Investor in Innovations

Supporting post-pandemic recovery through innovation

Universities proved their worth during the Covid-19 outbreak and now they must be at the forefront of innovation if we are to rebuild our economies post-pandemic. Professor Julian Beer explains how Birmingham City University is taking that vital step.

The UK Government’s Innovation Strategy flagged the rich diversity of structures and approaches in the global R&D response to Covid-19 and emphasised the need to nurture university-business interaction and knowledge sharing to drive future innovation.

This role has been strongly echoed by industry, exemplified by CBI president Lord Karan Bilimoria, who stated that “universities have a key role within research, skills and innovation, which is going to drive the UK to build forward better”.

As cited in the evidence for the UK Innovation Strategy, whilst many UK businesses are at the cutting edge of technology, too few currently excel in adopting existing innovations. As such, the percentage of UK businesses that were innovation-active declined to 38% in 2016-18 from 49% in 2014-16.

Universities’ future impact on supporting economic recovery

  • Over the next five years, UK universities will:
    • Provide over £11.6 billion of support and services to small enterprises, businesses and not-for-profits;
    • Attract £21.7 billion of national and international public funds to spend on collaborative research with businesses and organisations.
  • Universities’ contribution to local regeneration projects will have a value of over £2.5 billion.

Source: Universities UK/ Frontier Economics (2021) The Economic Contribution of the Higher Education Sector in England.

From a regional perspective, innovation in Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) areas across the West Midlands has historically lagged behind the best-performing English regions. The Enterprise research centre, for example, cited an innovation gap in Greater Birmingham and Solihull and the Black Country LEPs of 8-12% below English best practice.

Consequently, universities such as Birmingham City University (BCU) must ensure that we embrace our position at the heart of economic and social transformation, whilst also ensuring that appropriate mechanisms are in place to empower innovation-led recovery.

Underpinning interdisciplinary, collaborative support

BCU’s mission is to be the ‘University for Birmingham’ through facilitating growth, innovation and productivity. This is exemplified by our unique and pioneering work in STEAM-based innovation - an interdisciplinary cross-collaborative approach that combines STEM with arts, driving innovative capacity and solutions to today's challenges.

The government-backed STEAM agenda has underpinned new interdisciplinary and collaborative research partnerships, driven open innovation with regional and national businesses and entrepreneurs, and facilitated considerable levels of public and community engagement through access to facilities and workshops, whilst also making a substantial contribution to local growth and regeneration.

Reflecting the aforementioned importance of partnerships to advance growth and innovation, BCU has undertaken a significant level of outreach activity with regional businesses, policy-makers, and entrepreneurs. This has underpinned the creation of a new suite of customer-led tools and products to support open innovation, address complex problems, and drive post-pandemic recovery.

Examples of BCU support for innovation

  • Supported over 215 newly registered graduate start-ups from 2017-18 to 2019/20.
  • Over 6,000 interactive and engaged relationships with small business - 1,691 formally assisted to start, grow or innovate since 2017/18.
  • Ranked 9th in the UK, and 1st in the region in terms of volume of Knowledge Transfer Partnerships.

Sources: i) HESA (2021) Higher Education Business and Community Interaction Survey; ii) BCU; iii) Innovate UK KTP Monitor (2021)

STEAM-based open innovation

As an example, since opening in 2018 STEAMhouse Phase 1, the physical manifestation of the STEAM approach at BCU, has become a pivotal hub for the West Midlands. The centre has built regional innovative capacity through the creation of a collaborative community, driving growth through developing business ideas, skills, knowledge and ambition.

Over this period, STEAMhouse has welcomed nearly 18,000 visitors, and provided 7,500 hours of support for early-stage businesses to establish and grow, and for small to mid-sized enterprises to develop business strategies and turn concepts into prototypes. This has resulted in 275 businesses assisted to innovate, the formation of 65 new enterprises, and the launch of 73 ground-breaking new products.

The government-backed STEAMhouse Phase 2 building, a £70m, 120,000 square foot collaboration and innovation centre, is scheduled to open early 2022.

The Covid-19 pandemic and the various measures introduced to slow its spread required the use of embedded STEAM tools and practice at BCU to reimagine service delivery, embodying our applied approach to innovation.

Across 2020/21, innovative new products and services were introduced, enabling us to pivot an offer to over 475 members from being tactile and physical, to one that was remote and hands-off. This included an online learning platform, specialised STEAM learning kits for home delivery, and a remote prototyping and production service enabling members to keep innovating, co-creating, learning new skills, and developing business ideas.

The government-backed STEAMhouse Phase 2 building, a £70m, 120,000 square foot collaboration and innovation centre, is scheduled to open early 2022. This will enable businesses, academics, artists and innovators to benefit from the deployment of 5G and state-of-the-art IT facilities, creative project space, and dedicated facilities for STEAM learning, prototyping and co-working.

National accreditation for commitment to innovation

The Covid-19 pandemic and current government strategies such as Build Back Better also underlined the vital importance of innovation and reinforces the need for a bold vision from which to move forward. In this context, BCU is proud to have achieved the Investor in Innovations Standard Accreditation aligned to ISO56002 from the Institute for Innovation and Knowledge Exchange (IKE Institute) – just the second university in the country, and the first in the region, to be handed the accreditation.

In addition to our work in developing STEAM, the unique quality mark also recognises our work with businesses and partners to drive innovation and growth, as well as the ground-breaking research taking place across the institution across a range of disciplines.

Business and research partnerships play an essential role in driving innovation activity – a vital enabler in levelling up the UK’s economy.

Whilst providing a benchmark for innovation output, the award also places onus upon continued growth and development of innovation practice, and knowledge exchange supporting regional innovation capabilities and innovation readiness.

Accreditation will underpin the delivery of the highest quality development pathways, innovative practice and learning for the regional business community and practitioners, alongside our student and staff body, driving productivity, diversification and economic prosperity.

Business and research partnerships play an essential role in driving innovation activity – a vital enabler in levelling up the UK’s economy. Working with the IKE Institute, we will strive to support improved innovative capacity, through an agile, practitioner focussed, collaborative and responsive system.

Professor Julian Beer FIKE is deputy vice chancellor for Research, Innovation and Enterprise at City of Birmingham University.

For more information about STEAMhouse, visit

Featured image: STEAMhouse at BCU.

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