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Innovation and the North East’s economic recovery

Alan Welby, Innovation Director at the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), and Gillian Hall, newly-appointed Chair of the North East LEP’s Innovation Board, discuss how innovation can bring more jobs to the region and help businesses to recover from the impact of COVID-19.


Can you explain what role the Innovation Board plays in helping to drive growth within the North East economy and more and better jobs for its residents?

Gillian: Innovation is one of the areas of focus – alongside skills, business growth, transport and investment – that can help us to increase productivity and the number of jobs in the North East.

Business owners might not think that innovation is something they do but in fact it’s often just about working out a new, better way of doing something. If you’re tweaking your product or processes to find a competitive advantage then that is innovation. If you’ve come up with a new product then that is innovation.

A lot of what we’re doing is around supporting partners to come together to make something bigger than the sum of its parts. The Northern Accelerator partnership between Durham, Newcastle, Northumbria and Sunderland Universities is a brilliant example of this, providing a structure to support the commercialisation of ideas from academics and showing how we can build a knowledge economy with regional assets and regional people.

The Innovation Board is there to increase activity like this and to be a critical friend to the North East LEP’s innovation team.


As the newly-appointed Chair of the Innovation Board, what are your priorities for the coming weeks and months?

Gillian: Turning plans into action and keeping things moving forward are my priorities.

We have a big job to do and it’s easy to spread ourselves too thinly. It’s very important for me to make sure that the Board is focused on delivering projects that are going to make a difference and that we achieve the aims set out in the North East Strategic Economic Plan.

We also have very active part to play in the North East’s COVID recovery plan, making sure existing projects have what they need to keep going but also seeing what needs to be done in the short and medium term to support businesses and communities to recover.


The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly impacted on businesses, with many having to introduce new ways of working or even pivot and change what they do. How important is innovation going to be to help companies through to recovery?

Gillian: Quite naturally, we have a tendency to want to go back to the way things were but we must come to terms with the fact that this can’t happen and that we need to change our mind-set and adopt new ways of working.

Businesses are already thinking in an innovative way about how they can survive in a different world; these new ways of thinking are true innovation and businesses should be celebrated for moving quickly and making positive changes.

Alan: COVID is a massive disruptor and businesses in all sectors have had to find new ways of doing things. As a result, we’re seeing new collaborations and new solutions bring brought forward to the problems COVID has raised.

Innovation is about coping with change, and we need to test, challenge and drive each other to change and adapt.


How do you plan to support companies in the region to use innovation to help them recover from the impact COVID-19 may have had on their business?

Gillian: During recovery we often see businesses cutting expenditure in areas like R&D. It’s a real risk that R&D specialists in our region will lose their jobs and that their expertise will be lost to the North East so we’re talking to partners about launching a ‘lifeboat scheme’ to support businesses to maintain their R&D and to keep hold of this group of people who are vital to innovation and to the success of our region in the future.

We are also thinking about those people who have had to retrain or look for new jobs. This is a very stressful time for many people and we’re working with the NHS to look at wellbeing and supporting people’s mental health.

Alan: As part of our COVID response programme, we’re also launching a series of open innovation challenges which will help people to quickly bring forward new products and services to market.

The challenge programme will mobilise the innovation community to help find solutions for businesses, for education and for individuals, making things better for the region as we recover and begin to get people back to work.

And more broadly, we have a COVID-19 support toolkit which is available on the North East Growth Hub, and we have our North East Growth Hub Connectors who can help business owners to access the best sources of support and funding for them.

What lessons can business take from this crisis?

Alan: Be flexible. Find communities and use networks to work together. The support and the opportunities are out there to help your business to pivot and recover, so reach out and please don’t struggle alone.

Gillian: COVID-19 is a dreadful thing but I am hopeful that some positives will come out of it. Businesses in our region – whether that’s factories in Team Valley, Cramlington and Washington, or office-based businesses in our city centres – are turning into innovators and we should celebrate this.

New ways of working will lead to new jobs which may be different from those that we’ve seen in the past. For example, we have a hugely impressive VR and gaming sector, (including Europe’s first dedicated centre for emerging technology in the form of PROTO) which will play a part in developing new ways of delivering remote products and services to people.

The core of our region and our businesses are our people. It’s important that as a region we don’t leave anyone behind as we move towards recovery, and we will hold the government to account on this nationally as well.

Find out more about the role innovation plays in building the North East economy here.

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Gillian Hall appointed to lead North East Innovation Board

The North East Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) has appointed a new Chair to its Innovation Board.

Gillian Hall, who has more than 25 years’ experience as a business owner, non-executive director, and corporate lawyer, will lead the Innovation Board as it supports the drive to create more and better jobs in the North East.

Alan Welby, Innovation Director at the North East LEP, said: “Increasing innovation is vitally important to the growth of our economy, especially now, as businesses and communities are recovering from the impact of COVID-19 and finding new ways of working.

“Gillian has a real drive to make sure that the work we do has an impact and that we make a difference for people in the North East. Her hands-on approach will ensure that we work towards increasing innovation in the region with pace and purpose.”

Gillian Hall said: “By encouraging innovation – whether that’s within small businesses or in large corporations – we can boost the region’s productivity, create more jobs, and make a positive difference to the lives of people in the North East.

“In the wake of COVID-19, we will also be playing a role in the North East COVID-19 Economic Recovery Plan. As the Chair of the Innovation Board, my priority is to turn plans into action and, along with the rest of the board members, I will be working with the team at the North East LEP and our partners across the region to support businesses and communities as they recover.”

Innovation is one of the areas of focus within the North East Strategic Economic Plan, which lays out the roadmap for creating a more productive economy in the region, and creating 100,000 more and better jobs in the North East by 2024.

The Innovation team at the North East LEP, with the support of the Innovation Board, works with partners to grow the amount of R&D taking place in the North East and to attract investment into the region.

The North East LEP Innovation Board is made up of representatives from the region’s local authorities, academia and industry. The members are Gillian Hall (Chair); Tony Appleton; Richard Baker, Strategy and Policy Director, North East LEP; Estelle Blanks, Executive Director, Innovation SuperNetwork; Professor Michael Capaldi, Dean of Innovation and Business, Newcastle University; Councillor Nick Forbes, Leader of Newcastle City Council; Helen Golightly, Chief Executive, North East LEP; Dr Colin Herron; Patrick Melia, Chief Executive of Sunderland City Council; Lee Viney, Regional Manager, Innovate UK; Alan Welby, Innovation Director, North East LEP; Dr Nicola Wesley, Chief Operations Officer, AHSN; and Professor Michael Whitaker.

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Investment on offer to help SMEs develop tech solutions to energy challenges

Up to £40,000 of investment is on offer to SMEs in the North East who can put forward digital or data-led solutions to help monitor and manage energy consumption.

The Energy Innovation Challenge is led by the North East Energy Catalyst, a partnership of leading energy sector organisations which aims to develop solutions to global energy challenges here in the North East.

David Lynch, Innovation Partnership Manager at the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) who supports the work of the Energy Catalyst, explained: “Working with the North East Energy Catalyst is a unique opportunity for innovative SMEs given the strength and breadth of this region’s energy sector, which includes leaders in energy businesses, science and research and key infrastructure organisations.”

“We’re excited to be launching a series of energy innovation challenges throughout 2020 and 2021, inviting SMEs within the North East LEP area to submit responses to each challenge.”

A cohort of up to 10 successful businesses per challenge will be identified by an expert panel, drawing on the North East Energy Catalyst partners’ expertise. The successful cohort will receive a programme of support which will help them develop their idea and bring it to market.

This will include £20,000 of investment from Northstar Ventures, subject to eligibility criteria, which will be offered to 10 businesses across the programme, and the opportunity to submit matched grant applications for Local Growth Funding of up to a further £20k.

The next challenge is open for applications until noon on 18 September 2020 and SMEs are invited to put forward data or digital-led solutions that can help businesses to track energy consumption, or that can be used at sites like airports, ports and business parks to help manage energy savings.

David Lynch added: “This is an exciting opportunity for our colleagues in the digital, tech and energy sectors to take the lead on a new wave of energy solutions.

“The North East has a strong pedigree of innovation in power and energy generation, from steam, to electricity and now sustainable technologies, each of which has made a significant impact in the international economy. We are a force to be reckoned with in the energy sector and this is a great opportunity for digital and tech businesses to engage with partners working on the global energy stage.”

More details about the challenge are available here or from David Lynch on [email protected].

The North East Energy Catalyst is a ground-breaking partnership to unite the North East’s leading energy innovation, demonstration and delivery capabilities. Facilitated by the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), North East Energy Catalyst partners are: Newcastle University; Durham University; Northumbria University; Zero Carbon Futures (a subsidiary of Gateshead College); Northern Powergrid; Northern Gas Networks; The Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult; The British Engines Group; Innovation SuperNetwork; Northumbrian Water; The North of Tyne Combined Authority; The North East Combined Authority.


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North East LEP and regional partners submit response to government’s consultation on UK Freeports

Paul Carbert, Economic Policy Co-ordinator at the North East Local Enterprise Partnership, outlines the North East’s innovative response, which would drive economic growth in the region, create jobs and regenerate coastal communities.

As the UK prepares to complete its exit from the EU and establishes new trading relationships around the world, the UK government launched a consultation earlier this year on Freeports policy.

Freeports and free zones are in place in many parts of the world. They are areas within a country’s land border where different customs rules apply, and are being considered by government as part of its future strategy to strengthen trade relationships and secure inward investment. Freeports provide benefits for exporters and importers because goods can be imported into, manufactured, and exported from inside the zone without incurring tariffs and customs duties unless they enter the domestic market. They offer the potential to promote regeneration and job creation in those areas within the zone and drive growth in the wider economy.

The government’s consultation has sought views on how they should structure their approach to Freeports. It envisages that because of their likely location close to ports or in coastal areas, the strategy offers the opportunity to stimulate the economies of often deprived areas. They are also seeking proposals which position Freeports as hubs for innovation to test new ideas and technologies. The North East Local Enterprise Partnership, and an active list of partners comprising of the North East and North of Tyne Combined Authorities, Business Durham, the CBI, the North East England Chamber of Commerce, Port of Blyth, Port of Sunderland, Port of Tyne, Newcastle International Airport, University of Sunderland, Durham University, Newcastle University, and Northumbria University, submitted a response to the Government’s consultation earlier this month that outlines the region’s preferred approach to Freeports; one that focuses on new growth and jobs, the regeneration of key coastal areas and the development of other parts of the regional economy. It also reinforces the need for the UK’s existing labour market, security and environmental standards to be maintained.

After conducting research and gathering the views of local partners, the North East response has proposed that a multi-site, digitally enabled Free Trade Zone – linking key manufacturing sites in the North East with ports – would provide the greatest benefit for the North East. It would add value to our current economy, provide an opportunity to deploy and test a range of new digital approaches, and guard against the risk of local displacement of economic activity. It would complement a free trade deal with the European Union.

The innovative approach put forward for the North East takes into account the region’s industrial and logistics structure and would build on its wide-ranging assets. It would allow the region’s digital sector to develop innovation that would improve the operation and efficiency of Freeports, and provide an opportunity to stimulate job growth in key sectors such as advanced manufacturing, energy, digital, and transport, particularly at a time when the region’s economy will be continuing to recover from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Whilst the region agrees Freeports are not a substitute for a comprehensive free trade deal with the EU – the preference in the North East is for both a deal and a Free Trade Zone – should the UK leave the transition period without a new trade deal, Freeports would mitigate some of the impact and provide opportunities to build on existing supply chains and clusters, and attract inward investment.

Following the submission of the region’s response to the Government’s consultation, the North East LEP and its partners will now work on preparing a collaborative bid to a government sponsored competition which is expected in the Autumn, to establish a North East Free Trade Zone.

To receive further updates about the North East LEP’s bid for a North East Free Trade Zone, please sign up to receive Insights North East, the newsletter from the North East Local Enterprise Partnership.

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Supporting businesses to develop new energy solutions in the North East

Earlier this year, SMEs in the North East were invited to put forward solutions to global energy challenges, as part of the Energy Innovation Challenge. David Lynch, Energy Innovation Partnership Manager at the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), gives an update on how the programme is now helping to make the most promising ideas a reality.

When we created the Energy Innovation Challenge, we wanted to give businesses in our region an opportunity to develop new products and services that could help to tackle some of the energy-related challenges the world is facing, and to support them to bring their ideas to market.

The theme of the first challenge was decentralised and decarbonised energy and we launched it back in March – just as the country went into lockdown.

We had to act quickly to move our planned event online, and we extended the deadline so that people had more time to put together their submissions. In spite of all the disruption brought by the pandemic, we’ve been really pleased with the response from businesses, and the extremely high level of entries into the challenge.

We’ve seen real innovation in the proposals that were put forward, which have spanned a range of different product types, including innovations in photovoltaic materials, water filtration devices, and energy generation and battery storage.

We’ve been able to provide all the SMEs that put forward proposals with support and advice to develop their ideas further. The proposals have all been assessed by a panel of energy specialists through the North East Energy Catalyst, and the most viable will now be taken forward for a grant application for £20k though the government’s Local Growth Fund with some going forward to pitch for £20k of investment from Northstar Ventures.

All the successful proposals are also receiving business advice through the North East Growth Hub, and have already taken part in workshops on topics including marketing, business models and IP.

And an added benefit has been that the cohort has been able to bounce ideas off each other and work together, with some now discussing possible partnership work in the future – it’s been incredibly useful for everyone to be able to uncover knowledge and grow their businesses together.

It’s been exciting to see the strength of innovation in the North East and to play a part in helping to push these businesses forward and helping to develop innovative new energy solutions in our region.

And this isn’t the end, as we’re about to launch the next part of the Energy Innovation Challenge, which will be all about digital and data-led solutions for energy. This will be an opportunity for digital and tech businesses in the North East LEP region to apply their knowledge to the energy sector and to potentially take steps towards launching a new product.

We have a wealth of expertise and ideas within the SME sector in the North East and this is a huge opportunity for people in our region to lead the way in tackling some global issues.

The next Energy Innovation Challenge will open on 31 July. To find out more, contact David Lynch on [email protected].

The North East Energy Catalyst is supported by ERDF and the Energy Innovation Challenge received grant funding from the government’s Local Growth Fund via the North East LEP.

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Supporting innovative North East firms to help lead the region’s economic recovery

The North East LEP is hosting a special event to help the North East’s innovation and technology sector understand and ask questions about the newly announced Future Fund.

Innovation, digital and technology-led businesses will power the engine that drives growth in the UK economy, and help lead the country’s, and our region’s, financial recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

The presence and potential of technology startups is an indicator of a healthy, ambitious and resilient economy. These innovative, high potential firms feed cycles – they are a route to retaining and attracting talent in a place; they create the scale-ups of tomorrow; they can establish and support ecosystems for entrepreneurs to invest back into, which in turn attracts more entrepreneurs to a region. They build the technological innovations that will create jobs; develop supply chains; become our next exports.

This is why the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and HM Treasury has announced a financial support package – Future Fund – to protect UK businesses driving innovation and development from the impact of the coronavirus outbreak.

Future Fund

Launching today (Wednesday 20 May), Future Fund will give high-growth companies across the UK the investment they need to continue during this crisis. Providing loans between £125,000 and £5m from the government, private investors are required to at least match the government commitment. Future Fund is delivered through the British Business Bank.

Supporting North East businesses to access funding

To help our region’s dynamic businesses bid for funding, the North East LEP is hosting a webinar to explore the specifics of the Future Fund, including eligibility criteria and the application process. This is an opportunity to hear directly from regional investors and operators, including Northstar Ventures and SeedLegals. Tech founder and entrepreneur, Paul Smith, will chair the event.

The webinar will take place at 2pm on Thursday 28 May. For further information and to register your place, please visit the eventbrite page.

We welcome registrations from technology start-ups, investors, founders and innovation-led firms across all sectors.

Looking to the future of the sector

As well as discussing the immediate funding opportunity to support businesses through the coronavirus pandemic, we will also be using this event to take a longer-term view of the digital/tech/innovation sector in the North East and explore barriers to its growth.

The North East digital strategy recognises the huge importance of our tech community, which is driven, passionate and entrepreneurial. We want to support more of this by enabling greater cross-sectoral collaboration and raising the profile of our tech sector with investors and collaborators – from across the region and beyond.

We want to strengthen the relationship between creativity and innovation to maximise the translation of ideas into new products, solutions and businesses. And we want to support the wider ecosystem so that we see more innovative start-ups launching, flourishing and staying in the North East.

Join us on 28 May at 2pm to learn more about government’s support for innovative businesses and discuss how we, as a sector, can build the right environment for high growth businesses to thrive in the North East.

By Laura Partridge, Digital Programme Lead at the North East Local Enterprise Partnership.

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Contractor sought to develop a mine energy white paper to help accelerate the delivery of mine energy schemes in the UK.

On behalf of the mine energy task force, the North East Local Enterprise Partnership, (North East LEP), is looking to appoint a contractor to deliver a mine energy white paper, to help accelerate delivery of schemes in the UK.

Here, Andrew Clark, Energy Sector Lead at the North East LEP, gives us the background to the white paper:

If the UK is to achieve its carbon targets, decarbonisation of heat is one of the major challenges which must be overcome. One option is to harvest low carbon heat which is created and stored within the earth, known as geothermal heat. The North East has particular potential for this given its geology, and thanks to the region’s industrial past, a specific opportunity to access it is now being explored – mine energy.

Mine energy involves accessing the now-flooded mine shafts within abandoned coalfields. The water within the mines is geothermally heated, and if it can be extracted from the water this heat can be utilised in nearby homes, businesses or other buildings. The mines could also be used to store energy in the form of heat.

There are various examples of mine energy being used in Europe from community to city-scale, and a number of projects being developed in the North East are leading the way for the UK. Sharing what we are doing in the North East through the BEIS Local Energy Hubs, a network established by Government for LEPs to work collaboratively on energy projects, we identified other regions which were also exploring the potential of mine energy.

Like any relatively new opportunity, there are lots of things to learn from projects as they are developed and delivered. To accelerate this, the North East LEP has brought together a national ‘mine energy task force’, so far a collection of over 30 interested stakeholders from across the country who share expertise, knowledge and experiences.

The task force has identified a need for a piece of work to begin to answer some of the questions it has identified, and to set out the commercial, regulatory, market and policy interventions which are needed nationally if mine energy is to be delivered at scale. The North East LEP is now commissioning this ‘white paper’, to deliver this on behalf of the task force, with the tender now live.

Supported by the task force organisations, wider stakeholders, and by the BEIS Local Energy Hubs, the white paper will present a powerful evidence base, present substantiated recommendations, and help inform policy and delivery for mine energy.

If you are interested in participating in the task force please contact Andrew Clark.

More information on the tender can be found here. The closing date is 28 May 2020.

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Opportunities for North East businesses to help respond to COVID-19

During this hugely difficult and unpredictable time for everyone, we’re seeing large numbers of businesses, nationally and here in the North East, stepping forward to help front line services.

This ranges from manufacturing products like ventilators and hand sanitiser, to the creation of new consortia which are working together to develop and test medical equipment.

To help support the response to COVID-19 across the North East, there is now an online directory which you can find on the North East Growth Hub. This lists current calls for support – from requests to provide rapid sanitising technology for ambulances, to an open call for creatives to use their skills to help spread public health messages.

Visit the Rapid Response Requests Directory here.

There are opportunities for organisations in a wide range of sectors to help.

We’ve seen manufacturing businesses move quickly to re-align their activity to manufacture PPE, sanitiser and ventilators. Here in the North East, firms have offered the use of their transport and logistics facilities, and laboratory spaces. Newcastle University has also worked with the Royal Navy to transport seven of its qPCR machines to the NHS in Milton Keynes, which will be used to help process thousands of samples from people suspected of having the virus.

All parts of the economy are affected by this crisis and businesses of all shapes and sizes are being forced to do things differently. Our usual ways of working are being challenged on a daily basis and as a result we are seeing new ways of collaborating and new solutions to the challenges that COVID-19 is bringing.

Innovation is about coping with change, and this situation is forcing us all to change and adapt. Innovation is more important than ever and it will continue to be important in the post-COVID environment – we won’t be doing things in the same way anymore and innovation will be at the centre of future-proofing our economy.

Right now, sitting back and waiting isn’t an option. We need to unleash the capabilities of people and businesses here in the North East who can help support the response to COVID-19. We need to pull together to find solutions as quickly as possible, and the best way to do this is through collaboration and innovation.

Alan Welby, Innovation Director.

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Grant supports renewable energy project in County Durham

When Tow Law Community Association in County Durham realised that old mine works in the town had the potential to supply the community with renewable energy, a grant from the Rural Community Energy Fund helped them to fund a feasibility study.

Jenny Flynn from the Tow Law Community Association explains more.

Tow Law Community Association was established as a charity in 1983. We raised the funds to build a community centre, where we’re now based, and which is also a home to the town council, a weekly food bank and a huge array of community services including housing association advice sessions, sports clubs, music and art classes, and toddler groups.

Of course, it’s important that we keep our costs down in order to remain viable, and part of that is looking at energy efficiency in our own building. To do this, in 2010 we commissioned an environmental report for the community centre. As well as resulting in the installation of 48 solar panels which reduce our bills and bring in income, the report led to the suggestion that it might be possible to harness heat within mine water which is under the ground in areas of Tow Law.

There are lots of old mines in this area, most of which closed down in the 1960s. It seemed silly not to find out if we could make use of the mine water to generate heat for people’s homes – the naturally-heated water would be used to generate heat, giving the potential to save both money and resources in the long run.

A grant from the Rural Community Energy Fund has enabled us to have a survey carried out to find out whether the mine water idea is viable and also whether the site might be a suitable spot for solar panels. If it does turn out to be a viable project, then we will move on to the next stage of putting it into action.

There are wind farms in our local area so people here are already very aware of the potential of renewables. And of course, people are a lot more concerned about climate change now, which we all have to work together to tackle.

I understand there are similar projects taking place in Denmark, where local communities benefit from wind-generated power, and I think it is the way forward for small communities.

Grants like this are there to be used and the experts are out there who can support you so I’d encourage other North East communities to look at what local resources they might have available and give it a go as well.

Find out more about the Rural Community Energy Fund here, or get in touch with Josh Sawyer, Rural Energy Officer at the North East Local Enterprise Partnership on [email protected] or 07584 154510.