Innovation SuperNetwork Chief Executive, Estelle Blanks.
Innovation SuperNetwork Chief Executive, Estelle Blanks.

Innovation SuperNetwork: A ‘critical anchor point’ for innovation in the North East

As part of our 2024 Innovation Week, in association with Innovation SuperNetwork (ISN), we sat down with Chief Executive, Estelle Blanks, to discuss how the organisation is driving innovation in the North East and challenging long-standing regional disparities. Read on to find out more…

What exactly is the Innovation SuperNetwork and what are its key values?

“We serve as an anchor point for innovation, particularly within the North East of England. Simply put, we are all about making it easier for businesses in the region to access innovation support and finance, and to collaborate with each other to deliver innovative products and services. 

“Our role is to bring together anyone who is interested in innovation with key stakeholders to connect key players, clarify what the ecosystem looks like and deliver support to help bridge any gaps.

“There is a clear correlation between innovation and socio-economic impact, which is something that is well-researched and documented. We have policies that are focused on increasing productivity and job creation, and we see innovation as a key aspect of making these things happen. Our mission is to enable sustainable and inclusive economic growth for people and place.”

What is innovation all about and how does it operate as a process as opposed to simply a product?

“In our work, innovation is not just about technology. That is, of course, a big part of it, but innovation applies to anything that improves how we do things in our businesses and society. Research & development (R&D) and tech have their place in this picture, but innovation fundamentally adds social value and plays a market shaping role by thinking differently about how to do things.

“It’s also very heavily linked to creativity and culture, so innovation covers and can support many sectors and clusters within a region to generate growth. Too often, the policy for innovation is ‘We’re investing in R&D and innovation is going to happen’.

“If you only invest in R&D then R&D will happen, but innovation might not because it is the process of taking new ideas into a place where they can create economic or social impact and get people to change the way they do things for the better.”

How does Innovation SuperNetwork enable innovation to happen?

“We believe that for innovation to happen, you need a very robust ecosystem. To form this ecosystem you need research institutions like universities, investors, entrepreneurs, Government and communities to all be better-connected. 

“One of the main things we do is bring the ecosystem together, encouraging collaboration, partnerships and people to network so that they can understand how they can help each other to make innovation happen.

“Innovation also works better when it’s open and when it is challenge-led. As we are well-positioned to bring the ecosystem together, we work with partners to identify the challenges they face, and bring together the organisations and individuals who are best-placed to come up with solutions.

“Another thing we do is support clusters, which serve as a means to accelerate innovation in sectors and regions. In the North East, we support clusters that are likely to generate economic impact in particular digital technologies, healthcare, energy and advanced manufacturing.

“At the moment, we’re delivering a programme as part of the North of Tyne Combined Authority’s Home of Digital, which is focussed on digital cluster development. Here we’re working with six sub-clusters covering data and AI, edtech, cleantech, healthtech, cyber security and fintech. This focus sits on quite a bit of research to demonstrate that in the North East we’ve got high-growth potential clusters in these six areas.”

How does Innovation SuperNetwork create a link between innovation and finance?

“It is such a critical success factor of innovation to ensure entrepreneurs and innovators have access to finance. Innovation is not cheap and requires quite risky investment, because it’s a messy process and you cannot innovate unless you’ve failed at some point. Otherwise, you are simply following a blueprint and as such not innovating.

“Money doesn’t like risk, generally speaking. People don’t like putting their money into risky ventures, so we do a lot of work to try and improve the accessibility of finance. At ISN, we’re delivering programmes across the North East and Tees Valley that demystify the process for businesses and tap into our investor network, the Northern Investor Hub, a critical asset for the region when many businesses are looking to a combination of funding types to take their ideas forward. 

“We also work a lot with investors in the region and across the UK to raise awareness of the fantastic opportunities that exist within the North East. We bring this supply of finance together through events and anything else that connects good ideas with money.”

Can you tell us briefly about Innovation SuperNetwork’s commitment to sustainable and inclusive innovation?

“We want innovation to be diverse, not just because it’s a nice thing to do but because you can’t create new ideas unless you’ve got a diverse pool of people in the room.

“Diversity can be about gender, ethnicity, background and all sorts of other factors. We work really hard in the team to ensure the work we do encourages diversity and inclusion. We take a ‘diverse by design’ approach to ensure that the activities we deliver are accessible to as many people as possible. This isn’t just about ensuring the venue is accessible, but that activities are held at a time of day where as many people as possible can attend. 

“We also work closely with partners like the British Business Bank and Innovate UK challenge the biases that exist and encourage more businesses to take an open approach to building teams and engaging with users and audiences.”

“One way that we can drive more inclusive economic growth, is to also ensure innovation takes the future of the planet and our societies into account. Inclusion and sustainability go hand in hand, and we focus on technologies and activities that are going to make our planet a better place to be, that enable growth in the region, and that betters the lives and prospects of our whole population.”

Where does the North East stand as a region within the greater national context of innovation?

“Everything we do is within the context of national innovation policy. Unfortunately, at this point in time, if you live in London or the South East you’re more likely to benefit economically from innovation than if you live in the North East of England. Therefore, there is a lot of work to do in all of the aspects we’ve talked about. 

“We have an incredible number of assets in the region, including four universities, two of which are in the Russell Group. We’ve also got some really good accelerator programmes, and a strong research base with the UK National Innovation Centres for Ageing, Data and the Rural Economy on the Helix site.

“On top of that, we’ve got amazing assets around renewable energy with the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult in Blyth, where we are leading in wind and tidal power generation. We also have an amazing automotive cluster around Nissan in Sunderland. So, we have some seriously good assets in the region.

“All of the ingredients are there to transform the way our region performs thanks to innovation, but there’s work we need to do collectively to change perceptions and the way funding is directed to the region. That’s why we exist.”

This article is part of Bdaily’s 2024 Innovation Week, in association with Innovation SuperNetwork.

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