- Midlands Innovation is a strategic research partnership of eight research intensive universities. Universities in the Midlands and the pan-regional growth body, the Midlands Engine, are piloting how universities can work together to attract foreign direct investment into regional research and development. HEPI’s report, The Role of Universities in Driving Overseas Investment into UK Research and Development, published on 7 March 2023, provides national analysis of what is happening.
- Here, Professor Adam Tickell, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Birmingham, writes as part of a series of blogs from Midlands Innovation on the key considerations for policy makers and the Higher Education sector on increasing investment into regional research and development (R&D) through universities.
- On 25 April 2023, there will be an interactive webinar on ‘Universities as Drivers of FDI into UK R&D’. Register for a free place here.
The Government has stated a strong commitment to the UK taking a leading role in international research and innovation, and the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology created by the Prime Minister in February 2023 places a welcome emphasis on science, bringing it back into the heart of a government department. Earlier in 2023, George Freeman – the minister who retains the science brief and who provides some valuable continuity to the leadership in this area – declared his ambition to make Britain a ‘science superpower and innovation nation’.
This ambition will not be achieved without the essential contribution that our universities make to R&D and innovation. A report by London Economics suggests that as much as half of the total economic contribution of a university can be attributed to the impact of research and knowledge exchange. Of course, as with much of what we do in the higher education sector, universities do not deliver this in isolation, but rather through extensive, powerful and mature relationships with a range of industrial and other partners across the world.
However, to compete with the US and China – whose investments in this area total £580 billion – we must work smarter to make the UK Government’s £20 billion investment in R&D count. George Freeman rightly recognises that we risk remaining a ‘small science powerhouse rather than a global science superpower’ if we do not attract greater industrial investment in research and development. He believes the UK should develop more research ‘clusters’: places in which sectors coalesce to benefit from a concentration of knowledge and skills, and so attract private investment, including from international partners. Silicon Valley in Northern California, is the archetypal cluster although there are many others around the world.
For the UK, life science offers real potential. It remains the largest attractor of foreign direct investment (FDI), and the UK is ranked behind only the USA and Germany in terms of the number of inward FDI projects. As HEPI has highlighted in its new report, the West Midlands is uniquely positioned to capitalise on this strength. Our region has one of the most dynamic, data-driven healthcare and medical technology economies in the UK, worth £10.3 billion and employing over 17,000 professionals.
Here at the University of Birmingham, we are firmly embedded in the region’s extensive healthcare ecosystem. We have for many years recognised the responsibility to use our research and the clinical expertise of our staff to enhance the health and lives of people in our local communities and beyond. We are located alongside many organisations who have been willing to work in partnership to develop healthcare innovations that translate through to clinical application, and we, the West Midlands Academic Health Science Network, and two NHS Foundation Trusts established a formal network called Birmingham Health Partners (BHP) in 2011. By 2021, BHP was named as one of six Government Life Science Opportunity Zones, recognising this sector-leading innovation.
Crucially, the University’s partnership and co-location with the Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham provides access to patients, data and talent, creating an environment to accelerate the translation of new R&D to generate wealth in the region as well as directly impacting health outcomes. In an expansion of our commitment to the region we are investing in a new Birmingham Health Innovation Campus (BHIC) with the support of Birmingham Health Partners, which is being developed in partnership with life sciences property developer Bruntwood SciTech. This will be home to the University’s Precision Health Technologies Accelerator (PHTA) and will provide nearly 70,000 square feet of state-of-the-art incubation, innovation and collaboration space.
The campus is due to open later in 2023 and will bring about a step-change in our offer to industry. We know that many international health research companies are looking to seize on our commitment and are attracted by the opportunity to be co-located with health technology and medical technology companies, providing access to vital expertise and facilities, including for the development and delivery of complex clinical trials, medical device and diagnostics development, complex diagnostics and health data, and evaluation and testing.
It is early days, but PHTA has already partnered with NatWest to boost entrepreneurship in the health and life sciences sectors, with the aim of supporting further growth in sectors across the West Midlands. The partnership will see NatWest’s business-building Accelerator scheme link with PHTA to support entrepreneurs and small businesses. We are now looking for investment beyond the UK’s shores to build on this important work.
PHTA is expected to generate £500 million of gross value added (GVA) to the local economy. This is a huge investment that will bring job security and talent and position the West Midlands as a viable option for laboratory and research space beyond the Golden Triangle. PHTA also has the talent, patients and data, but what it really needs is political support to enable us to promote the West Midlands as a truly viable alternative to the space-starved areas of the Oxford/Cambridge/London triangle.