In conversation…Lee Viney, Regional Manager from Innovate UK

Innovate UK is the UK’s Innovation Agency and this month's interview is with Lee Viney, Regional Manager for Yorkshire, Humber and the North East, who summarises just some of the support available to businesses and the importance of partnerships when it comes to innovation.

The LEP’s ‘In conversation…’ series profiles partners, academics, innovative businesses, support programmes and resources to share what they are working on, how they are encouraging innovation and what support is available for businesses looking to innovate in the Leeds City Region.

Innovate UK is the UK’s Innovation Agency and as part of UK Research & Innovation, they focus on helping businesses to commercialise new ideas – businesses that are leading the way and creating solutions to global challenges. Innovate UK helps them to grow, create jobs and realise the economic and societal benefits of their ideas.

As a non-departmental public body, Innovate UK is funded by Government via the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and has been fundamental to delivering the Industrial Strategy, working closely with policy makers on future plans and strategies relating to innovation.

To get a better idea of how Innovate UK can support businesses in the Leeds City Region, we spoke to Regional Manager for Yorkshire, Humber and the North East, Lee Viney, who summarises just some of the support available to businesses and the importance of partnerships when it comes to innovation.

Q1. Can you tell us a bit about your role?

I have a strategic regional engagement role to establish collaborative relationships with the local leadership and wider stakeholders, where they share our goals and ambitions to support the UK’s business innovation community.

These partners include the public sector through Local and Combined Authorities but also other Government departments such the Department for International Trade; the private sector through investors and professional services providers, Local Enterprise Partnerships and representative bodies such as CBI and the Chambers of Commerce; and research institutions, universities, and Research Technology Organisations.

These organisations alongside businesses, make up what is known as the ‘innovation ecosystem’ in the region. By working with them we can ensure that we are reaching and meeting the needs of the businesses that can benefit most from our funding and support.

My regional focus gives me a deeper understanding of what the strengths and opportunities are around innovation, what sectors businesses are operating in and what clusters they are forming. This knowledge is fed back into Innovate UK so we can collectively create a more granular picture of business innovation for the UK. It informs policies and programmes so we can achieve our ambition to maintain the UK as a globally leading nation in innovation and also support the government’s levelling up agenda.

Q2. How does Innovate UK work with SMEs and what sort of support can they access?

The first thing everyone associates with Innovate UK is grant funding, which is understandable. We have deployed a lot of money directly into businesses through our national competitions.

We don’t just provide funding, we use our wider convening power to influence what is happening in industry and the UK innovation ecosystem, drawing upon the talent that we have across Innovate UK, delivering impact for the economy and society. This is why we’re an innovation agency and not just a public funding body.

  • Grant Funding

We have funded businesses innovating in specific technologies and sectors through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund and the Smart programme supports any idea on a regular rhythm of funding calls. There is also the global programme through which we deploy funding so that businesses can establish international partnerships and access new markets

  • Finance

We have provided innovation loans to businesses with later stage ideas that are closer to market. We created the Investor Partnerships programme where we work with private sector investors, helping to crowd in more private finance, earlier in the innovation process. Both complement our grant funding with other types of finance for different stages of a business’s journey.

  • Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion

Our Women in Innovation and Young Innovators competitions not only provided funding but also highlight the importance of diversity in innovation for achieving the best outcomes and shine a light on the fantastic role models we have in the UK.

  • Free support

We offer free support through Innovate UK EDGE and the KTN, who work together to help businesses commercialise new ideas.

Innovate UK EDGE have advisors who can help businesses improve their management and leadership capacity, manage their IP better, become investor ready and access international markets.

The KTN helps people to connect and establish partnerships drawing on their international network of business, government, funders, research and the third sector.

There is also the Catapult Network, with centres in over 30 locations across the UK, giving businesses access to equipment and people that can help to accelerate their ideas through proof of concept to market.

  • Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI)

The SBRI is a process where public sector bodies can engage with innovative businesses. The best way to describe this is as an alternative procurement process where businesses are contracted to develop new to market solutions for public sector customers.

Q3. How do you work with the Leeds City Region Enterprise Partnership?

We have a formal commitment through the Devolution Deal and I sit on several groups and boards, including the West Yorkshire Innovation Network and Business Innovation and Growth Panel. However, I think the informal relationships with the team at the LEP are what really count, we are in regular contact and share knowledge and insights.

We have a shared ambition to continue building a balanced innovation ecosystem in the City Region that supports business growth and the best way to achieve this is in collaboration with regional partners.

The LEP’s Connecting Innovation programme helps to raise awareness of how Innovate UK works with businesses in the region and what support we have available.

Q4. How can businesses benefit from seeking external support?

Firstly, businesses don’t operate as autonomous entities – they are vehicles by which people come together to make decisions, take action and aim to create value in global markets. Secondly, no one knows everything – by looking externally people can acquire the knowledge and skills needed to progress innovative ideas and grow their businesses.

We know from experience of funding innovation projects that the most successful are those that have diverse teams created through collaborative partnerships, which is why we help businesses to look externally and create those partnerships.

It is important to step back and look at the bigger picture, see the opportunities to stay competitive and become more productive. External support can help with these things. Failure to make productivity improvements today might mean your business won’t survive tomorrow.

But that’s easy to say and not so easy to do something about. New things are often complex and require specialist knowledge, especially where they are not fully proven and risky. That’s where external partnerships and support from the organisations that make up the wider innovation ecosystem can really help.

Q5. How do you think innovation will help with our region’s economic recovery?

Innovation is a driver for economic growth during any period, through businesses realising the commercial opportunities of new ideas. In relation to the current economic recovery, I believe innovation will be an important driver where those new ideas are solving the particular challenges that the pandemic has thrown up for people and their businesses.

The pandemic has also given us an opportunity to maintain some of the environmental benefits that we’ve seen through lockdown and for a sustainable recovery. Innovation in the way we live and work will make that ambition achievable.

The adoption of new technologies, process and business models enable businesses to be more productive, competitive, and resilient, contributing to a more sustainable economy that is better able to deal with economic shocks. It also creates new, higher value employment opportunities which will be hugely important to support Government in getting people back to work.

Q6. What would you say is our region’s biggest asset?

Ultimately the biggest asset is the business base, and there is a lot of appetite for innovation in West Yorkshire and the wider City Region.

There is a lot to do to realise the ambition which is why I think the region’s greatest opportunity is the West Yorkshire Innovation Network, bringing together people from across the innovation ecosystem. The more trust that is built up, the closer those people and organisations work together, the greater the impact they will have.

Q7. What advice would you give to a business owner looking for innovation support?

Speak and connect to lots of people – start with LEP support or Innovate UK EDGE for example – speak with other businesses and peers. It’s going to take some time and effort but the benefits should outweigh the investment.

Simplifying the business support landscape has been the holy grail of economic development for as long as I have been working in economic development, and probably longer, with terminology like ‘hiding the wiring’ ‘single point of access’, ‘no wrong door’. The support landscape is complicated but there are plenty of people who can help to navigate the right way through it.

Also, work out what it is that you really need. People often chase funding, especially grant funding, but I’ve heard many times that funding wasn’t actually the highest priority once time and thought had been given to understanding the business needs.

Q.8 Can you describe what innovation means to you in five words?

Benefits realised from new knowledge.

I think this is true no matter what perspective you have: new to world, new to market or new to a firm, new to an individual, but there must be benefits and they have to be realised.

Further innovation support

If you are looking for help around improving or developing new products, processes or services please visit our Innovation page or contact our innovation team. Our team of Innovation Growth Managers, part of the Connecting Innovation programme, can connect and partner businesses with the right support for your project.

The LEP Business Support Service is here to help businesses, get in touch with our helpline to find out more.

Connecting Innovation is delivered by the Leeds City Region Enterprise Partnership (the LEP) in partnership with the West Yorkshire Combined Authority and is part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund.

West Yorkshire Innovation Network

The West Yorkshire Innovation Network has been established to bring together the range of innovation support from across the region, with the aim of better supporting businesses with their innovation needs. Through improved partnerships working across local, regional and national innovation players, we can drive up demand for the support available and improve the supply and provision for businesses.