Northern Accelerator and an innovation-led COVID-19 recovery

Tim Hammond, Project Lead for Northern Accelerator, gives his views on an innovation-led COVID-19 recovery

The COVID-19 crisis has hit the North East hard. But, whilst the Spending Review was heavily focussed around the “levelling up agenda” and the announcement of a £4bn “Levelling Up Fund”, the region’s post-COVID-19 recovery plans acknowledge the key role that highly scalable business will play in getting the economy back on its feet.

There is a need to focus on the opportunities and assets we have in the North East to ensure that we can deliver a strong economic bounce back.

We wish to welcome the £14.8bn multi-year commitment to public spending on R&D, and the £400m over three years that will be injected into UKRI. But the levelling up agenda should not just be about shifting money around to various parts of the country. It should aim to focus on rewarding excellence. National investment of this calibre should target areas of best practice, backed by strong assets and a lucrative innovation pipeline.

As a region, we are host to some of the world’s leading experts and innovators, with a thriving number of investible businesses and fantastic regional assets such as Newcastle’s Centre for Life and the Centre for Process Innovation and science and technology clusters such as the Newcastle Helix and NETPark in Sedgefield.

Our region’s universities, Durham, Newcastle, Northumbria and Sunderland, are increasingly becoming vibrant hubs of innovation, with academics embracing the opportunity to become more enterprising and commercialise their research. North East universities, through the Northern Accelerator partnership, have played a pivotal role in supporting the continuing development of the region’s business community throughout the COVID-19 outbreak, and will continue to foster innovation as a part of the recovery.

A striking regional example of COVID-19 driven innovation is the novel prototype sampling device currently in development by Dr Moschos at Northumbria University. This device uses biological information in human breath to diagnose diseases in the lungs and, could be used at airports to monitor the spread of the virus.

Northern Accelerator has helped to build a strong innovation eco-system within the region, allowing academics to harness commercial opportunities that have, and continue to generate, high-quality jobs and increase regional GDP. Our activity is accelerating, with the number of businesses created from the universities increasing five-fold since the partnership began in 2016, and the partnership created 12 spin-out businesses in the 2018-19 academic year alone.

We have achieved this by creating a model that supports crucial business-enabling functions. This starts with pre-incorporation funding to help quality research projects get closer to commercialisation and an “Idea’s Impact Hub”, which encourages academics to become more enterprising with expert training and support. Additional to this, Northern Accelerator has placed 25 CEOs in start-ups, created 28 businesses and allocated £2.1m worth of pre-incorporation funding to help 50 research projects move closer to commercialisation.

Since its establishment in September this year, our £1.7m Seed Fund has invested over £500,000 in two innovative university spin-outs, with high growth potential. AMLo Bioscience and are now pursuing further job creation and international expansion opportunities as a result.

The Chancellor’s recent statement has highlighted the critical role innovative research-based start-ups will have in spearheading our economic recovery from the coronavirus: “Britain is a global leader when it comes to innovation. Our start-ups and businesses driving research and development are one of our great economic strengths and will help power our growth out of the coronavirus crisis”.

Northern Accelerator’s focus is on quality, not just quantity. The partnership’s support and backing has primarily focussed on scaling up spin-out businesses with high growth potential. This helps to feed into the wider targets that have been set by the region, and in the Chancellor’s Spending Review. The work that is carried out by Northern Accelerator will be integral to achieving the North East Local Enterprise Partnership’s commitment to delivering 100,000 more and better jobs by 2024.

The importance of safeguarding our business innovation infrastructure has been highlighted by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak’s decision to announce a £1.25 billion coronavirus package to protect UK businesses driving innovation via the Future’s Fund. This includes a £750 million package of grants and loans for SMEs focusing on research and development.

At a time when economic uncertainty looms, it is more important than ever that we continue to support and invest in the region. We are not resting on our laurels and have ambitions to take things further in the coming decade. We strongly believe that harnessing existing strengths to drive growth should be one of the region’s top priorities and one we will continue to support and nurture.