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October 13, 2010

David Willetts’ straight talk on innovation

Despite being highly pressed for time yesterday due to the release of the Browne Review, David Willetts, Minister of State for Universities and Science, addressed delegates of Innovate 10 on innovation and the future role of the Technology Strategy Board, giving clear answers on key issues for universities.

Higher Education Innovation Fund

Although the Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF), allocated by Hefce, is a relatively small pot of money (total of £150m in 2010/11), many universities rely on it to provide business support, technology transfer support and other innovation operations like science parks and entrepreneurship training for students and academics. HEIF is one of the many funding streams under threat from impending funding cuts and universities have voiced their concerns that cutting this money could have serious consequences to the ability of universities to be innovative and limit their economic return.

When asked directly about the future of HEIF, Willetts responded positively saying he was a “great fan of HEIF.” He suggested that, in some cases, HEIF could be used more strategically by universities, and there may be a requirement in the future to pool resources for smaller organisations. Whether HEIF will remain as a separate funding stream or be incorporated into larger Hefce allocations remains to be seen but Willetts “hopes, in some version, it can carry on”. The outlook seems positive.

The Fraunhofer Model

It did not take long until the Hauser and Dyson reports were cited as ways forward on innovation. Both of these reports suggest the creation of an elite network of technology centres, modelled on the German Fraunhofer Centres, to help bridge the gap between research and development. However, Willetts noted that it was not possible to “just lift the German model” and that the TSB have been tasked with developing this concept into an action plan. Although funding for the centres has not yet been confirmed, Willetts seems keen on making them a reality. One model currently being considered by the TSB is new regional centres or hubs that reach out to other local centres of excellence.

Role of the Technology Strategy Board and regional funding

It was clear from Willetts’ speech that he places the TSB at the centre of future developments in innovation, both for universities and business. He said that the technology, business and research responsibilities of the RDAs will transfer to the TSB from next year. The TSB will also “be at the centre of innovation strategy in the UK” and be core to the coalition’s new innovation strategy due in Spring 2011.

The next priority area: Stratified Medicine

In his speech, Willetts also announced the TSB’s next long term programme in the area of ‘stratified medicine’—a move towards developing more medicines targeted at particular diseases and personalised medicine. ‘Picking winners’ is not often a popular strategy but Willetts said he was not embarrassed about picking particular sectors to prioritise. 

The TSB will be launching three calls in this area in January 2011. With a budget of £11m, the new Stratified Medicine programme will be funding the areas of tumour profiling, biomarkers and new biomedical business models. The TSB have a number of collaborators on this programme including the Research Councils, Cancer Research UK and a number of industry partners.

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In his speech at Innovation 10, Willetts was remarkably straight up about the future of innovation in the UK. It seems that innovation, and the funding streams attached to it, may come off relatively unscathed during these times of budget cuts. However, there is a lot of pressure on the TSB, a fairly new organisation, to deliver.

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