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Catapults are making UK innovation happen – the future of UK R&D and innovation capability

The Catapult Network has directed more than £2.5bn of private and public sector investment towards innovation | Credit: Catapult Network

Antonia Cundy, Freelance Journalist | Catapult Network

10 min read Partner content

From enabling the consortia that produced thousands of ventilators for the National Health Service, setting up the Lighthouse testing labs network, scaling up vaccine manufacturing, to playing an integral role in creating the first compound semiconductor cluster, the UK’s Catapult Network is proving to be invaluable in achieving the country’s innovation ambition.

Over the last year, the UK’s coronavirus vaccine success story has demonstrated the strengths of the UK’s innovation landscape. After the Government committed in its research and development (R&D) roadmap to make R&D investment reach 2.4 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2027, the coronavirus vaccine has followed as a perfect example of the UK taking a global lead in innovation.  

But that 2.4 per cent target is still a long way off — and the UK is a laggard compared to other G7 countries. According to the latest data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the UK’s R&D spend in 2019 was 1.7 per cent of GDP. The figure in all other G7 countries, bar Italy and Canada, was higher than this, with the US, Germany and Japan achieving over 3 per cent.  

“2.4 percent is very, very ambitious considering where we are now,” says Allan Cook, former lead Non-Executive Director of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BEIS) and Chair of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult Board. “It is a massive leap from where we are now to where we need to get to. It’s an aspiration.”

Reaching this target and fulfilling the UK’s potential to be a world leader in innovation across many key sectors, will require the country to overcome a number of challenges currently present in its innovation ecosystem.  

Lord Robert Mair, until recently a Member of the House of Lords’ Science and Technology Committee and Director of Research at Cambridge University, says that first of all, there needs to be a much clearer understanding of which sectors and what technologies the Government wants to prioritise in the R&D roadmap.  

“The Government needs to set up a strategic plan for delivering its R&D roadmap, including milestones for increased private sector R&D investment, and criteria for selecting technologies to prioritise.”  

“We need to understand what the priorities for Government are and for the nation as a whole and how private industry can help us to achieve that,” Cook agrees. Sustainability, carbon neutrality by 2050, and 5G networks have clearly been identified as national priorities, Cook adds, but other targets need to be identified more clearly so the private sector knows where to act.  Sticking with these for the longer term is another priority.

Perhaps the single biggest challenge at the innovation end of this landscape is the UK’s consistent failure to commercialise effectively its world-leading academic research.  

In his paper The road to 2.4 per cent, Lord David Willetts, former Minister for Universities and Science, points out that while the UK contributes roughly the same amount of public spending on R&D to universities as other major Western countries, when it comes to public spending on R&D outside of universities — for example in research labs and applied research institutes — the UK lags far behind.  

“With public spend on R&D much lower than in other major Western countries we have put all our eggs in one basket – the university,” Lord Willetts writes. The 2.4 per cent target, he argues, offers a perfect opportunity to revert this imbalance, and promote funding for applied research outside of universities without cutting university funding.  

One network that the Government has identified as key players in its R&D roadmap is the Catapult Network. Established in 2011 and funded by Innovate UK, the UK’s innovation agency, Catapults are independent, not-for-profit innovation and technology centres, designed to catalyse commercialisation of the UK’s world-leading research.  

“There’s some great research that’s being done in the UK, but the business world may not even know about it, and there’s a lot of risk involved in its commercialisation,” says Lord Mair. For example, adds Jeremy Silver, Chief Executive of Digital Catapult and current Chair of the Catapult Network, UK universities rank third in the world for academic publishing on artificial intelligence, “but we are not translating that into commercial benefit or advantage”.   

“Where the Catapults come in is in trying to bridge the gap between research and commercialisation, what we call ‘the valley of death’,” says Lord Mair. “The Catapults are all about putting research institutions and businesses together and seeing the opportunity.”

Based over more than 40 sites across the UK, Catapults bring businesses, scientists, engineers, and technical specialists together, and provide physical research and development infrastructure such as laboratories, factories, and testbeds. Their premise has been simple: to drive economic growth by translating high-potential research ideas and projects into commercial products and services.  

According to a recent review by BEIS, since their inception in 2010, the now nine Catapults have worked on more than 2,000 academic collaborations, nearly 15,000 industry collaborations and in partnership with more than 8,000 small and medium sized businesses. The result has seen the Network direct more than £2.5bn of private and public sector investment towards innovation.  

A miniature satellite and the UK Space Agency’s first national spacecraft; a towering offshore wind turbine or living labs to test the future of green energy; the world’s first semiconductor technology cluster; advanced medicines to prevent thrombosis or therapies to treat cancer; the next generation of drones and modular construction; and Europe’s most advanced virtual reality studio — from Oxfordshire to Cheshire, from South Wales to Fife, these are only a few of the life-changing innovation projects under way in the UK thanks to support from the Catapult Network.  

So, is there scope for the Catapults to do more? 

A recent report from the House of Lords' Science and Technology Select Committee, suggested that there could be if some bureaucratic barriers were removed and with greater confidence around their longer-term funding.

Key to “working better” will be leveraging the Catapults as a network, increasing the amount of collaboration between the centres themselves

Cook adds that the lack of continuity is a general obstacle in the UK’s innovation ecosystem — a discord between the long termism required for many innovation projects, and the short termism in Government priorities. “The political landscape has a very short attention span whereas in the majority of cases in automation, defence, automobiles, life sciences, pharmaceuticals, etc., these are over quite long periods.”

BEIS has also come to the same conclusions itself and appears to be open to the House of Lords’ recommendations for removing these barriers.

“I think the next ten years will be radically different to the first ten years, because industry understands us a bit more and Government understands a bit more, and we understand ourselves a bit more,” says Tim Sherwood, Chair of the Satellite Applications Catapult Board. “We’ve all established our businesses first, we’ve gone through the establishment phase… and now we’re entering the phase of ‘How do I work better’,” he adds.  

Key to “working better” will be leveraging the Catapults as a network, increasing the amount of collaboration between the centres themselves. For example, innovation projects on 5G infrastructure could move between the Digital, Connected Places (which focuses on cities, transport and places), Satellite Applications and Compound Semiconductors (where 5G is key for high power amps at the antenna).  

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) also believes Catapults can scale up into “Catapult Quarters”, building regional innovation clusters anchored around a particular Catapult. The idea, says Felicity Burch, Director of Innovation and Digital at the CBI, would help embed innovation in local areas and add to the integral role the Catapult Network’s broad geographical spread is already playing in the UK’s levelling up agenda. “The idea of a Catapult Quarter is a little bit more of an activist role, trying to build it out and encouraging people to locate and invest nearby with that suite of support,” says Burch.

The effect is already evident around some Catapults, such as the Compound Semiconductor Applications Catapult in South Wales, where a transformation is taking place to create the world’s first compound semiconductor cluster, adding over 230 jobs, and attracting over £130M of additional investment into the region.  

Creating regional hubs is not only critical to the UK’s levelling up agenda, but also to any aspiration the UK has to become a global leader in innovation.  

“We have a very diverse, experienced and talented workforce in the UK, but there are gaps,” says Cook. “To realise the full economic potential of the UK, it is imperative that we have access to all of the skills and the talent that we need to capitalise on new technologies throughout the whole of the UK.”

Upskilling and creating new job opportunities for people to join these growing sectors provides a new opportunity for Catapults.

Creating more identifiable brands within a “Catapult Quarter” would also increase Catapults’ visibility among small and medium enterprises (SMEs), a topic senior management at the Catapults are keen to focus on in the future.

Lord Willetts, an instrumental figure in the original launch of the Catapults, says that now they have proved their worth, the Network can provide a national template for the UK’s R&D targets in the future. “Governments do go around creating specific research institutes, and I wanted a template to make it easier and quicker and simpler to create more of those,” he says. “A user-friendly template so when there’s a research and development priority, and ministers are looking around for how to house it, they see the Catapults as a solution to that.”

In some ways, this “template” potential has already been proven during the coronavirus pandemic, when the High Value Manufacturing Catapult quickly mobilised to help businesses divert production lines to make ventilators for the National Health Service. In 12 weeks, more than 13,000 ventilators were made. The Medicines Discovery Catapult led the challenge of coordinating the creation of the UK’s Lighthouse Labs Network and delivering the lab at Alderley Park. Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult and CPI (part of HVM Catapult) supported the scale up of vaccine manufacturing. “As a national institution, if we hadn't had that organisation there at that point in time, it would have been much, much harder for us to come together and do that quickly,” says Burch. “It’s a really nice example of how much more quickly Catapults can make innovation happen.”

If we didn't have them, we probably would have to invent them. We've got them. We just need to really make sure that we build them up now,” she adds.

About the Catapult Network

The Catapult Network is made up of nine world-leading technology and innovation centres established by Innovate UK. It supports businesses in transforming great ideas into valuable products and services, delivering impact across the UK economy and enabling businesses to thrive in global markets. Since inception, the Catapults have collectively played a lead role in delivering over 15,000 industry collaborations, over 4000 academic collaborations and supported over 9,000 innovative SMEs across a wide range of sectors and extended international partnership projects.

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