Viewpoint: UKRI’s role in commercialisation: joining up to scale up

Multiracial team at work writing ideas on sticky notes on the glass wall.

UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) chief executive Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser outlines UKRI’s work to strengthen support for commercialisation.

As UKRI CEO, I am privileged to meet innovators and entrepreneurs across the UK working hard to bring ideas to market.

Talking to these passionate people brings to life the many erudite analyses informing UKRI’s ambition to capture the opportunities and close the gaps in the UK’s commercialisation landscape. The central questions are these:

How can we create a fully joined up system for the UK so that problems can rapidly find solutions, and solutions can rapidly find markets?

How can we retain as much value from commercialisation in the UK as possible, to create the jobs and high productivity economy needed for national prosperity?

From stem cells to low carbon marine transport, from plant-based leather alternatives to innovative prosthetic limbs for children, extraordinary people across the UK are creating economic and societal value by leveraging the UK’s world-class discovery research base.

We are a small country and will never invest at the levels of the USA or China. Impressively, we compete well on the quality of our research and innovation (as demonstrated by the international comparison of the UK research base, 2022).

To capture the full value of this excellence and secure economic, social and environmental benefits in an increasingly competitive world we must work smarter, developing our commercialisation ecosystem to shorten the distance between discovery and prosperity and public good, and to increase the number of businesses that scale up in the UK.

The role of UKRI

UKRI is a critical national asset in addressing this opportunity. Investing £8 billion annually to support the entire research and innovation system, the breadth and depth of our collective expertise, from the life sciences to the creative industries, and from green tech to fintech, makes us a unique point of integration.

We align investment and incentives across the full range of activities needed, and by working with our many partners, we bring policy makers, research organisations, businesses, investors and regulators together.

This creates an unprecedented opportunity to make research commercialisation deliver for the UK. Our work to catalyse commercialisation runs through every part of what we do, encompassing people, places, ideas, and innovation, spanning our five-year strategy transforming tomorrow together.

Across all our work we take an evidenced approach, developing key policy and practice insights from data, evidence and metrics to build our capability to strengthen the UK’s ecosystem and achieve greater commercialisation success.

Our approach leverages our knowledge and understanding of the research base and the opportunities for commercialisation. We aim to ensure that these opportunities are appropriately resourced, that new markets and channels to commercialisation are identified and exploited in a timely way, and that businesses have the full range of support they need to become established and to grow.

We will focus on:

Mobility and talent

The UK research and innovation system needs to ensure knowledge, knowhow and people can flow, unhindered, creating the mutual understanding required for success.

To break down barriers and catalyse commercialisation, we will ensure the full range of skills and dynamic career paths are recognised and rewarded.

We are:

  • creating entrepreneurship and commercialisation training opportunities across our portfolio, for all career stages
  • taking down barriers and building incentives to support career path diversity ranging from internships and improved CV formats to work with our sister organisations in the devolved nations to revise the Research Excellence Framework
  • fostering the full range of talents we need including technicians, software engineers, apprentices, investors, university technology transfer specialists and other professional enabling staff, and schemes to recruit business executives to lead spinouts or start-ups
  • accelerating the flow of ideas between universities and business through our extensive networking and connection capabilities, a range of knowledge exchange initiatives, and wrap around support for small and medium-sized enterprise leaders through our business growth support

Money and capital

Our investment, from blue skies discovery research in universities and institutes, to our support for businesses large and small enables people to explore and develop ideas across all disciplines and markets.

We are working to ensure that UKRI provides a continuum of research commercialisation funding and support that is easier for people to navigate.

There are well known gaps in later stage UK investment for scale-up and patient private capital that UKRI cannot fill. But we can help address them through stronger collaboration, shared best practice and fostering an entrepreneurial culture.

We are:

  • supporting universities to develop their collective capacities for commercialisation and collaborative research and development (R&D)
  • learning from others nationally and internationally to develop our approaches to underpinning commercialisation capabilities, recognising the role of universities as major investors in their early-stage spinouts
  • working with the British Business Bank to join up support for emerging high growth potential businesses and access to patient capital
  • partnering with the London Stock Exchange to connect leaders from research and technology organisations, high-potential scale-ups, large corporations and institutional investors
  • providing innovative public-private co-investment to support high tech businesses to grow
  • collaborating with the Government Office of Technology Transfer to strengthen the UK Innovation & Science Seed Fund (UKi2S), linking UK research and public sector innovation to private capital

Markets and new horizons

Research and innovation drive disruptive opportunities in existing markets and can create entirely new ones.

We must support our innovators and entrepreneurs to exploit these opportunities to their full potential on the global stage.

We are:

  • catalysing public procurement of innovation for example through the small business research initiative
  • identifying opportunities in future sectors where the UK has leading research capabilities and emerging research-based businesses
  • supporting development of guidance that can help universities and investors develop mutual understanding when applying new technologies in different sectors
  • working with partners on programmes to support UK companies to go global
  • supporting development of regulations and standards by working with government, regulators and other partners

Manufacturing and infrastructure

To capture the full benefit of commercialisation for the UK we must anchor more of the associated high value manufacturing and supply chains in the UK.

These key elements of global high tech value chains create quality jobs and maintain national skills and capabilities, increasing the UK’s resilience to global disruptions.

Building critical paths to support manufacturing and commercialisation more generally is heavily dependent on access to infrastructure and demonstrator facilities.

We are:

  • supporting commercialisation infrastructure and incubators to facilitate university and business collaborative R&D, and investing in demonstrator facilities to support product development (future glass production is a good example)
  • providing sustained investment in the Catapults, supporting business innovation and growth
  • working with fast-growing regional clusters, including delivering the government’s Innovation Accelerator pilots in Greater Manchester, the West Midlands, the Northeast, and in the Glasgow City-Region
  • further leveraging the commercialisation potential of UKRI’s centres, institutes and campuses, combining access to cutting edge infrastructure and technical expertise with access to finance, coaching, and mentoring
  • delivering place-based investments in key growth sectors from the creative industries to the space sector

Transforming tomorrow together

In combination, UKRI’s interventions will accelerate commercialisation through ensuring ideas, knowledge and knowhow move more easily and quickly across the research, innovation, investor and policy communities.

The scale of the challenge, to maintain the UK as a globally leading innovation-led economy is significant. The creation of the new Department of Science Innovation and Technology, with a remit across government enshrined in the Science and Technology Framework, provides a unique opportunity to make commercialisation work.

I am ambitious and optimistic, and determined that UKRI should play its full part. We have the necessary foundations of world-class research, talented and driven people across so many disciplines and sectors, an increasingly diverse and connected system that can respond to needs and opportunities, and the political framework to drive this endeavour forward.

Working together we can catalyse commercialisation success across the UK, delivering benefits for all.

Further information on our commercialisation support.

Top image:  Credit: zamrznutitonovi, iStock, Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

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