Bringing a "bold approach" to innovation and RD
Sarah Windrum is Chair of the Coventry & Warwickshire LEP, Sarah is also a former vice-chair of the Skills Board at Tech UK and was an industry advisory board member of Ada, the National College for Digital Skills. Here, she explains how the LEP is playing a vital role in innovation and R&D that's making a real difference to what levelling up means at local level.
“Supporting innovation and investing in research & development are threads which run throughout CWLEP’s Strategic Reset Framework whether we are focusing on levelling up opportunities or transforming infrastructure.
“Over the last decade since LEPs were formed in England, CWLEP has enabled the development of soft and hard infrastructure across our geography to drive innovation.
“Projects like the National Transport Design Centre, Very Light Rail, Transforming Nuneaton, and the Daimler Powerhouse are all examples of the capital investments we have made from a number of Government initiatives including the Local Growth Fund, Growing Places Fund and, more recently, the Getting Building Fund. These investments provide space and opportunity for new innovative activities and the development of intellectual property.
“Our partnership approach to infrastructure investment has been paramount to our success since 2011; and one great example for innovation is our consortium bid alongside Coventry City Council and WMG, at the University of Warwick, to create the UK Battery Industrialisation Centre (UKBIC) in Coventry – officially opened by Prime Minister Boris Johnson in July.
“UKBIC is a 'jewel in our crown' providing world-leading research & development in battery technology for innovative, low carbon, and zero waste processes to manufacture batteries for the future of mobility from electric vehicles (EVs) to aerospace.
“Investment in UKBIC has also led to innovation across the supply chain. I spoke to a power electronics business last week based in Wellesbourne – currently specialists in marine and aerospace – who are diversifying into the EV market as a result of the proximity of such a facility combined with the proposed West Midlands Gigafactory.
“Our bold approach is key to helping enterprising businesses expand into new markets and CWLEP’s support here is vital for the long-term future of Coventry & Warwickshire’s economy and the creation of more highly-skilled jobs.
“Our investment in soft infrastructure includes programmes like Made Smarter, which is led in the West Midlands by CWLEP Growth Hub in collaboration with our regional partners. Made Smarter is a 12-month business-led innovation programme shaped by our collective insight into the current innovation challenges faced by our Coventry & Warwickshire companies.
“The West Midlands scheme focuses on helping manufacturing and engineering SMEs utilise new digital technologies such as AI, advanced robotics, big data and wearable technology to improve their efficiency and productivity. It is also about building leadership and management capabilities for innovation within SMEs. The fact that 100 businesses have signed up since June speaks volumes about the demand for this kind of support.
“The Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) and WMG are leading organisations in driving innovation across key sectors, and supporting SMEs in particular, and it is an honour to work with them and have them based here in Coventry and Warwickshire.
“When I became Chair in April, my first official visit on my very first day was to the MTC, where I learnt about their support for around 600 SMEs every year. The MTC team help businesses from across the UK to develop new products and processes, often to win new tenders, by allowing them access to the latest machinery and infrastructure before purchasing. The MTC is also about to launch a 5G private network with WM5G to help us plan and design the engineering workplaces of the future.
“CWLEP’s Strategic Reset Framework is designed to attract and keep highly skilled jobs in our area and we are working closely with Coventry University and the University of Warwick on the diffusion of innovation across clusters as well as supply chains.
“A great example is Silicon Spa in Leamington which is recognised as one of the UK’s largest and most globally significant games development clusters. We are exploring how games technology, especially immersive capabilities, can be used in manufacturing, healthcare, and future mobility as well as learning and entertainment. Innovation in neural networks, spatial audio, and mixed reality all have multiple applications in the new experience age.
“It is vital to continue our close partnership working with both universities and our Further Education sector as they are crucial to future innovation through their role upskilling our existing workforce and inspiring young talent.
“CWLEP and our Growth Hub are also building stronger support for the commercialisation of innovation by linking businesses and support programmes with investors and access to finance. Coventry & Warwickshire sits at just less than one million people and we have a real opportunity to create demand and scale for next generation products and services, particularly in the green economy. I am determined to strengthen our narrative as the home for research & development in key sectors and enabling technologies.
“It is a complex landscape for innovation through UKRI and Research Councils, Innovate UK, private investor networks, the European Regional Development Fund (soon to be the UK Shared Prosperity Fund), and university support. We can only do so much to simplify the complexity; but, what has been much valued by companies in Coventry & Warwickshire, is our focus on ensuring support is connected for businesses throughout their innovation journey.
“CWLEP has a crucial role to play in continuing to drive innovation for a changing world and supporting research, development, and commercialisation of next generation products and services. We will continue our partnership working to successfully deliver investments which are creating jobs, boosting the economy, and improving growth in the heart of the UK.”