Teesside University is a key partner in the Innovate Tees Valley project. And, as Professor Jane Turner, pro vice-chancellor enterprise and business engagement, explains, its involvement is part of the university’s strategy to be a major driver for innovation in the Tees Valley.
“We already have a fantastic relationship with the SME community and we want to further unlock and enhance productivity and efficiency among SMEs in Tees Valley,’’ she says. “Bringing together DigitalCity, which is part of the university, and NEPIC and Materials Processing Institute is just a perfect mix to make a catalyst for the innovation we are trying to create here.’’
Also, not only does Teesside University have its own knowledge and expertise, it is ideally placed to recruit other key partners to the cause of innovation promotion. She argues that innovation is fundamental to the prosperity of the region and universities have a vital role to play in promoting it. There is, however, a challenge.
“We are primarily seen as educators and providers of accommodation, but, actually, we are much more than that,’’ she says. “As a sector, we need to be much better at providing the accessibility to all the research and the knowledge that sits within the universities, which can absolutely liberate and support businesses to become more innovative.’’
But, she adds: “Data from 2014 shows that just 5% of SMEs and 2% of larger firms turn to universities for innovation. That’s shocking. There are clearly barriers making those engagement percentages so low. A lot of that is the perceptions around what universities are for. I want universities to be seen as the first port of call in terms of support for innovation.
“I’m absolutely passionate about that. My dad ran his own manufacturing company for more than 20 years so I grew up in that environment and was aware it was very difficult to get the right support.’’
The university, however, is no recent convert to the importance of engaging with industry. It was founded as Constantine College in 1930 as a technical college to support local industry and, more recently, it was a proud recipient of the Queens Award for Enterprise. One of Prof Turner’s responsibilities is graduate employability and she points out that 60% of the university’s students come from the Tees Valley and this makes the university’s engagement with the innovation agenda even more important.
“We have a moral responsibility to make sure we are leveraging and supporting our SME community to be more productive, so they employ more people so that our students who wish to remain in the Tees Valley have the opportunities.’’
To maximise those opportunities she’s evangelical about building an entrepreneurial, innovative campus. “I really want to encourage innovative thinking and also to encourage our students to think about how they can set up and run their own businesses as a legitimate career pathway,’’ she says. “Also, supporting our academic staff to be more risk taking, more innovative and to be out there interfacing with industry. So, I’m very much driving a culture of enterprise and innovation in the campus.’’
She is looking forward to the Innovate Tees Valley Festival on 8 December, developed by the team behind Venturefest North East, to provide a fillip to that culture.
“We are delighted that we have got Venturefest on board in relation to that and we are really keen to ensure that businesses are represented there and that they feel that they are motivated to engage and that we can look at how we can get a culture moving around innovation. It’s only a one-day event but it could be a great catalyst.’’
Beyond that, she believes that Tees Valley as an area can have a future to rival its great economic past. “The opportunities for us moving forward are phenomenal and the energy in the region at the moment is palpable,’’ she says.
“I ask the question: in what way are we distinctive, what are we known for in the Tees Valley? I’m really keen to promote what we are really good at in the Tees Valley under that Northern Powerhouse agenda. The Northern Powerhouse gives us an opportunity to galvanise thinking around that. We are very involved with the LEP in the strategic economic plan. I want to promote Digital City as being at the forefront of what we are doing as there is a real super cluster developing there.’’