Just how innovative is the UK?

Our Product Development Director Dale Reed shares his thoughts from the 2015 Innovate UK Conference. 

Innovate UK is the UK’s innovation agency; an executive non-departmental public body, sponsored by the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills. They host an annual event to highlight the best and brightest of British Innovation, with exhibitors and seminars held over a two day period in London.

What was constantly highlighted throughout the event was just how innovative we actually are in this country. Consider these statistics:

The UK represents around 1% of the total global population and yet; we produce 16% of the world’s published scientific papers, and we host 4 out of the world’s top 10 Universities.

Then consider some of the inventions that have really shaped the world we live in today:

Computers? Charles Babbage, British.

Telephone? Alexander Graham Bell, British.

World Wide Web? Tim Berners-Lee, British.

Television? John Logie Baird, British.

You can also add to that list radar, the endoscope, the zoom lens, holography, in vitro fertilisation, animal cloning, magnetically levitated trains, the jet engine, antibiotics and, indeed, Viagra!

Some years ago, Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry made a study of national inventiveness and concluded that modern era Britain had produced around 55% of the worlds ‘significant’ inventions, compared with 22% for the US and 6% for Japan. The point is that the Brits have a long history of innovation and it’s something we should be mightily proud of.

The downside is that however good we’ve been at inventing things, we’ve not been that great at commercialising them. Almost all of those inventions mentioned above have been vastly commercialised by businesses outside of the UK (really only jet engines and antibiotics contribute anything significant to our GDP). We also lose a great deal of our brightest minds to businesses overseas.

Fortunately this seems to be one of the areas that’s being changed, as evidenced by some of the talks I sat in on at the event. Many universities are now teaming up with businesses to place students and under-graduates – something which benefits all parties. Despite some difficulties around IP protection, it’s a huge boon to the student to learn some business sense and commercial ability before being employed full time. The employer gets some very bright minds to help them think around their problems. Many students go on to work with the business full time on graduation, and many businesses continue with the scheme year on year because it’s been so successful for them.

There are also now a lot of Catapult Centres right here in the UK (https://www.catapult.org.uk/). These are a network of world-leading centres designed to transform the UK’s capability for innovation in specific areas and help drive future economic growth. They are a series of physical centres where the very best of the UK’s businesses, scientists and engineers work side by side on late-stage research and development – transforming high potential ideas into new products and services to generate economic growth.

By bringing together the right teams who can work together and innovate, and just as importantly commercialise, the centres are ensuring the UK can continue to be at the forefront of innovation, particularly in technology and the sciences.

Graphene of course is a well-known British invention which I think will soon be joining the list of the world’s most life changing innovations in fairly short shrift. The number of applications seems almost limitless at the moment. We already have the National Graphene Institute, built as part of Manchester University, and fortunately the UK is working hard to ensure we are capable of commercialising the potential for Graphene. Work on another £60,000,000 building – the Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre – is currently underway, which will help look at how to move the research into actual production.

We also have a lot of expertise in quantum mechanics, and again companies in the UK are now working towards commercialisation of highly accurate sensors utilising quantum – for example an accelerometer based on the quantum interference of ultracold atoms. These will be able to provide highly accurate location and accelerometer information without any need for GPS or external factors. Although quite large at the moment it’s expected that they’ll be microchip sized within the next two years. Obviously this could be a huge boon to mobile, telematics and asset tracking systems. It’s currently being developed for use with submarines so they can determine their position accurately without having to surface to use GPS.

Overall I came away from the event feeling extremely positive and excited to be here in the UK at a time when there is so much potential for new technologies and innovation. I’m very much looking forward to Control F1 being a part of it!

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