My top ten tips for BIG success

A young businesswoman laughing with a colleague

I was recently invited to be the keynote speaker at the launch of a new programme of business support – BIG South London. BIG which stands for Business Innovation & Growth – will help businesses tap into the wealth of expertise, knowledge, skills and talent on offer at universities.

Across the country, we are witnessing local empowerment when it comes to enhancing regional ability to focus upon local innovation strategies. When Universities, Science, Research and Innovation Minister, I saw for myself the ever-forming landscape emerge of new initiatives, new partnerships, driven not from the top down, but by institutions and business recognising the power of collaboration to deliver growth for the future.

In 2017, the UK set itself a goal of reaching 2.4% of its GDP to be invested in R&D. Compared to the US, China, Germany, Israel or South Korea, this would be a modest target – yet still requires us to double our public investment in R&D, from £12 billion to £24 billion, and our private investment from £35billion to over £70 billion by 2027.

Thanks to announcements from Government last spring, we have in place the public side of this investment. Our challenge now is to see this investment grow, with the state as venture capitalist, helping to make strategic investments of national importance, but also to see a return on that investment through leveraging in further private R&D investment.

This requires not merely money, but the capability for research and innovation to be applied and adapted at scale. And no amount of money can achieve this without the structural support in place to deliver such growth. It’s why partnerships that aim to do so for their local region are so valuable – for the state cannot and should not do everything – local businesses and regional university networks know what best they excel in, and where best to invest to deliver the greatest degree of a return on that investment. 

Government and the state can and should play a role in setting national priorities as well as a strategy for delivery. It’s why the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy along with Research England have spent considerable time planning the roll out of the Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF), so that collaborative research activity and its application is recognised as a valuable part of a university mission. As Minister, I signed off on a process that would see the KEF embedded in every university, not as some additional bureaucratic exercise done to institutions, but as an opportunity for those institutions to prove and demonstrate their work, to inspire others to take similar steps.

I’m sure that BIG South London will feature prominently in the strategic responses to KEF of those university institutions contributing to its development – and it deserves to. For Universities delivering for their local communities, opening their doors to business, is an essential part of the KEF. I am keen to explore how better we can reward and invest in local impact and ensure the benefits of R&D can be felt locally and make a difference across all communities. If we cannot then taxpayer investment in R&D is itself placed at risk for the future. 

Within that context I warmly welcome the creation of BIG South London and the opportunity it allows me to reflect upon the ten lessons that I believe all such partnerships should heed if they are to be successful and sustainable:

  1. Focus on outcomes, not processes. Structures are important at the outset in creating important governance and accountability structures, but they should be your servant and not your master. Don’t waste time endlessly planning process when change can start now. Keep things simple. What do you wish to achieve, and how will you achieve it? 
  2. Don’t do too much. Work out your strengths then work to strengthen them. In a crowded field, understanding what value you are going to create and add is vital. How do you, as the South London region, fit into key national priorities such as net zero or climate change, and what can you do for the nation that makes you unique. Find your USP and start selling it.
  3. Put institutional pride and political conveniences aside. These are short term conveniences and often a distraction. Don’t chase projects for any other reason other than your core outcomes and objectives. 
  4. Equally, you are not in this partnership to defend ideologies, maintain the status quo, nor to be another public sector alliance. Your priority should be the outcomes you have defined – no matter how uncomfortable it becomes.
  5. Share in each other successes and share your failures together as well. And be prepared to fail but learn to fail upwards and fast. You will either succeed as a team or fail as a gathering of separate institutions. 
  6. Be prepared to take risks- but calculated risks based on the strengths you have defined.
  7. Place is important, but people are more important. How you build relationships, and your reputation depends on how you treat people. Build your foundation on respecting people and their work. Please – no non-disclosure agreements, no exploitative IP agreements, no zero hours contracts that encourage a precarity among early career researchers, no sudden and unexplained redundancies. If it feels bad, that’s because it is. Reward and incentivise your people and your faith in them will be rewarded many times over.
  8. You will have many businesses that seek your help, but the real impact you have will be felt in reaching those businesses who didn’t come to you. Small business isn’t small minded – they sometimes simply don’t have the tools or experience to realise the value of working with Universities and the help you can provide to expand their horizons and ambitions. Equally your efforts must start from understanding how they can provide you with the knowledge you need to help them – not what you think they need. In this, a focus on skills as much as innovation will be needed.
  9. All this takes time – don’t expect instant results, do expect to go backwards at times and don’t be defensive. Your mission, if pitched well. should stand the test of time.
  10. Finally, you don’t need to constantly justify yourself. Results will speak for themselves. Delivering results requires the core principles that again must always be at the heart of your mission – dedication, a willingness to leave ego at the door, and an enthusiasm to embrace new methods of working, new technologies for the future.

Perhaps some people will wonder why now, especially with the potential economic impact of the pandemic, in a time of recession and job losses. Whilst there is no perfect time to start anything in life, only those who seize the present moment get the chance to define their future.

The pandemic has demonstrated that there is a hunger for change, for new ways of working and new means of adapting. Remote working, more flexible patterns of working, I believe will be here to stay, creating interesting new opportunities for the South London region and its economy. Even in the pandemic, there are encouraging signs that business sees the huge potential of the South London region, with its high concentration of highly skilled graduates, a growing and innovative university sector, not to mention world class facilities such as the National Physical Laboratory at Teddington, or for those committed to promoting the humanities and its importance, the National Archives at Kew. There is a vibrancy, and a potential that south London and the region offers for growth, for facing the future, that is attractive.

Post-pandemic, quality of life, quality of living space, will matter more than ever. And what better quality of life than having the unique opportunity of access to an international capital on your doorstep, combined with equally enviable access to some of the best parks and countryside in the country? South London as a region may have some way to catch up with the productivity of the city’s financial quarter, but now, perhaps more than in any decade in a generation, is the time to ‘level up’.

Good luck and I look forward to hearing about your future successes.

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Rt Hon Chris Skidmore MP



Posted 12/02/21

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