Cultivating World-Class Innovation Ecosystems
Six part Q&A with Jamie Clyde, Regional Director and Innovation Services Director at Bruntwood SciTech
1. What are the necessary ingredients required to cultivate and maintain innovation ecosystems?
The first element in creating a successful ecosystem is anchor individuals – charismatic, purposeful entrepreneurs who are good connectors. They often aren’t talked about but successful ecosystems have a small number of individuals with a very large impact on the success of a cluster.
The second element is an IP reservoir – that can be academic but can equally be corporate. Our obvious academic contenders in the Arc are the universities, but we also have the likes of GSK and AstraZeneca that are adept at translating key intellectual property into broader applications.
Thirdly, ecosystems need innovators – they could be out of universities as postgrads, they can be clinicians with ideas and energy coming out of medical environments; they could be corporate individuals coming out of the private sector looking to commercialise new ideas as was the case with Nokia’s restructuring in Finland. This knowledge stock is a critical resource to innovation ecosystems, providing bright ideas and in many cases bringing with them unique experiences.
The fourth ingredient is the diversity of capital sources – having joined-up capital sources between government grants, private venture capital and angel investors. Sustainable, successful ecosystems are able to integrate those effectively. In Israel they have worked very hard to marry these two funding streams seamlessly. This is something we’ve emulated at Bruntwood SciTech and cultivated in our Oncology Development Programme, where pharmaceutical companies work alongside public-sector groups like Innovate UK to provide support to businesses in the sector.
The fifth is access to markets – the ability for early-stage businesses to access either public or private markets. In some cases, that’s having channels into the NHS for clinical trials whilst in others its relationships with sales and distribution networks. Interfacing between the entrepreneurial world and the corporate world creates the portals for small and emerging businesses to access those markets, which can often be very challenging.
Sixth, professional services – the provision of specialist advice, to support business development and the allocation of risk through flexible charging structures.
Finally, innovation ecosystems must engage with the local community – in many ways the fourth arm of a ‘quadruple’ helix –to provide vibrancy, a social scene, and quality of life. In practice, that means ecosystems must be designed to be open and interface with communities, departing from the old model of closed campuses.
2. How does Bruntwood SciTech foster collaboration and dialogue between innovators within its ecosystems?
We have a number of services that are trying to glue all these components together, to drive either planned or unplanned collaboration. The key point here is that some of this is actively trying to get people to connect, but it is also often as simple as creating an environment where moments of unplanned collaboration can take place rather than scripting encounters by design. That is often just as valuable, or more valuable, than the planned collaboration.
Of course, Bruntwood SciTech can still signpost business support activity and listen to what innovators are doing to facilitate the right introductions. We also run incubator programmes where the cohorts are actively encouraged to collaborate. Where we have multiple programmes running, we try and connect these. By connecting proptech with createch, we can provide opportunities where these different cohorts can compare notes, share expertise and challenges, and have interesting conversations, we can also help to forge dynamic collaborations between seemingly unrelated industries. And not just between entrepreneurs themselves, but also linking them up with available support services.
An entrepreneur in an early-stage business can’t do everything, they have to work closely with partners and draw on all sorts of expertise. What we do at Bruntwood SciTech is pull together all those bits of resources, to improve the acceleration of a business through these connections.
3. Why is close spatial clustering such an important dynamic in the innovation life cycle of start-ups and spinouts?
If people are physically present, they have to really connect. Opportunities for us to collaborate beyond virtual means is where we build deeper and less transactional relationships, with opportunities for unplanned things to happen. The world has particularly learned that during the pandemic. We’ve been running one of our corporate innovation programmes – we ran the first cohort just before Covid, and the second one during Covid, where we went virtual. We had a 50% lower performance on the second cohort, which we put down to having less unplanned interaction between the cohort in person. That was a great illustration to us of just that value, one difficult to measure, but which becomes very clear. er links across communities.
Getting people together to do social activities is vital. We have ‘Wholesome’, a social and wellness programme with six dimensions of activity: from physical activity like yoga, to mental wellness, to nutrition. These opportunities to get people together not only to promote wellbeing, but at the same time open opportunities for people to create and collaborate. Slightly more structured is in getting peer-to-peer individuals together, under Chatham House rules with no agenda, where enterprise founders can create safe spaces, collaborate, share their challenges and come up with solutions.
Bruntwood SciTech can also help by providing shared services that early-stage businesses can’t afford. In open-source labs and shared equipment, we create great opportunities for businesses to work together. Finally, we have our online platform, where we have various online tools like on social media to give people the opportunity to connect electronically. These are just a few examples of where we can engender links across communities.
4. How do campuses and clusters forge links outside of the workplace? Do you see holistic research communities as important?
We often hear of a ‘triple helix’ within the Oxford-Cambridge Arc of public, private and academic collaboration. What’s behind a successful cluster is really a quadruple helix, where the local community forms the fourth pillar. In the old world of science parks, they were surrounded by big walls and one needed ID to get through the gate. The key difference between an old science park and modern innovation districts is that this wall had disappeared. Now academic, public and private activity is meshed with the local community, and the local community plays a vital part in that.
If we take Alderley Park as a good example, in the 1980s it was a sealed-off secret environment where the public were not encouraged to be involved in any way. In the last few months, we hosted the Tour of Britain cycle race with a stage that actually began in Alderley Park. One of the key messages is that we’re trying to bring the community into the campus, rather than seeing it as a controlled environment where innovators go and the wider community doesn’t. This is something we’re seeking to introduce to science parks within the Oxford-Cambridge Arc.
There’s an importance from a skills development point of view in engaging the local community to achieve the government’s levelling up agenda. The potential for innovation is great across the spectrum: our Digital Ideator programme engages with local young people aged 16-18, where we give them similar challenges to those given to early-stage entrepreneurs. This is with a view to giving them an opportunity to taste entrepreneurial experience, but also for those organisations to access a group of people they may not have access to through traditional recruitment processes. This succeeds in bringing in young people and engaging them and exciting them and providing a bridge into employment for them.
5. What are some of the benefits of so many institutions in the Arc working as joint ventures?
Where institutions work together through equity and JV relationships, we have the opportunity to align strategy and objectives that benefit the ecosystem where small and growing businesses can thrive. We don’t have a scenario where different institutions are randomly investing in capital assets that are duplicated or strategically misaligned, but instead there’s a cohesive plan. From a knowledge capital point of view, there’s collaboration and the development of innovators and incubators acting together.
If it’s public-private joint ventures, we have the opportunity by forging that partnership to have accelerator programmes that span those organisations, creating far greater opportunities than if just one of those institutions was to try and do it on their own. If you have an NHS Trust, they can become involved with local authorities and universities which allows us to have a dialogue on a very different level – a neighbourly relationship with those institutions. We can use this to set up an incubator environment, and it also gives us as a private sector company greater access to graduates and academic support in, for example, AI, developing a much richer system of support for more innovative businesses.
6. What could the government, the private sector and academia do next to continue to supercharge science and technology research and development in the Arc? How could they make your job easier?
The first point is that there needs to be a clearer intelligence picture in the Arc, what support is available and who is out there to collaborate with. That would help signpost the process for innovative business and help sources of support rise to the surface. Having that visibility of who’s who in the Arc would be a valuable resource.
The second point is that from an infrastructure point of view we need to keep the pressure on improving transport and rail links, increasing the connective capital of the Arc.
The final point is the need to focus on the centre of the Arc, making sure areas like Bedford, Milton Keynes and Luton become developing centres of excellence to bring in investment that complements the centres in Oxford and Cambridge. Building on existing innovation communities will help us fill in the middle of the Arc with new talent. There’s plenty of space in the Arc to create and develop new centres of excellence, all working together.