Why the UK’s Catapult Network Is Key to an Innovation-Led Economy
With the publication of its new £22 billion Innovation Strategy, government has placed innovation front and centre of its post-COVID recovery plans. But turning words into action will demand collaboration, strategic alignment, and on-the-ground support. Dr Jeremy Silver, Chair of the UK’s Catapult Network, sits down with The House to share his thoughts on how UK Catapults can help drive delivery and turbocharge the nation’s recovery
Disruptive events often lead to change. A flick through the history books will provide many examples of the way in which past disruptions created opportunities to refocus, rethink systems and processes, and develop innovative technologies and new ways of working.
This is why, following the most disruptive event in living memory, our conversation with Jeremy Silver, Chair of the UK’s Catapult Network, feels so timely. It is taking place shortly after the publication of the Government’s Innovation Strategy, which sets out plans for a post-COVID economic recovery which has innovation at its heart.
“The fact that the government is putting the emphasis on innovation at this moment is incredibly important,” Silver tells The House. “Most companies’ reaction to economic challenge is to retrench. The government is putting innovation front and centre and saying, ‘let’s not retrench. Let’s innovate.’ That is a really important message and it is very significant.”
As Chair of the UK’s Catapult Network, Silver is well-placed to recognise the value that investment, leadership, and alignment can bring to the innovation landscape. The nation’s nine Catapults are focused on accelerating research to develop new ideas and products in high-growth sectors such as digital, energy systems, offshore renewables, and medicine. Over the last decade, they have become an established breeding ground for new innovative ideas, connecting businesses, funders, and universities together.
It is fair to say that, in the past, the work of Catapults has sometimes flown slightly below the political radar. However, with a new national focus on innovation, that might be about to change, as they step forward as a ready and able partner to aid the COVID recovery.
This growing profile is reflected by an increased appreciation of the role that Catapults can play from policymakers and parliamentarians alike. Across the political spectrum, there is a growing recognition that these collaborative networks are a critical piece of the innovation infrastructure that can support the development of new technologies, ideas, and products.
In a recent review of the Catapults by the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, Committee Chair, Lord Patel concluded that, “The Catapult Network is an important national asset which has the potential to drive further innovation.”
“National assets,” is also the phrase recently used by Amanda Solloway, Minster for Science, Research and Innovation to describe the Catapults. “Catapults have an important role to play in unleashing innovation,” she added. “They bring expertise into innovation clusters, supporting business growth, skills and international collaboration.”
It certainly seems that politicians are beginning to appreciate the unique but critical role that Catapults can play in connecting high-level strategy with on the ground delivery. It is this depth of penetration into key growth sectors which, Silver believes, makes Catapults uniquely well-placed to help accelerate an innovation focused recovery.
He also believes that this direct delivery experience has furnished the Catapults with a level of knowledge and expertise which government can now draw upon. “Having experience on the ground isn’t just about getting hands dirty with the technology,” Silver tells us. “It is understanding what kind of innovations work.”
We’ve spent 10 years investing in Catapults. They are really at a point where people can take advantage of them
In particular, he sees trusted partners like the Catapults as having a critical role to play in increasing the speed and efficiency of delivery processes, without sacrificing the robust governance and oversight needed for the spending of public money.
When it comes to accelerating the speed at which we support innovation, Silver is clear that we should learn from the pace of innovation seen in the pandemic response. He cites the Ventilator Challenge, and the way in which the High Value Manufacturing Catapult was able to draw upon existing relationships to pull together the consortium which ultimately produced 10 years’ worth of ventilators in just 10 weeks.
“If we don’t learn from that we are missing a trick,” he tells The House. “The speed with which industry responded demonstrates that people can go extremely fast if necessary.”
Delivering at such pace does just not happen by accident. It is underpinned by the strength and quality of on-the-ground relationships. The relationships and networks on which innovation can be built have been years in the making, but now the policy landscape is embracing the value of driving innovation, those relationships are set to play a pivotal and transformational role.
Whether it is driving higher R&D spend from business, addressing what Silver describes as the “massive skills gap”, or supporting the new technologies that will help deliver the ambition of net zero by 2050, it is clear that the UK’s Catapult Network has a potentially critical role to play.
Silver’s message to policy makers is simple and straightforward. “We are here if you want us,” he says. “We’ve spent 10 years investing in Catapults. They are really at a point where people can take advantage of them.”
Given the range of challenges that the UK faces in innovation, this feels like an offer that government and other partners are likely to take up.
LISTEN: The Catapult Network have launched a new Podcast series putting UK innovation under the spotlight. Click here to find out more and subscribe.
About the Catapult Network
The Catapult Network supports businesses in transforming great ideas into valuable products and services. We are a network of world-leading technology and innovation centres established by Innovate UK. We deliver impact across the UK economy, enabling businesses to thrive in global markets.
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