A new national policy report has identified the graphene innovation ecosystem at Manchester as a regional hub for international partnership and investment. In this article, James Baker explores how this success demonstrates that research and development (R&D) investment into specialist regional clusters like Graphene@Manchester provides national government with an excellent return on investment as they create and capture significant new value in places beyond the UK’s South-East.
- Policymakers are advised to mobilise agents like the UK’s new R&D funding institute ARIA to act as the expert talent scout and to seek promising innovation hotspots while leveraging top down funding to accelerate their development.
- A ‘devolution of innovation’ can seriously support the UK’s ‘levelling up’ agenda through strategic regional-global growth opportunities.
- The graphene innovation ecosystem at The University of Manchester is identified as a catalyst for attracting significant inward investment into the Greater Manchester economy. This can act as a model for future R&D investment.
The ‘Manchester model’ – leveraging global connections to drive local growth
The new report entitled, ’The role of universities in driving overseas investment into UK Research and Development’ is authored by Dr Alexis Brown for the universities’ think-tank, the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI). It highlights how Manchester’s regional-global model supports the UK’s wider national economy to ‘level up’ because new investment is attracted into the North rather than the so-called Golden Triangle. This clearly demonstrates the value in ‘devolving innovation’. That is, the creation of regional innovation clusters and hubs like the one at Graphene@Manchester, which can attract Foreign Direct Investment (FDI).
The ‘Manchester model’ integrates strategic, long-term relationships between The University of Manchester and its civic stakeholders (like the city council and the local combined authority) with international partners.
Abu Dhabi is one such international partner. An ambitious agreement between the University and Abu Dhabi-based Khalifa University of Science and Technology aims to deliver a major funding boost to graphene innovation that will help tackle the planet’s big challenges. This Manchester-Khalifa partnership has won praise from senior figures in the UK government as it looks to further strengthen UK-UAE trade and investment ties.
How the GEIC is delivering in Manchester
A key driver in this international partnership is the Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre (GEIC), a unique innovation accelerator based at The University of Manchester which opened its doors in 2018, following backing from Masdar, the UAE-based renewable energy company, plus UK research and innovation funding bodies.
In that time we have successfully proven our effectiveness in taking world-class science from the lab and placing it into the marketplace – which in turn has helped us garner an international reputation that Greater Manchester is the go-to region for innovation in nanomaterials and advanced materials more generally. The GEIC has also generated funding from a range of international and domestic partners.
Manchester’s international research and innovation collaborations are creating new products, new businesses and new jobs. Crucially, much of this new value is retained in our own regional economy, so boosting the UK’s ‘levelling up’ ambitions.
What this Manchester model of regional-global partnership demonstrates is a fantastic return on investment for the UK government from the creation of regionally-based R&D clusters such as the graphene ecosystem.
Future R&D investment – Manchester as a policy blueprint
In the early 1960s, using conduits like ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency), the US government gave money to some of America’s own world-leading, globally connected universities, like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Berkeley (University of California) and Stanford to drive ambitious and potentially high-risk research and innovation projects.
I recommend the UK government does something similar and provides UK universities in all regions more devolved access to research and innovation funding that can be used to develop place based growth opportunities.
Delivery mechanisms for this already exist. For example, the recently created Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) looks to be continuing an emphasis on “clusters” as the one of the best ways to underpin a place-based R&D policy – and a top-down exercise to define those clusters has begun, including potential locations for “investment zones”. The UK now has its version of the US innovation agency ARPA – a high-risk, high-reward R&D pioneer. The Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA) is something I have anticipated in previous articles and we now have a clearer idea of the vision and purpose for this body.
ARIA states it “… will be expected to fund individuals, institutes, universities, and businesses across the UK. The benefits of ARIA’s funding will thus not be restricted to a single location.” This is a positive step but it might be argued that ARIA acts more proactively in reaching these regions – and also, is more selective about where place-based R&D support should be delivered.
In fact, I would recommend ARIA becomes part of the ‘top down’ assessment process to identify future regional innovation clusters. With its expertise this agency should act as the nation’s talent scout working across the UK’s regions to seek rising star research and innovation hubs that have similar promise to Manchester’s graphene ecosystem.
While remaining independent, ARIA could look to leverage extra innovation funding by working closely with the new Department for Science, Innovation and Technology. In turn, the government can expect a return on its investment when these ecosystems start attracting third party funding, including the inward investment called for in the HEPI report mentioned above.
Finally, an important consideration when looking to identify potential regional R&D superstars is the fact long-term sustainability will probably be linked to an ambition to develop strategic international partnerships – which, in turn, will require a vision for shared global benefits.
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