Colm Watling

Colm Watling, Innovate UK

Helping entrepreneurs to join the innovation dots

Colm Watling, Innovate UK’s new regional manager for the South East and London, shows Mike Hughes how to navigate around a complex innovation landscape.

Until quite recently, there was a big problem for UK entrepreneurs. They were being too innovative.

There were so many new businesses with ground-breaking ideas either formed in university spin-outs or at garage workbenches, being created and evolving at such high speed, that the support network was struggling to present a coherent mix of advice.

So, ten years ago, along came the UK Government’s Technology Strategy Board – know known as Innovate UK – which supports new businesses by advising, funding and connecting them. So far, it has committed more than £1.8bn, matched by a similar amount in partner and business funding, to help 8,000 organisations with projects estimated to add more than £16bn to the UK economy and create nearly 70,000 jobs.

Colm Watling has now been brought in to lead its work in London and the South East of England – and use the resources, reach and experience of the UK Government to help bring together the different groups offering help. “These hard-working groups across our regions are all trying to do the right thing, but their sheer number can sometimes unwittingly cut across our bows and complicate things for our innovators,” Watling says.

“We are definitely not trying to constrain people, or prevent the local authorities or universities continuing their work, but just hoping to help by getting the message across that this is what the UK Government strategy is, work with us and do the constructive things you were doing already alongside us.”

That strategy – to make things as logical as possible for new businesses that may not be experienced at navigating their way to funding and advice – is that the first port of call should be the Growth Hubs, the public-private sector partnerships led by the local enterprise partnerships (LEPs).

“My first job on day one was to start getting around all the hubs at the six LEPs I work with and make sure their advisers were really, really clear about what Innovate UK was, why we existed and what we could do for them,” he explains. “There is certainly an educational and ambassadorial element to what I do, because there had been a perception in some parts that we were remote and centralised, but that is changing now as we join the LEPs, the councils and the universities around the table and work with them.”

The reinvigorated message of clarity and collaboration means that Innovate UK is making a real impact on the entrepreneurial technology sector, with a sector-led approach to its programmes, as well as an enhanced role for its innovation networks and simplified funding to help with early testing of ideas, creation of products and services or to facilitate working with other organisations on collaborative projects.

Recent examples under the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund include: up to £66m to create national medicine and vaccine manufacturing centres; £15m for projects that support small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to develop innovations in health and life sciences; and a share of up to £2m to research vehicle technology that accelerates the transition to zero emissions.

The funding is an obvious plus, but Watling and his colleagues in regions around the country are also laying long-term foundations for an economy built around bold personal, regional and global enterprise – and recognising that each area has particular strengths around supply chain and support networks built for existing and already thriving sectors.

Colm Watling“Speaking from my region, everyone has heard of the Northern Powerhouse, and the Midlands Engine, but there is no such equivalent in the South of England, although if you look at the businesses doing most of the innovation and creating the exports that are generating the tax base, they are disproportionately based inside the ‘golden triangle’ of Oxford, Cambridge and London.

“We want to encourage more innovation across the UK through more investment in research and development (R&D), and there is no doubt the South is doing very well and, while we do need to rebalance the economy, we must be careful not to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. There is a balanced and nuanced debate to be had, which needs the innovators here to pull together and be a more coherent voice.

“We also meet many businesses that are quite happy and are doing all the right things, and we support that completely, and say to them that when you are doing your next development – particularly in technologies like satellites and electric vehicles – think of us.”

Watling is an entrepreneur, ready to face some tricky terrain to get to his goals. His experience in intellectual property at Loughborough and Nottingham Trent universities meant he would have been a valuable asset in any sector – so why choose Innovate UK?

“Working with those universities meant I met all manner of fantastic inventors,” he explains. “They produce a world-leading amount of innovation, but we are still not very good at commercialising it, so I spent a long time trying to get British innovations over the fence and out into the world, which was sometimes successful and often frustrating.

“Since I joined Innovate UK, I have learned two things I wish I had known earlier: invention is turning cash into ideas, and innovation is turning ideas into cash, which is where we can help. So, we are amalgamating research councils to form an organisation called ‘Research & Innovation UK’ and while there is still £4bn each year for university research – which we regard as very important – there will also be £2bn to help businesses to research and develop, which moves us towards a better R&D balance, which is the bit that really got me excited.

“We will make sure that we don’t just start writing businesses a cheque and walking away – we want to bring people together and build something for the future, which starts at schools with our science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) work and with the Prince’s Trust and goes right up to the boardrooms.”

Bringing the right people and organisations together can create a powerful union, and with Brexit uncertainty already here, this is no time to be presuming others will do the work for us. Across the UK, we have to be strong enough to stand alone just in case we need to, and Watling’s is a voice of realistic positivity.

“Things change, and our businesses need to be alive to the fact that the world is not Europe and there are far-reaching opportunities for new technologies. It is just that, so far, it has been easier with the European structures to concentrate on the more easily-accessible markets for the past 40 years.

“We are not leaving Europe, just those certain structures, and we are still going to need to export, but we need to raise our game around the world and appreciate that we can achieve so much more by collaborating than we can on our own, bringing British ideas to foreign customers.

“Back in the UK, that means we can help create more and higher-skilled jobs and, so far, every organisation we have worked with has created an average of eight jobs – 70,000 across the UK in the past ten years. We think we are pretty good at that, but rather than make it a central promise of our application process we will give organisations what they need if we think their innovation fits the bill, and then we will track them over one, three or five years to see what the benefits have been.

“We want long-term projects using assigned members of our team to work with them and guide them where necessary and build a relationship that works for both parties, and encourage serial applicants who will work with us on one occasion and then come back to us over and over again.”

During our interview, Watling cites the case study case of Cheetah Marine, which makes catamarans on the Isle of Wight. It had a potentially lucrative market with fishermen in the Philippines but the vessels, which are almost as wide as they are long, cost a lot to transport over.

Working with Innovate UK, the team at Cheetah had a brainwave and split the vessel into three main components – two hulls and the centre console – which meant it could be shipped over in a normal container and then bolted back together again in its new home.

That’s the power of collaboration that Watling and his colleagues can bring – a simple introduction turns to a developing relationship and an understanding of how each side operates, which can refresh strategies and idea creation and cast that exports net even wider.