beyond its core teaching, and dream of something bigger and more transformative.

And what’s at risk, if we think too small, or too fearfully.

What can we do better?

Universities UK launched the “Getting Results” campaign this summer because it believes universities have an integral role in developing talent, and building prosperity.

Universities are places of learning, places of innovation, and places of opportunity. But as every industry attempts to rebound from the events of the last two years, we need to respond, and address areas where we can do better.

That means working together. It means lifting each other up. And it means being clearer about what we do, and how we can help others.

For example, COVID-19 has emphasised the disparities in wealth and outcomes across the country. If you mapped areas of child poverty in 1850 across the UK with areas worst hit by COVID-19, they’d be almost identical.

So how do universities and their partners address these differences, and ensure more inclusive growth? The number of students from deprived backgrounds at our university has risen from 7% in 2016 to around 20%. But how do we continue this work, and help others across the country to do the same?

We need to work with Further Education partners to up-skill our current and future workforce for the roles they’ll take in future. And we’re talking about the 40 year olds, as well as the 20 year olds.

We still hear from businesses that don’t know where to go to access university R&D expertise. One of the aims of our campaign is to provide a website where a company can look up the lead contacts at Britain’s universities. We want them to be able to find the people with the expertise they want, form partnerships, and work together on valuable solutions.

Universities the length and breadth of the UK need to raise a flag, and show employers and policymakers that they can be a key player in the economic and social outcomes of our towns and cities, and the country as a whole.

We’re already a big part of our community. Let’s also be a big part of our recovery.

Professor Chris Day is the chair of the Universities UK group behind the “Getting Results” campaign. He is also vice chancellor and president of Newcastle University, as well as a member of the North East Local Enterprise Partnership board representing the higher education sector.

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In conversation with Toby Bridges, Executive Chair, The NBT Group and Business Growth Board member at the North East LEP, about the importance of digital adoption in driving operational efficiency

How has the pace of digital adoption in the manufacturing sector impacted the work you do?

I chair The NBT Group, a supply chain management company that works closely with manufacturing businesses across the region and beyond. We’ve been working with our clients on automation for at least the last five years.

We’ve created and built a range of new technology that helps businesses become more operationally efficient, which in turn makes them more cost effective.

We’re aiming to move our clients, and suppliers, away from traditionally manual tasks, so they can focus on creating better jobs, which fits with the North East Strategic Economic Plan.

We enable our customers to do more with less, so they can take that saving and reinvest it into growing their business.

Why is investing in new digital tools and technology so important for the North East’s manufacturing sector?

For me, the goal is to drive operational efficiency. We need to position the North East as the most efficient location in the country to do business. That’s part of the reason why businesses continue to invest here.

Productivity is so important to the health of our economy. There are lots of places in the world where wages are cheaper, but they’re not as efficient and productive as the workforce in the North East. That has to continue, and automation will help us achieve that.

We need to encourage more companies to think about how they become 21st century, industry 4.0 businesses; otherwise they risk being left behind. That’s why the North East LEP has launched the Made Smarter Adoption North East programme, which aims to help manufacturing SMEs in the region adopt new digital technology, innovation and skills; helping drive growth in UK manufacturing.

Will the automation of manufacturing lead to job losses in the sector?

Whilst we will lose some jobs as manual tasks are replaced by technology, we will create far more ‘better’ jobs. It’s not easy to move from a traditional working model to a new, leaner way of doing things. To do that, businesses need to bring in new skills and talent.

The most important thing for the North East is to be ahead of the change that’s coming. We need to make sure we have the talent and expertise in the region to support businesses on this journey.

Understandably, many people focus on the importance of digital skills, but I think we need to invest in creative subjects too, like art and design. We need people that think outside the box. We can teach people how to code, but we shouldn’t underplay the power of the arts in helping manage change and encouraging new thinking.

What does the future hold for manufacturing? What will the sector look like in five or ten years time because of the move to advanced manufacturing?

I think basic manual tasks will become automated, but because of that, we’ll create a new skilled workforce to manage those systems.

It’s important to remember there are cultural challenges around automation too. It’s a difficult conversation to have sometimes but we can’t bury our heads in the ground – it’s coming.

That’s why the region’s focus on retraining and reskilling is so important, that two-way conversation between the educational establishments and industry on what is needed over the next 10-20 years. We need to support businesses and employees to invest in life-long learning so we continue to be prepared for and adapt to the changes digital technology will bring about in all our lives.

We need to create a positive message around digitisation and the benefits it will bring to jobs and the economy.

Toby Bridges is Executive Chair at The NBT Group and a Business Growth Board member at the North East LEP.

The NBT Group is part of a collaborative research project with Northumbria University and Senseye to evaluate new and emerging ‘smart’ technologies, helping to digitalise and transform manufacturing supply chains (read more here). The award of over £250k is part of the £18 million of funding granted through the Digital Supply Chain competition, which forms part of UKRI’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF) Made Smarter innovation challenge. The Digital Supply Chain competition supports the development of innovations designed to help manufacturing supply chains become more productive and sustainable.

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North East LEP supports National Innovation Strategy

The North East Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) has welcomed the National Innovation Strategy, published today 22 July 2021.

The UK Government has developed the Strategy to drive innovation across the UK.

Alan Welby, North East LEP Innovation Director, said: “The vision to make the UK a global hub for innovation by 2035 is ambitious and timely. I am immensely confident that the North East can play a key role in making that vision a reality.

“We’ve always known that innovative economies are more productive and therefore make a stronger contribution to GVA. That’s why in the North East, innovation has always been central to our Strategic Economic Plan that aims to create100,000 more and better jobs in the North East economy by 2024.  

“We welcome this strategy and the importance placed on levelling up. We are keen to see the strategy translated into new projects and programmes to deliver on the ambition for innovation, coupled with greater investment to match. The North East is ready to work with government to drive a step change in innovation activity across our region. We already have key programmes in place and a pipeline of strategic innovation projects that are investment ready.

“The strategy correctly places a focus on increasing private sector investment in R&D and innovation. Encouraging more businesses to innovate, beyond frontier firms, will be key to achieving the 2.4% R&D target and improving the UK’s productivity. We are ready to support our businesses to do this.”

“I’m encouraged by the emphasis on more places in the UK hosting world-leading and globally connected innovation clusters. We have assets, capability, talent and potential to realise that ambition and we look forward to working with government to deliver a place-based approach to unlock that potential.”

Find out more about innovation in the North East.

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Energy Minister visits projects putting North East at the forefront of Net Zero drive

As the North East is poised to become the UK’s first low carbon heat cluster, the government’s Minister for Business, Energy and Corporate Responsibility, Lord Callanan, is touring the region to see some of the projects which are leading the way in the nation’s drive to achieve Net Zero carbon emissions.

The visit follows the launch of three nationally significant activities in the region:

  • The first, a report highlighting the potential of mine energy for the UK published on behalf of the BEIS Energy Hub Network – which uses natural geothermal-heated water that has gathered in the underground networks of former deep coal mines – in helping the UK to achieve its Net Zero target by 2050.
  • The second is Gateshead Council’s Zero Carbon Heat Strategy, outlining its ambition to make all Council buildings and homes net zero by 2030, though major investment in heat networks, as well as supporting clean hydrogen and heat pumps.
  • And the third, is the launch of a ‘High Potential Opportunity’ to promote the North East and Tees Valley as an inward investment location for the UK in heat networks.

Andrew Clark, Energy Lead at the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (North East LEP), said: “The North East has an existing skills base, supply chain and infrastructure, plus a nationally-significant project pipeline, which means we are ideally positioned to make a huge contribution to the UK’s drive to achieve Net Zero.

“During today’s visit, we were able to showcase some of the globally-important energy projects which are taking place in our region, and demonstrate how the North East is on its way to becoming the UK’s first cluster for low carbon heat innovation, supply chain and delivery.”

Lord Callanan was able to meet beneficiaries of the Government’s Heat Networks Investment Project (HNIP); two mine water heat networks in the region are among those to have been awarded funding by Triple Point Heat Networks Investment Management in partnership with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

The Minister visited Seaham Garden Village district heat network in County Durham, which will supply low-carbon geothermal heat from former coal mines to a new development to the south of Seaham. It is hoped that the scheme will be a commercially viable sustainable energy demonstrator project that can be duplicated across the UK coalfields, which contain 25% of the UK population.

Energy Minister, and Heat Networks Industry Council Ministerial Champion, Lord Callanan of Low Fell said: “Heating our homes and workspaces without causing carbon emissions is going to be key to tackling climate change and heat networks are proving an effective solution as well as opening up huge potential for investors at home and abroad.“

These low-carbon technologies are allowing us to build back greener from the pandemic, and as the Heat Networks Industry Council’s Ministerial Champion, I’m excited to see the opportunities they are providing in the North-East. “As a native of this region, I’m well aware of how coal dug from under our feet powered the industrial revolution 200 years ago and it’s fitting that that legacy and heat taken from former mines is now helping drive forward a new Green Industrial Revolution.”

Councillor Mark Wilkes, Durham County Council’s Cabinet member for neighbourhoods and climate change, said: “We’re delighted to be part of the drive towards achieving Net Zero carbon emissions.

“The proposed district heating system at Seaham Garden Village will use ultra-low carbon energy from the former mine workings.  

“The use of this technology could be replicated in other parts of County Durham, the North East region and elsewhere across the UK’s former coalfield sites.” 

Also on the agenda was a visit to the Gateshead District Energy Scheme, which has been awarded funding to double its heat network, using geothermal energy from a network of old mine workings 150 metres below Gateshead to supply heat to homes and businesses. 

John McElroy, cabinet member for the environment and transport at Gateshead Council, said: “Our work on heat networks and harnessing geothermal heat shows our ambition to tackle climate change and reach our zero carbon goal by 2030.

“We already have a significant track record of investment in heat networks, so this is proven technology – now we need to move across to sustainable sources of energy and roll out zero carbon heating to a much wider audience across the borough.”

Ken Hunnisett, Project Director at Triple Point Heat Networks Investment Management said: “These two projects represent the first two mine energy schemes to be awarded HNIP funding and signify genuine levelling up in the North East in preparation for net zero. With mine energy ideally suited to district heating, the ability of our coalfields to provide clean, affordable and perpetually renewing heat should be a source of great national pride.” 

Richard Bond, Innovation and Engagement Director at the Coal Authority, said: “Using heat from former coal mines is an innovative way to decarbonise heating supplies, attract investment, create employment and lower energy bills. The Coal Authority is actively working with a number of partner organisations across the country, including the North East Local Enterprise Partnership, to help unlock the potential of mine water heat to make UK homes greener, warmer and more efficient.”

Also in Gateshead, Lord Callanan joined Anne-Marie Trevelyan, MP, Minister for Energy, Clean Growth and Climate Change who was officially opening Hydrogen House, the UK’s first house to demonstrate the use of hydrogen-fuelled appliances in a real-world setting, at Northern Gas Networks’ Low Thornley site. 

Andrew Clark added: “These projects are not just regionally significant; they’re leading the way for the entire nation and no doubt contributed to Government’s recent decision to select Heat networks in the North East and Tees Valley as part of the Department for International Trade’s High Potential Opportunities Programme (HPO). We now have a completed investment proposition to promote to foreign investors and drive investment into the region.

“We’ll continue to work with government, the energy sector in the North East, and our partners in Tees Valley, to push forward the work taking place in our region which will help the UK cut its carbon emissions and help tackle the issue of climate change.” 

On the High Potential Opportunities Programme, Minister for Investment, Gerry Grimstone said: “Our HPO programme is designed to showcase the best opportunities across the UK to international investors and attract investment that will help the UK build back better.

“Attracting investment into the UK’s clean growth industries like heat networks is critical, and with so many projects in the pipeline and such a fantastic ecosystem, the industry should take note of this huge opportunity. This programme along with the Global Investment Summit we are hosting in October will be a chance to show why the UK is a great place to invest in a greener future.”

Find out about the North East LEP’s work to support the North East energy sector here.

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Energy Innovation Challenge: Jumping Rivers

Esther Gillespie, Director of data science consultancy Jumping Rivers, explains how taking part in the Energy Innovation Challenge has opened up opportunities and funding for the business.

“I would totally recommend getting in contact with the North East Energy Catalyst, and certainly the Innovation Challenge has really been an exciting development for our company,” says Esther.

Find out about the Energy Innovation Challenge programme here.

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In conversation with Gillian Hall, North East LEP Innovation Board Chair, about the LEP’s annual review and the importance of creating an innovation culture in the region

The upheaval of the COVID-19 pandemic has led to increased levels of innovation across the North East. But how do you build on that, and create a culture that’s always proactively searching for competitive advantage and new opportunities?

We talked to the North East LEP’s Gillian Hall, Innovation Board Chair, about creating the confidence and ambition needed to build an innovative region.

When people talk about “innovation”, often they think about scientists locked away in labs.

However, innovation comes in many forms. There’s innovation where you find a competitive advantage, or where you do something differently – not just when you invent something or carry out scientific research.

Over the last year or so, I don’t think there’s any business that’s just “carried on as normal”. Everyone’s had to re-think something or shift how they work. And when you tell people that’s innovation, suddenly they realise: “Oh, I can do that”.

We’ve talked to a lot of businesses that have had to learn new ways of doing things. Maybe a company has had to consider sourcing new parts suppliers. Maybe another has moved all its sales to online platforms, and had to master different ways of advertising.

Many businesses have changed, or pivoted. But across the region, people have rolled up their sleeves and done what was needed.

The LEP team has been hugely resilient during this time, thinking of new ways to get their job done. And the collaboration across the region has been excellent, with businesses, local authorities and the voluntary sector working together.

That’s the key to creating a more innovative region. We want to create a problem-solving culture, where solutions just might come from outside your organisation. 

We launched Challenge North East, a COVID-19 open innovation pilot in November last year, encouraging ideas on how to manage safe, in-person events and home-based services. In all, 16 projects received a total of £200,000 in funding to help develop solutions. That also gave us a best practice model to use for future open innovation, challenge-led projects.

A big part of our work over the next five years will be to help build that culture of innovation. On top of that, we will make the best use of the money we have to pump prime innovation projects and partnerships; and will continue our conversations with government around our innovation strategy and what we need from government to help deliver it.

We’ll also be seeking to increase private sector investment into our innovative companies. We’ve been working on an interconnector project with the City of London Corporation which will showcase the work we’re doing in the region to City investors. We’ve also commissioned an Economic Markets Foresight Analysis to identify potential global opportunities for our businesses to take advantage of.

We’re very fortunate to have four great universities, which bring significant muscle and reputational impact to the region. The universities’ Northern Accelerator collaboration has already created 28 spin-out businesses since its inception in 2016. Keeping graduates in the region is also a major focus. There’s also a big role for our further education colleges, which will make sure that our people are trained for the jobs of the future.

After all, the LEP is here to create more and better jobs. You have to have businesses that have market leading products and services that people want to buy; those business will need skilled workers. We want to encourage business and the public and voluntary sectors to think differently, to collaborate in finding solutions to problems, and then create employment opportunities from those solutions.

In the end, it’s about helping to build confidence and ambition. It’s about staying true to the overall objectives of the region’s Strategic Economic Plan, and encouraging government, our local authorities, business and the education sectors to work together for the benefit of the region.

There’s still a lot of work to be done, so we should always be pushing to do more. That means getting people around the table, and coming up with new ways to do amazing things.

Gillian Hall is Chair of the Innovation Board at the North East Local Enterprise Partnership.

You can find out more about the North East LEP’s Innovation Programme at www.northeastlep.co.uk.

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Support available to develop innovation projects in preparation for future funding opportunities

North East organisations are being offered support from a team of innovation experts to prepare projects for future funding opportunities. Alan Welby, Innovation Director at the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), explains how a pipeline of the most promising regional innovation projects and programmes in the North East is being championed on a national and international stage.

Securing funding for innovation-focused projects is a highly competitive process. Funding calls are regularly issued nationally or internationally, and bids must be extremely focused and well-developed if they’re to be successful.

That’s why we’re putting together a pipeline of North East projects which have the potential to have a real regional, national, and even international impact. Projects can come from any sector, but the important factor is that they are large in scale and have the promise to be successfully rolled out to domestic, commercial or industrial markets, and can help to increase investment in R&D and create new jobs in the North East.

The North East LEP can offer organisations support to ensure business cases are in the best possible shape to secure future investment and will act as a critical friend to help develop project ideas. We will help partners to identify public and private funding opportunities and ensure alignment with emerging strategic priorities. When funding calls open, we aim to have strong businesses cases ready from our pipeline and champion what our region has to offer.

We’ve already supported a range of North East innovation projects to secure £62.5 million of funding to support business case development and to move projects on to delivery. Examples include Northern Gas Network’s InTEGRel project and the Driving the Electric Revolution Centre North East project.

We’re now inviting more organisations to come forward and apply to join our official Innovation Project Pipeline, so if you have a project that’s in development, we’d love to hear from you.

We’re particularly keen to hear about projects that complement the North East’s existing strengths in digital, health and life sciences, advanced manufacturing or energy, as these are areas where we know the region has the potential to be a world-leader.

Working together as a region gives us strength, and by combining the drive and ambition of North East innovators with the expertise of the North East LEP team, we can set up our region’s businesses for success.

Find out more about joining the Innovation Project Pipeline.

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Challenge North East: the story so far

Challenge North East is an innovation programme, launched to identify solutions to issues created by COVID-19 and to enable SMEs to develop and test these solutions with large regional partners who could adopt them. Programme Director, Sarah Cox, gives an update on the response from businesses in the North East, and the drive to fast-track products that could help the region recover from the pandemic.

In December last year we put out a call to North East SMEs, asking businesses to put forward ideas that could help our region – and potentially the rest of the UK – recover from the impact of COVID-19/

The pandemic had a huge impact on businesses and communities in our region and we knew that innovation could play an important part in our recovery. We wanted to fast-track the development of new solutions, and provide SMEs with an environment where they could test and iterate, using an open innovation framework to bring organisations together.

But before we could ask SMEs to put forward ideas, we needed to narrow our focus and identify key areas where we could have the biggest impact, and help the greatest number of people.

After working with a range of large organisations and community groups, we identified two challenges which urgently needed solutions: how to safely bring people together for in-person events, like gigs, exhibitions or performances; and how to ensure vulnerable people’s safety when delivering services in the home, like health visits and home repairs.

We understood that SMEs are themselves stretched and facing uncertainty, so we wanted to provide a support system and a clear, rapid process for them to develop ideas with the potential for adoption. challenge North East was launched in late 2020, with the ultimate aim of funding the development of new solutions to these two challenges.

We’ve been lucky to have the support of organisations like Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, Newcastle Hospitals, Northern Gas Networks and others, who have helped us understand the detail of these challenges, and are also providing a means of testing potential solutions. By bringing these supporting organisations together with SMEs, we’ve been able to speed up and de-risk the process of innovation, connecting businesses with large organisations that can provide feedback and a route to market for any new products.

More than 60 SMEs entered the challenge, with submissions ranging from virtual queuing systems for events, to smart devices that can monitor patients’ health in their homes. 16 have now been selected to progress to the next stage of the challenge, and the ideas which will have the greatest impact and which have the best chance of commercial success and social impact will be awarded funding towards further development and scaling up.

We launched Challenge North East with an open mind, and the programme has responded at every stage to the needs of our local communities and industry. The goodwill and willingness of people to work together has been truly inspiring and these SMEs are beacons of success in a difficult time.

With innovation, when you start you’re never certain of the end result, but Challenge North East has given us a route forward together.

Find out more about Challenge North East.