Innovation opportunities

We reflect on an eventful year for the UK research and innovation landscape, and how these provide opportunities for the Belfast region during 2021 and beyond.

05 Feb 2021   5 min read

Innovation opportunities

In this inaugural blog post, Professor Emma Flynn, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research and Enterprise at Queen’s University Belfast and Professor Cathy Gormley-Heenan, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research & External Affairs) at Ulster University reflect on an eventful year for the UK research and innovation landscape, and how these provide opportunities for the Belfast region during 2021 and beyond.

The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic and the urgent need for insight and solutions to a rapidly-evolving crisis has demonstrated the importance of research and innovation. The expertise of the UK’s researchers and research institutions have been crucial in shaping our understanding and response to the pandemic, and joint innovations between academia and industry have provided many significant breakthroughs, most notably the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.

2020 also saw significant developments in thinking about public policy for research and innovation, and in particular how regions could be supported to reach their innovation potential. In May of last year, NESTA published its highly influential report, The Missing £4bn: Making R&D work for the whole UK, which found that “the UK’s geographical imbalances in economic performance are exacerbated by regional imbalances in R&D spending”. The authors estimated that many parts of the UK had missed out on government R&D spending, to the tune of £4bn each year. Importantly, this public investment produces not only new knowledge, but further investment in the region of £8bn from the private sector. Such regional-based investment results in significant changes and opportunities for regions, but also supports the development of connections between regions and nations.

This was followed in July by the UK Government’s UK Research and Development Roadmap, which pledged to provide investment and support to allow every part of the UK to engage in and benefit from R&D, in line with the Government’s wider “levelling up” agenda.  The Roadmap promised a UK R&D Place Strategy, currently under development and anticipated shortly, aimed at addressing regional imbalances in research, innovation, and development activities.

In this context, the huge progress made in the last twelve months in bringing together final proposals for the Belfast Region City Deal, and indeed the progress made on the three other Northern Ireland Growth Deals (Derry and Strabane City Deal, Mid South West Growth Deal, and Causeway Coast and Glens Growth Deal) is particularly timely. Northern Ireland will be the last region of the UK to benefit from these packages of matching funding from central and regional government, providing investment in capital programmes to boost innovation, skills, tourism and infrastructure.

Agreed in outline in March 2019, the BRCD represents £1 billion of investment in the region by the two governments and the City Deal partners.  The universities have taken a leading role in the development of the five Innovation projects within the Deal – the Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre, the Centre for Digital Healthcare Technology, the Global Innovation Institute, the Institute for Research Excellence in Advanced Clinical Healthcare, and the Screen and Media Innovation Lab.

The business cases for these projects are now being finalised, having been developed through sustained academic-industry engagement which continued throughout 2020 despite the difficult context created by the pandemic. Hundreds of companies of all sizes and across multiple sectors have worked with the project teams to establish a shared vision for the future. The projects will equip the region to tackle a range of major economic and societal challenges, current and future, from enabling regional companies to compete in the data-driven economy to ensuring access for citizens to cutting edge medical treatments. The teams working on the Innovation projects have already made direct contributions to the regional pandemic response, including facilitating Covid-19 vaccination trials, working with industrial partners to support their agility and responsiveness to the challenges of the pandemic and assisting in the development of the StopCOVID NI app.

“The UK’s nations, cities and regions need resources and capacity to build and develop their own innovation priorities”, is the central conclusion of The Missing £4bn report. The City Deal represents a significant step towards this goal for the Belfast Region - but it is a first step, and one that other regions of the UK have already put in place and started to capitalise on. There are substantial opportunities emerging through the UK’s R&D Roadmap and wider “levelling-up” agenda for the Belfast Region and Northern Ireland as a whole to further develop our distinctive sectoral and cross-cutting strengths, and as a region, we need to be prepared to demonstrate our readiness to gain full advantage from these opportunities.

The Belfast Region City Deal is not the only significant development in the region’s innovation landscape. The Belfast Digital Innovation Partnership (BDIP), comprising civic leaders in the region, first came together in 2019. This coalition brings together local government, the universities, Invest NI, Belfast Harbour and Catalyst, with a collective aim of promoting inclusive innovation and breaking down barriers for publicly and privately funded innovation within the region.

Working with the Brainport Eindhoven team from one of Europe’s most successful innovative regions, BDIP partners have in recent months drafted an initial project portfolio that aims to coalesce investment, including some elements of the City Deal, around a shared vision for inclusive and sustainable growth. The initial focus, during the Covid recovery period, will be to engage with innovation companies and policy-makers, ensuring Belfast is recognised globally as the place to invest in digital and health-care innovation.  A formal launch of the Partnership is planned within the coming months.

The City Deal and the Belfast Digital Innovation Partnership have a common commitment to bring together key actors in the regional innovation landscape from across the public and private sectors to develop an integrated, evidence-based approach to targeting innovation outcomes based on our region’s strengths. Such discussions and partnerships develop a compelling, shared narrative about the region’s capability and potential to determine its innovation priorities and fully participate in the “levelling up” agenda to present to government funders and sector investors nationally and internationally. This dialogue also enables us to make the most of our existing capabilities, which span multiple sectors and disciplines, and ensures we are well-positioned to further build upon this track record. Levelling up investment will make a difference regionally, but also nationally and globally as our expertise and products become even more influential.

Initiatives such as the Belfast Region City Deal and the Belfast Digital Innovation Partnership will be crucial to the region’s success in 2021 and beyond. It is not only the specific projects within the programmes that will deliver the changes which are needed, but the continuing dialogue between the many partners regarding how we can work together to achieve the best outcomes for our economy and society.  Partnership working has enabled us to respond to the pandemic with agility.  This same partnership approach, bringing together all those who contribute to our evolving innovation ecosystem, will be the key to unlocking the innovation opportunities of 2021 and beyond.