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.