To be serious about innovation, UK should help inventors and SMEs


In forming the United Innovation Association UK I found myself spending a great deal of time assessing the words coming from government. I paid particular attention to those politicians who constantly tell us that we, the ordinary public, share responsibility for supporting growth in the UK.

Frequently we’re told that enterprise, innovation and yes, invention, are the key factors in providing a sustainable future for the growth of UK business. Remember George Osborne’s Budget speech this year?

We want the words made in Britain, created in Britain, designed in Britain, invented in Britain to drive our nation forward. A Britain carried aloft by the march of the makers. That is how we will create jobs and support families.’

A stated priority of the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) is to ‘Boost enterprise and make this the decade of the entrepreneur’. BIS wants to

Help small and medium-sized businesses start and thrive through better business support, improved access to finance and stronger competition, with fewer market barriers to entry, creating a more entrepreneurial culture.

And two statements on the BIS website:

We want to make sure that Britain is the best place in the world to run an innovative business or service – this is critical to the UK’s future prosperity, our quality of life and future job prospects.


The Government’s vision is for many more people in the UK to have the opportunity, aspiration and motivation to use their talent and initiative to be enterprising and have an increased proportion of people starting a business.’

So all the right noises are being made and government is supportive of new enterprise at individual and business levels. Government wants the ordinary person to be more innovative and enterprising, and is eager to provide the support structure needed to make this happen.

Or so it would seem.

Over the past couple of months I have made direct contact with all the relevant government departments and agencies involved in innovation, enterprise and entrepreneurship. With the honourable exception of one agency, I have concluded that what is really meant by all the rhetoric is this:

The only ones who will benefit from the new enterprise and innovation culture are those who can afford to benefit.

By this I mean that if you already have the financial resources to take your innovation to market, you will get more financial assistance and support. Otherwise, you won’t.

There is no government support for organisations that can help SMEs or lone inventors to exploit ideas or innovations in the absence of finance, business acumen or innovation development knowhow. That’s many thousands of individuals and SMEs being ignored.

The priority is on supporting fast, high growth new technology. This kind of support, in my opinion, won’t significantly benefit smaller UK manufacturers as it mainly favours collaboration between universities and specialist manufacturing processes.

There is little or nothing for ‘ordinary’ SMEs who also want opportunities to grow, find new products and expand into new markets.

Invention and innovation is not just about high tech. It’s about all new ideas and all new products. It might be a new variation on a potato peeler or a light fitting. Not ‘sexy’ perhaps, but with commercial potential comparable to, if not greater than, many advanced technology innovations.

They all need designing, prototyping, testing, developing, manufacturing, marketing and retailing. Cumulatively, that’s a lot of work for a lot of people.

And all those ‘second class’ inventions and innovations generate welcome jobs and welcome tax revenues. Potentially that’s a lot of jobs, a lot of wealth and a lot of spending power. Lower tech innovation is also faster, often lower risk and more cost efficient to commercialise than advanced technology.

Where is the balance between longer term advanced technology and it finding market applications and the faster turnround product and service ideas that generate service and manufacturing jobs?

There appears to be a shortage or even an absence of government support for ‘bread and butter’ innovation by individuals or SMEs!

I’ve spoken to many manufacturers who are looking for new products to develop. Most are willing to consider equity, royalty, licensing or similar deals to assist the originator with the costs of invention development. But without the support of intermediary filtering systems and help for support organisations providing back-office and filtering services, the cost of supporting grass-roots innovation become prohibitive.

I’m told that on average it costs corporates around £100 every time they get an unsolicited request to support a new invention. And they can receive up to 30 such requests a day from around the world. How many SMEs could entertain even one a day at £100? All that cost, just to say ‘no’ to people!

The biggest issue in reality is that there is no shortage of inventive individuals, but very few are taught anything about enterprise and commercialisation at school. Even at university it isn’t a priority on most courses.

So we have a puzzling situation: our government wants more innovation but doesn’t actually encourage anyone (other than well-heeled businesses) to do it, either through the education system or through the business support system.

There may also be a cultural misfit between innovators (inventors, creatives, academics) and commercialisation. These people are not all seeking to build and run businesses. In a high percentage of cases they are seeking to license and sell off ideas to industry to commercialise. It is not enough to simply berate innovators for not possessing commercialisation interests or skills, and write them off. After all, do we expect accountants, investors and business managers to be inventors, designers and ideation specialists? No.

Therefore a division of labour model that respects the skill sets rather than forces square pegs into round holes might be more successful. The development of new business models that enable the generation of ideas to be licensed and sold off to industry for commercialisation could be more beneficial for all parties concerned.

Simon Brown: Founder, United Innovation Association UK


One Comment

  • DeepThunk
    25 Aug 2011 | Permalink |


    This doesn’t surprise me. In 2006 Business Link told me that no one in the UK was funding new ideas by start-ups or individuals. In the same year NESTA went back on its legally mandated role and withdrew funding for the same. They (or, more accurately, their hired consultants) stated that ‘individual inventors were of no benefit to the UK economy’. In 2008 I attended the first Technology Strategy Board conference – Innovate 2008 – and was informed “we are not interested in start-ups” and “having a fantastic idea is not enough” [to secure funding]. Apparently, Lord Sainsbury approved the former “rule”, so we were told.

    The result?

    EPO granted patents by country of origin for 2010:

    Germany – 12553
    USA – 12506
    Japan – 10580
    France – 4536
    UK – 1857