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LISTEN: Catapult Network podcast series puts UK innovation under the spotlight

Credit: Catapult Network

Catapult Network

7 min read Partner content

The Supercharging Innovation Podcast led by Dr Jeremy Silver, this year’s Catapult Network Chair and CEO of Digital Catapult, brought together special guests from government, business and academia to discuss innovation, and why it is so important for our society today. Here are some of the main highlights.

Never before has innovation been so prominent in society. The rapid production of a new vaccine demonstrated the power of science and technology in bringing discovery into people’s lives, through an incredible mobilisation of resources and exceptional logistics which joined the nation’s efforts in response to a global health crisis. There is also recognition that economic recovery can only happen through innovation and the UK has the power to create a truly inclusive, innovation-led economy.

So how can this ambition be realised and what role do different organisations play, including the UK’s Catapult Network?

The role of Catapults

As Baroness Brown said in Episode 3, ‘Catapults are not one beast’ – They are all quite different and fulfil different roles, providing testing and demonstration kits to companies that can’t afford them, bringing large and small companies together in programmes, equipping supply chains with relevant tech and expertise, also bringing understanding of markets whilst driving demand, increasing preparedness to attract private investment, working to remove barriers to innovation such as bridging the skills gaps and regulation.

Catapults play a critical and unique role in bridging expertise from research into industry and vice-versa; they are agile organisations enjoying the freedoms of the private sector whilst having underpinning capability supported by public sector funding.

Lord Mair commented in Episode 1 that the inquiry of Catapults was an eye opener to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee. The evidence presented demonstrated the fantastic range of capability and exposed the extremely impressive breadth of technologies which across over 40 locations form a truly a national asset. But the inquiry also highlighted a number of barriers that still prevent Catapults from being fully utilised. There is still work to be done to improve the visibility of Catapults across business communities.

Juergen Maier shared insights from his experience at Siemens and innovation systems in Germany in Episode 2 highlighting the difference in focus and scale. Fraunhofers for instance receive £2.8bn of public funding per annum, while Catapults receive just over £230m by comparison. There is good reason to expand the Catapults capability to reach many more businesses, and to be better joined up with regional economies to boost local growth as well as expand their expertise to address what is a truly national scale challenge.


The role of Universities

All of our podcast guests talked about the essential role of university research. Science is a human need and a necessity to drive the boundaries of knowledge – it is and should continue to be part of our cultural identity.  In Episode 7, Lord Willets talked of the challenges in setting budgets when he was Minister for Universities and Science, and how the UK has for decades relied on the university research system to deliver the most exciting discoveries.

Universities play a role in implanting curiosity in education, driving innovation, supporting their commercial ventures, providing focal points for local innovation systems to grow. Making these structures more accessible to a wider community is key, not restricting them to the selective few – fostering more innovation, locally and nationally.  Importantly, addressing the balance for increased funding for commercialisation should not happen at the expense of funding for science.

The interface University-Catapult is an important one. pull through ideas from the research base to help to deliver faster impact and have great examples of work with universities but need the right support tools to be able to collaborate as equal partners in funding.

Professor Dame Ottoline in Episode 5 talked about the importance of taking a portfolio approach of levers to create much greater connectivity and collaboration in the system, and the importance of setting the right rules in the systems that drive innovation, and the right metrics to understand what works in delivering impact while being conscious that results are a long way away from the funding. Others also talked about the importance of metrics to monitor balance across regions and diversity & inclusion. 

The power of AI and ethics

Jeremy spoke to two young entrepreneurs, Maya Pindeus (Episode 4) and Sasha Haco (Episode 6), who featured on Beauhurst UK’s top 10 female entrepreneurs under 30 in 2020.  They talked about the different journeys they took to create a successful business, how they sought investment from private and public sources, the importance of tapping into networks – reaching out to potential customers, investors, funders, universities, Catapults, getting help at every stage and not working in isolation. 

Both are developing incredibly exciting and important innovations, to improve human-machine interaction applying reliable automation into daily life tasks to create safer, more trustworthy urban environments, and to automatically detect harmful content on the internet needed for content moderation across businesses and social networks.

There is awareness that digitisation and AI adoption will eventually need to reach every business in the nation. Addressing ethics in the context of AI to avoid misuse of bias in data is becoming more paramount, for instance, to avoid disproportionate gender or race representation.

Chi Onwurah also talked about the importance of reaching the right balance in regulation in the tech sector in Episode 8. Technologies are shaping people’s lives and regulation can help to address bias while not restricting the freedoms of individuals and ensuring the values of our democratic society can come through. Here is an area where the UK has an opportunity to influence other countries – supporting our businesses to be ahead in a global move to fairer systems.  

Diversity & Inclusion

Jeremy asked all guests about their views on equality, diversity and inclusion.

Covid exposed the regional inequalities in our country, across factions of society and across different demographics. There is a role for innovation in helping address these inequalities and creating environments which are inclusive, diverse, and provide equal opportunity for everyone to thrive.  

Innovation requires new talent and creates new talent. By continuously nurturing the interest of young people from school age in science, technology and engineering, developing a skilled workforce that has strong appetite for risk and entrepreneurship, there is potential to be broadening the reach of knowledge across all demographics, making these accessible to a more diverse pool of talent across all regions.  

The research and innovation creative processes naturally provide for an extraordinary breadth of diversity and encourage a huge range of skills and talents that are creating high value, highly creative, and highly paid jobs. There is opportunity to enable more diversity in career paths, through greater exchange across the boundaries of research and industry.

A fun question

Jeremy asked all guests about their favourite innovation. Digital technology was the most mentioned given the ways in which it transformed industries and society, alongside sensing technology, smart phones, google maps & directions, public transportation, and noise-cancelling headphones with the Brompton folding bike being a real winner!  

To find out more about the Catapult Network’s Supercharging Innovation Podcast series please click here

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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