Alan Welby, Innovation Director at the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), and Gillian Hall, newly-appointed Chair of the North East LEP’s Innovation Board, discuss how innovation can bring more jobs to the region and help businesses to recover from the impact of COVID-19.
Can you explain what role the Innovation Board plays in helping to drive growth within the North East economy and more and better jobs for its residents?
Gillian: Innovation is one of the areas of focus – alongside skills, business growth, transport and investment – that can help us to increase productivity and the number of jobs in the North East.
Business owners might not think that innovation is something they do but in fact it’s often just about working out a new, better way of doing something.
If you’re tweaking your product or processes to find a competitive advantage then that is innovation. If you’ve come up with a new product then that is innovation.
A lot of what we’re doing is around supporting partners to come together to make something bigger than the sum of its parts.
The Northern Accelerator partnership between Durham, Newcastle, Northumbria and Sunderland Universities is a brilliant example of this, providing a structure to support the commercialisation of ideas from academics and showing how we can build a knowledge economy with regional assets and regional people.
The Innovation Board is there to increase activity like this and to be a critical friend to the North East LEP’s innovation team.
As the newly-appointed Chair of the Innovation Board, what are your priorities for the coming weeks and months?
Gillian: Turning plans into action and keeping things moving forward are my priorities. We have a big job to do and it’s easy to spread ourselves too thinly.
It’s very important for me to make sure that the board is focused on delivering projects that are going to make a difference and that we achieve the aims set out in the North East Strategic Economic Plan.
We also have very active part to play in the North East’s COVID recovery plan, making sure existing projects have what they need to keep going but also seeing what needs to be done in the short and medium term to support businesses and communities to recover.
The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly impacted on businesses, with many having to introduce new ways of working or even pivot and change what they do. How important is innovation going to be to help companies through to recovery?
Gillian: Quite naturally, we have a tendency to want to go back to the way things were but we must come to terms with the fact that this can’t happen and that we need to change our mind-set and adopt new ways of working.
Businesses are already thinking in an innovative way about how they can survive in a different world; these new ways of thinking are true innovation and businesses should be celebrated for moving quickly and making positive changes.
Alan: COVID is a massive disruptor and businesses in all sectors have had to find new ways of doing things. As a result, we’re seeing new collaborations and new solutions bring brought forward to the problems COVID has raised.
Innovation is about coping with change, and we need to test, challenge and drive each other to change and adapt.
How do you plan to support companies in the region to use innovation to help them recover from the impact COVID-19 may have had on their business? Gillian: During recovery we often see businesses cutting expenditure in areas like R&D. It’s a real risk that R&D specialists in our region will lose their jobs and that their expertise will be lost to the North East so we’re talking to partners about launching a ‘lifeboat scheme’ to support businesses to maintain their R&D and to keep hold of this group of people who are vital to innovation and to the success of our region in the future.
We are also thinking about those people who have had to retrain or look for new jobs. This is a very stressful time for many people and we’re working with the NHS to look at wellbeing and supporting people’s mental health.
Alan: As part of our COVID response programme, we’re also launching a series of open innovation challenges which will help people to quickly bring forward new products and services to market.
The challenge programme will mobilise the innovation community to help find solutions for businesses, for education and for individuals, making things better for the region as we recover and begin to get people back to work.
And more broadly, we have a COVID-19 support toolkit which is available on the North East Growth Hub, and we have our North East Growth Hub Connectors who can help business owners to access the best sources of support and funding for them.
What lessons can business take from this crisis?
Alan: Be flexible. Find communities and use networks to work together. The support and the opportunities are out there to help your business to pivot and recover, so reach out and please don’t struggle alone.
Gillian: COVID-19 is a dreadful thing but I am hopeful that some positives will come out of it. Businesses in our region – whether that’s factories in Team Valley, Cramlington and Washington, or office-based businesses in our city centres – are turning into innovators and we should celebrate this.
New ways of working will lead to new jobs which may be different from those that we’ve seen in the past.
For example, we have a hugely impressive VR and gaming sector, (including Europe’s first dedicated centre for emerging technology in the form of PROTO) which will play a part in developing new ways of delivering remote products and services to people.
The core of our region and our businesses are our people. It’s important that as a region we don’t leave anyone behind as we move towards recovery, and we will hold the government to account on this nationally as well.
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