The author is President of Imperial College London
The British Government’s innovation strategy aims to “strengthen the UK’s position as a world leader in science, research and innovation”. If we are to achieve this laudable goal, we need to focus on the ecosystem that helps innovators to flourish. Places such as Silicon Valley and Cambridge, Massachusetts provide lessons to countries on the pivotal point of science, innovation and development.
A successful innovation economy requires three catalysts: people, place and finance. Entrepreneurs know that it is important to acquire talented associates and mentors, adequate scope and investment. They decide whether innovative ideas will flourish or fail.
The UK can nurture talent, space and investment by supporting policies for innovation sectors and clusters built around one of our most important competitive advantages. This requires better tax incentives, clearer acceptance of international innovators and greater collaboration between the government, the private sector and academia.
The UK has an exceptionally strong and productive research and education base, and the best universities attract world-class talent. Students, alumni, faculty, staff and business partners within and outside the University contribute to the collaborative support, exchange of ideas, risk-taking ability, and the energy needed for innovation to thrive.
Internationalism is also necessary. In the United States, more than 40% of Fortune 500 companies have immigrant founders or children of immigrant founders. Most British start-ups worth more than $1 billion have at least one foreign founder.
This is why the government’s proposed “scale up” visa is so important, as is the recently reintroduced postgraduate work visa. Both will help international business teams flourish in the UK. But we need to go ahead and provide visas to outstanding researchers, PhD students, people with high-quality stem cell qualifications, and graduate entrepreneurs. The UK should prepare a red carpet for such visa applicants.
Talented communities need conducive environments and places to interact. We need to create an ecosystem that suits their location. Unsurprisingly, these locations are usually close to universities, which are great places for early innovation. They have flexible venues including workshops, a collaborative culture, and a supportive environment.
Proportional Space A prototype was provided by a joint venture between Imperial College and Blenheim Chalcott in the White City of London. It provides access to science and technology laboratories and workspaces, guidance and investors, all focused on overcoming the funding problems that often hinder high growth and great potential in UK start-ups.
Venture capital is essential. British Commercial Bank’s life science investment plan aims to close the funding gap in the development phase, which is a good start. Getting loans and investments. It should also eliminate commercial charges for incubators and extended spaces.
The capital scale of BBB is very small. It should invest not just millions, but billions of dollars in life science startups and provide a clear incentive for private capital.
The foundation exists and the British ambition is to create something that is not just a blatant imitation of Silicon Valley. Now is the time for a coordinated policy to expand the innovation sector around the universities of Glasgow, Manchester, Cambridge and London.
The strategy of the government takes us in the right direction. Now we need specific investment and precise timing. Leading UK universities are ready to play their part.