Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Innovation the key to unlock a competitive future for Wales
By Jonathan Kestenbaum, chief executive, NESTA | 2 Oct 2006

There was a time when Wales could build an economy just by optimising for efficiency on the back of a competitive manufacturing export base. That period is now coming to an end. Instead, if we are to compete economically as well as solve the social and environmental problems of the 21st century, we must maximise our capacity for innovation.

This fact is increasingly being acknowledged and this week Cardiff will host the inaugural Innovation Wales - the technology exhibition & conference. The event will bring together a wide range of hi-tech companies, venture capitalists and public and private bodies to consider how Wales can capitalise on its vast innovative potential.

A few years ago one commentator wrote that Swansea could become a 'Welsh Silicon Valley', and it is imperative that Wales has the self-confidence to regard such ambition for its university cities as viable and credible. To do so it must work to enhance and integrate the ingredients necessary for an innovation economy to prosper: well-established links between higher education institutions and businesses so that ideas can be nurtured into commercial successes; a sufficient and diverse pool of start-up funding so that young companies can get off the ground; and the presence of a large number of creative individuals to come up with new ideas at the outset.

At NESTA, we use the largest single source of endowed funds in the UK to invest in start-up businesses and ensure that these projects are effectively mentored as they strive to develop into successful companies. Across Wales, we have, so far, invested in 29 projects and businesses totalling £1.5m and recognise that innovation is not merely a safeguard against future economic stagnation, but vital to solving contemporary problems.

Used Tyre Distillation Research (UTDR) in North Wales illustrates exactly this point having just opened a recycling plant to help turn the estimated 50 million tyres discarded in the UK each year into feedstock for use across other industries. UTDR’s system is green, economical and fulfils a pressing need given that the most frequently used manner of disposal – landfill – is now outlawed under new EU environment rules.

Similarly, Swansea-based Starbridge Systems is developing a revolutionary new micro-pump for use across a range of medical disciplines, but which could be particularly important for diabetes sufferers. With the disease now reaching epidemic proportions across the world, Starbridge is being supported by NESTA as they look to advance a prototype to allow sufferers to carry a three-day supply of insulin on their body, and so lead a safer life less inconvenienced by the need for regular injections.

Starbridge is, in fact, part of the well-documented Technium Wales network which provides specialist incubator facilities for hi-tech, creative and knowledge-based businesses. Indeed, Wales has an encouraging number of programmes in support of such firms, including the Wales Innovation Relay Centre, CTI Wales, SmartCymru, the Technology and Innovation Group and the much-vaunted Wales Innovator Network.

All these organisations have looked to enhance Wales' capacity for innovation, but still more can be done across the country to ensure that young Welsh companies have improved access to high quality, bespoke early stage business support during the difficult first steps of their development.

Money is only one part of the equation for these firms, and all those involved in attempting to bolster innovation must look to boost the soft support available in the form of access to networks, mentors, role models and expertise.

The question of how best to transform the UK’s capacity for innovation is becoming one of the leading issues of our day. Politicians from all sides are beginning to realise that the challenges of wealth creation, employment and environmental decline all point inexorably towards innovation as the common solution.

The media is starting to pick up on this trend, and politicians must build on this momentum to formulate a national mission for innovation – a mission in which Wales has a pivotal role to play.

Innovation Wales takes place at Cardiff City Hall this Tuesday, October 3 (9am-7pm). Entrance is free.

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