George Bramley summarises the main findings of a new WMREDI report 'Early Assessment of the West Midlands Innovation Programme' whilst Dr Jamie Elliot reflects on how the findings have contributed to shaping provision going forward.
Programmes to support innovation have tended to be designed centrally focusing on specific aspects of the research, development, and innovation pathway. These nationally designed programmes include Smart to support research and development, KTP (Knowledge Transfer Partnerships) that act as a bridge between research technology offices and universities and businesses and SBRI (Small Business Research Initiative) that supports adoption by the public sector administered through Innovate UK and tax credits issued by HMRC.
I started my career as an evaluator in the Department of Trade and Industry in the late 1990s evaluating a series of competitive funding pots that supported locally designed projects to support innovation in businesses. These included Competitiveness White Paper Two Innovative Projects and Local Competitiveness Challenge and Centres of Expertise. When WMREDI mapped business support in the West Midlands in 2020 and created a Directory of University Business Support Interventions, I was able to trace some of the schemes available back to these original initiatives.
This underlines the incremental approach and commitment to refinement of support for businesses at different stages in their innovation pathway. What sets the West Midlands Innovation Programme apart, is its focus on increasing collaboration between other economic actors, improving competitiveness and capacity building and the development of regional innovation ecosystems. Therefore, the opportunity to lead an early assessment of the West Midlands Innovation Programme (WIMP) with my colleagues Alice Pugh, Hannes Reed, Annum Rafique, Carolin Ioramashvili, Kelvin Humphreys, and Anne Green at City-REDI provided an opportunity to understand how a region can take ownership and develop its regional innovation ecosystem.
I would also recommend that the reader of this blog look at the case studies within our full evaluation report. These provide good practice examples of demand-led approaches to providing support for innovation for businesses and other stakeholders in the region’s innovation ecosystem.
New Approaches and Innovation
WMIP was designed to be both agile and to provide an umbrella to test and develop new approaches to support innovation in the region. It has its origins in the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) Innovation Working Group which became the West Midlands Innovation Board (WMIB) in 2019 and brought together key stakeholders in the region including businesses, business support intermediaries and the region’s universities.
Collectively the Board champions innovation within the region and provides a collective voice for encouraging businesses to innovate and for embedding innovation in public service reform. The WMCA initially made available £2.96m in 2019 for three years to pilot new approaches and initiatives which support demand-led innovation capable of being scaled up into a larger programme through securing and leveraging additional funding over a five-year period.
Our overall assessment is WMIP was well-designed and delivered its objectives. WMIP benefitted from having a detailed and well-evidenced business case that clearly set out the context for the programme and correctly focused on supporting demand-led innovation. The objectives of WMIP included: a stronger, more integrated innovation support offer to businesses leading to more innovative active businesses and productivity gains in supported businesses; providing a pathway for businesses to access national innovation funding more effectively; developing regional expertise needed to deliver innovation support at scale and more accurately target support; and communication of innovation opportunities within the region. The programme was designed around five pillars set out in the West Midlands Innovation Framework: Networks and linkages; Investment programmes, Talent, Intelligence and Culture.
The design of WMIP allowed its administrators to respond and adapt to the challenges and opportunities created by the pandemic and eventually exceed its targets for the first three years. The programme made significant and substantial progress in the first six months before the pandemic hit. The pandemic in many ways underlined the need for an agile regional programme that could flex to changing circumstances and still exceed four out of the five main output targets.
WMIP has provided excellent value for money. Using a similar methodology as the original business case, we calculate over the 3 years to date that the programme will have generated £29,109,177 in total net additional GVA effects (cumulative). It achieved this through:
- Marshalling and leveraging resources within the region to support a step change in the coordination of the development of the region’s innovation support ecosystem. This has been achieved by creating a strong infrastructure that has allowed the programme to be responsive to changing circumstances and new opportunities. The pooling and funding of expertise in innovation in different sectors it has created a much-needed centre of expertise to support the development of the region’s innovation ecosystem.
- Supporting activities and initiatives that foster and develop innovation to address real-world challenges faced by businesses and the public sector in the West Midlands.
- Providing practical means to provide leadership and capability to support innovation by businesses and the development of the West Midlands innovation ecosystem.
- Leadership in business support and developing aides for businesses navigating their innovation journey.
- Initiatives assisting businesses and their customers to plan for, co-produce and enact innovation, as would be expected for a demand-led policy approach.
- Identifying and signposting businesses who recognise they need to innovate to remain competitive by adopting new technologies or processes and those businesses who have potentially innovative products and services to the right support. Similarly, WMIP has been effective in drawing on synergies with existing business support provisions through the activities and initiatives it has funded
- Bringing together existing networks and knowledge of key people in the relevant sectors to create the Virtual Innovation Team (VIT). The VIT provides a central hub for cross-sector innovation that had previously been lacking in the region
- Supporting a broad portfolio of investments in new products that responded to specific gaps in provision in the existing innovation support ecosystem. The products we assessed in greater depth as case studies were well-designed and genuinely supported demand-led innovation. Innovation Engine 3 and West Midlands Health and Wellbeing Innovation Network demonstrate how to effectively use existing local supply chains in the delivery of innovation support. This was achieved by linking together expertise both in providing advice and guidance around innovation and access to the wider innovation support ecosystem.
Overall, the learning, good practices, systems and structures developed in the first three years provide confidence that WMIP was scalable and a strong case for continued funding. WMIP has contributed to a deeper and more subtle understanding of information and coordination failures at the regional level and how to address them through piloting innovative approaches. There is a much better understanding of how such failures manifest in different contexts and for different actors in the region’s innovation ecosystem. The team delivering the programme have developed a sophisticated understanding of how to tailor information for and engage actors in the regional innovation ecosystem and now represents an important centre of expertise.
- WMIP continues to operate as a flexible regional fund that supports intermediaries to continue to innovate in their provision in response to insights and intelligence on the regional innovation ecosystem. Future phases of WMIP need to retain the agility demonstrated in phase 1 to undertake rapid prototyping of new approaches in one sector and their transfer to other sectors
- Funding and support should be maintained for the Virtual Innovation Team to allow cross-fertilisation of ideas across sectors.
- WMIP should continue to fund a portfolio of projects. It should continue to support new initiatives with an eye to scaling up more successful interventions.
Summary of findings
This evaluative assessment was used to support the business case that secured further funding for the programme as part of the West Midlands Innovator Accelerator. The West Midlands was one of only three City Regions in the UK which received £33m for an Innovation accelerator, this decision was based in part on the established Innovation Board and West Midlands Innovation Programme which provided a supportive ecosystem.
The evaluation of the programme has also provided an important record of the range of activities supported and their contribution to developing the West Midlands innovation ecosystem. There are examples of pilot activities funded by WMIP that are being scaled up in new initiatives within the Innovation Accelerator alongside continued funding for WMIP itself. The methodology developed by the WMHWIN pilot project is being adopted in West Midlands HealthTech/ MedTech ‘6D’ Innovation Accelerator to develop consortia of regional firms to develop demand-led innovative solutions to challenges faced by the NHS. In addition, the DIPS pilot project has been incorporated into the larger DIATOMIC Accelerator project to support innovation in public procurement.
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.