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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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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.