Igniting innovation through deep tech SMEs is the focus of RSC-backed Westminster event
The Royal Society of Chemistry last night led calls for greater support for the transformative deep tech SME ecosystem at a special parliamentary event.
23 May 2023
Tanya Sheridan, our Head of Policy and Evidence, highlighted our Change Makers programme as one support network open to innovative research-intensive chemical ventures. She said she also hopes to see others help to catalyse high-potential science-led businesses during a speech at a Parliamentary and Scientific Committee (P&SC) meeting in the House of Commons.
Sponsored by the RSC, the event was titled ‘The Deep Tech SME Ecosystem – Supporting research-intensive SMEs to maximise their contribution to economic recovery’ and took place in the heart of British politics.
Among the attendees were figures from across the political spectrum, including Conservative MP and PASC Chairman Stephen Metcalfe, who chaired the discussions and is a member of the Science, Innovation and Technology Committee; fellow Tory MP Adam Afriyie; and Labour peer Stephen Benn, 3rd Viscount Stansgate, who is also the P&SC President.
Four speakers from across the scientific community came together to highlight the benefits of building a more supportive ecosystem for chemical businesses in the UK.
Tanya’s introductory 10-minute speech was followed by messages from Oxford nanoSystems founder Dr Alexander Reip; Professor Martin Freer, the Institute of Physics’ (IOP) Vice-President for Science and Innovation; and Dr Joe Marshall, the Chief Executive of the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB).
Tanya (pictured right) expressed the view that the RSC can serve as a hub bringing policymakers, the public, the finance sector and entrepreneurs together to encourage progress within the scientific R&D ecosystem.
Citing our Change Makers programme – and its forerunner, EnterprisePlus – and pointing to our efforts to engage with policymakers at UK government level and across the devolved nations, she emphasised the RSC’s commitment to giving fledgling companies the support they need to overcome the hurdles they face in their formative years.
Deep tech chemistry SMEs are R&D-driven businesses working to develop major breakthroughs and technologies and have the potential to create entire new markets or shake up existing ones.
The innovation taking place within these companies is such that they have “the potential to generate significant social, economic and environmental benefits which far exceed the direct benefits to the businesses concerned,” according to our 2021 report, Igniting innovation: The case for supporting UK deep tech chemistry.
However, these organisations face notable challenges, with significant amounts of time, research and capital all required before there is any prospect of a return on investment. There are also issues when it comes to providing sufficient skills, facilities and networks to fully harness that potential.
Dr Reip added that more training and knowledge-sharing are needed to help give those launching science spinouts the skills necessary to successfully run a business. He also praised our Change Makers programme, citing it as a good example of how to improve networking in the start-up and scale-up marketplace.
Having founded Oxford nanoSystems in 2012, Dr Reip provided real-world insight into the investment landscape in the UK. After noting that he believes British investors tend to be more risk-averse, he said there is a need for a programme for investors that could help them better understand their role in deep tech SMEs.
Professor Freer followed up by discussing the IOP’s UK facilities review and research into physics’ place in the UK economy. An IOP survey shows there is an appetite from SMEs to invest in R&D, with 91% planning to do so, and he said partnerships with universities are important for new businesses.
He then expressed a need for greater research and investment in skills development, even looking at early-stage education pathways to encourage more young people into STEM careers. Professor Freer would also like to see greater risk-sharing between the investor and public sectors to boost confidence and encourage experimentation.
Dr Marshall, who spoke about the NCUB’s belief in the importance of investment zones and partnerships with universities outside the ‘Golden Triangle’, also said there are contrasts between the UK and America when it comes to investment in deep tech SMEs.
He pointed to the fact that it is often entrepreneurs who invest in these types of businesses in the US, as opposed to slightly more impatient financiers in Britain, and observed there is more fluidity between industry and academia across the Pacific.
Echoing the views of the earlier speakers, Dr Marshall also stressed that there needs to be better access to finance, talent and infrastructure if Britain is to capitalise on its wealth of scientific opportunity.
The event concluded with an interesting Q&A session, with Tanya stressing that science often has the answers to global problems and said a longer-term perspective is needed when it comes to devising an industry strategy – a sentiment backed by Dr Reip and Professor Freer. Dr Marshall added that the 2017 commitment by Theresa May’s government to invest 2.4% of GDP into scientific R&D has not been followed up on by subsequent administrations.
This discussion was just one RSC-sponsored event that connects policymakers with science leaders. It follows on from March’s STEM for Britain event at Westminster and precedes next month's RSC-organised event in Wales, Science and the Senedd.
Policy and Evidence Team
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