The powerful network ready to help the UK realise its true potential
From levelling up to reaching net zero, the UK has big ideas and grand plans – but in the midst of a war in Ukraine, a growing labour shortage, a booming rise in cost of living and with the pandemic and Brexit still influencing public spending the question is: can it achieve its ambitions? Matthew Durdy explains why the Catapult Network could hold many of the answers.
For centuries the UK has been a leading light in innovation. Our scientists, universities, inventors and businesses can rightly lay claim to some of the globe’s most defining innovations, from the industrial revolution when Britain was the ‘workshop of the world’ to the digital revolution and the origins of the world wide web.
Now today, as we face many entirely new challenges, can we look to that legacy as the basis for a new chapter in our history as an innovation nation and a science superpower?
“Absolutely,” says Matthew Durdy, Chair of the Catapult Network and CEO of the Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult, who goes on to argue that reclaiming our mantle as an innovation nation and realising our true potential in R&D is not just something that we could do – it’s something we must do if we are to overcome the challenges of today and exploit the opportunities of tomorrow.
Catapults were first established by Innovate UK over a decade ago and work closely with them today. Over those ten years, the Catapult Network has played a central role in transforming research into valuable products and services delivered by UK businesses. There are currently nine Catapults, spanning healthcare, energy, emerging technologies and manufacturing, working together and independently to cultivate partnerships and drive UK innovation.
As the current Catapult Network Chair, Matthew Durdy is understandably passionate about the solutions Catapults offer. And, after ten years of working with Catapults his enthusiasm is undimmed, perhaps because he has seen for himself their unique ability to pose solutions to some fundamental problems.
“I think that today we are, once again, beginning to really appreciate the massive value and importance of investing in innovation when it comes to solving some of our most pressing and complex problems,” explains Durdy.
“The Catapults are home to some remarkably skilled people, but it’s their ability to bring groups, skills, capabilities, places and technologies together that can really help the UK realise its true potential. They make things happen. From supporting a wide range of 5G-enabled services and applications to exploring lifesaving treatments they turn ideas into reality,” Durdy explains. “The pandemic was a classic example. Catapults organised a massive expansion of testing, supported the UK’s drive to create a vaccine and coordinated the development of more than 14,000 ventilators.”
But today, with the hope that the worst of the pandemic is past, the UK must turn its head to a new set of challenges.
“It is plain to see that we are at a critical moment – nationally and globally. The energy crisis is looming; the climate crisis is looming; a skills shortage is looming; a cost of living crisis is very much upon us and we have a growing, aging population. We also have a country beset with inequality, with many towns and regions not able to share in the successes others enjoy. This adds up to some very real, immediate and significant challenges.”
It’s issues like these that he believes the Catapult Network is so well-placed to tackle – and he even argues it could help transform some of them into positive opportunities for the UK.
Developing skills, driving regional investment and creating clusters of excellence is part and parcel of what the Catapult Network does
“This is the moment to seize the opportunity and to once again demonstrate to the world – and to ourselves - just what the UK is capable of,” says Durdy. “Right now we spend around 1.8% of GDP on R&D, ranking us behind countries such as Iceland and Slovenia. In fact we don’t even make it into the top 20 in terms of R&D investment – yet we still consistently set the pace for many others to follow when it comes to innovation.
“To me this just screams out that we are simply not realising our potential.”
But change won’t come easy. So while Durdy warmly welcomes recent growth in Government investment in innovation and the ongoing collaborative relationship with the UK’s national innovation agency - Innovate UK - he acknowledges that hitting the active goal of raising R&D spend to 2.4% of GDP can‘t come from Government spend alone. But what’s the solution?
“To achieve the innovation society needs, we need to get the private sector engaged. And here the beauty of the Catapult Network is that it can bring people and organisations together quickly, form collaborations that work and give access to technology and equipment that can lower risk and deliver results.
“It’s this swift and capable linking of the public and private, of academia and entrepreneur that will turn £39 billion of UK Government money into £100 billion worth of investment. That’s how we will answer the pressing questions of today and tomorrow and bring real benefit to society.”
This “benefit to society” is key; in fact, beyond delivering essential innovation, Durdy believes Catapults also play a fundamental role in the government’s levelling up agenda.
“Developing skills, driving regional investment and creating clusters of excellence is part and parcel of what the Catapult Network does – day in, day out. And, as we do it, we are seeing entire regions – many of which were left behind as traditional heavy industry declined – become reinvigorated. We have been pivotal in making South Wales a global centre for compound semiconductors; we have spurred the North East to set the pace for global offshore renewable energy technology; we have ushered in a new era of high-value manufacturing into Rotherham and our Catapults are witnessing a future workforce become equipped with skills and training to deliver the change that we need to see.
“These are just a handful of examples, but doesn’t just make sense from a social agenda, it makes sense from a business and economic one too. Levelling up – both in terms of UK communities and national R&D spending - is essential if we are to become an innovation nation and to realise our true potential.
“Today we have nine Catapults, each addressing really critical areas with potential for multi-billion pound growth. What unites them is the same basic premise that it's about realising our potential and leveraging what the UK is already good at.
“If we realise our potential today we can confront and overcome the most daunting of situations tomorrow.”
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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