Breaking Barriers: Improving The Scaling Prospects Of UK Innovators
Scale-up businesses are the engine of the UK’s innovation economy; frequently responsible for shaping the tech and life sciences landscape, their ideas and innovations frequently have the potential to shake-up entire markets.
Yet, for those of us on the ground who work with innovators on a day-to-day basis, it is clear that far too many start-ups with exceptional ideas will never get the chance to scale. The 2023 ScaleUp Institute’s annual report laid the issues bare, raising concerns about persistent barriers to growth ambitions, among them; access to markets, accessing growth capital, and having the local infrastructure - space - to scale.
As a nation we need to be better at cultivating an environment that is more welcoming and supportive of the most innovative businesses. Failure to do so risks losing our brightest minds and high-potential start-ups to Europe or the US, or worse still, deterring the next generation of innovative entrepreneurs from pursuing their ambitions. So what can be done now to turn the tide and break down those barriers?
Last month, the Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology announced a new Scale-Up Support Service which aims to tackle some of the pressing issues facing innovators. Under the new initiative some of the most promising science and tech businesses will be given targeted support; looping them in with the best advice for generating innovative IP, taking on skilled talent or expanding into new markets.
Broadly speaking, the Secretary of State’s initiative has been well-received. Yet for many it’s the revelation that the scheme will only help 20 of the UK’s most promising start-ups initially which will cut to the core of a central tension in the debate around how we approach innovation support. Some policymakers and industry stakeholders’ philosophy has historically been to use Government resource and convening powers to support as many start-ups as possible, irrespective of the chance of success or likely impact of their proposition to wider society. They would argue that this is the only equitable approach to take.
I have always felt strongly that the best way forward, however, is for support to be focused on those who are innovating the most; those who are creating game-changing tech and who will put the UK on the map when it comes to innovation. We want to be supporting businesses that we can hang our hat on and that provide an aspirational benchmark for others. Unfortunately, not every business will be suited to scaling, and of those that can, we should be prioritising those with the highest chance of success. In focusing support on a smaller number of businesses, the ambition would be to provide more substantive mentoring and funding, and this is why I welcome the Secretary of State’s intervention and look forward to seeing how the scheme progresses.
None of this is to say, however, that more can’t or shouldn’t be done to improve the innovation ecosystem at a wider, more holistic level. Government support is only one piece of the puzzle, and leaders and influencers in the private sector and academia need to collaborate more readily to support the innovation economy at-large.
While there is no silver bullet that unlocks investment, new markets and talent for those looking to scale their business, I do believe that the key to supporting innovators in each of these areas lies in solving their challenges with securing physical space and infrastructure. Development of space for innovators can be achieved in such a way that it acts as the connective tissue between the public sector, prospective investors, innovators and wider industry. Making this work involves bringing these groups together, if not under one roof, then under interconnected, carefully curated and networked campuses in strategically located life science and tech hubs.
For example, in health and life sciences, this means ensuring that we focus on developing space in close proximity to – and ideally in collaboration with – teaching hospitals and leading medical schools. This ensures that innovators have access to the medical practitioners who would eventually be using their innovations, as well as having access to a steady stream of all-important graduate talent. You’d only need to look to the Oxford Road Corridor – Manchester’s Innovation District – to see how this kind of approach utilises a destination’s existing cultural, academic and healthcare assets and leverages them to draw in the region’s brightest and boldest innovators.
Proximity alone though won’t achieve this, which is why developers themselves must play an active role in establishing connections and networks for their occupants to tap into. It’s no longer sufficient to just provide the infrastructure – be it high-tech office space or fully-equipped labs – developers must go further and proactively work with local authorities, Westminster policymakers, regional investors and others to develop bespoke platforms that can give start-ups a foothold on their journey towards scaling. No one organisation can achieve this, and only through collaboration can we build the platforms start-ups need to take the next step.