This literature review from the West Midlands Regional Development Institute (WMREDI), looks at the effect of university Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) assets on regional economies and innovation ecosystems.
Innovation is good for growth and significant for regional development. The innovation process consists of multiple interlinked steps – innovative products and processes must make their way out of the research lab into businesses and the market before they can create jobs and output in the local economy. While this might seem obvious, this is an aspect where the UK economy is struggling. While the UK is great at basic research – think world-class research universities such as Oxford and Cambridge – too rarely does this translate into new improved products and services for local businesses.
Innovation intermediaries are organisations tasked with helping to solve exactly this issue. A strand of work at WMREDI inspects them more closely.
University-based STEM assets
A recent systematic literature review published in PLOS One by Chloe Billing, George Bramley, Carolin Ioramashvili, Robert Lynam and co-authors has gathered evidence on the impact of a specific type of intermediary – what we call ‘university-based STEM assets’.
A STEM asset is ‘a physical facility dedicated largely to the translation, development and transfer of scientific, technological or engineering innovation and knowledge and expertise which relates to new or improved business processes, products or services’. Examples in the West Midlands include the Warwick Manufacturing Group, the Manufacturing Technology Centre, Tysley Energy Park and the STEAMHouse.
Starting from a list of 1,541 academic publications on the topic, 34 studies were identified that fulfilled the study criteria of relating to a case study in an OECD country and relating to a STEM asset and its impact at the local, regional or national scale. The most common type of STEM assets covered were incubators. These often worked with academics and students to host spinouts, but some were also open to external entrepreneurs to facilitate contact with academics or to provide access to other university resources.
The economic impacts of STEM assets
Regarding the economic impacts of STEM assets, the review identified three main themes. First, the role of STEM assets in supporting young businesses. This is reflected in the impact measures analysed, e.g. the number of businesses that obtained follow-on funding or survival rates. This raises the question of whether STEM assets engage less with more established businesses, or whether research unduly focuses on start-ups.
Second, STEM assets tend to work very closely with the universities that host them. While some of the case studies found friction between academic and business cultures, the engagement appears to be valuable to both sides. In particular, the mediating role of universities between different actors was cited as an important factor, in addition to material inputs such as facilities and support services.
Third, while impacts are studied at local, regional and even the national level, wider impacts that go beyond the individual business, institutional or local level are rarely considered. While wider effects, such as spillovers may take a long time to materialise, most studies focus on the short to medium-term. This points to an important gap in the literature.
This blog was written by Dr Chloe Billing, Research Fellow, City-REDI / WMREDI, University of Birmingham.
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of City-REDI / WMREDI or the University of Birmingham.