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Engineers and Entrepreneurs Are the Key to Unlocking Britain's Innovations

Fri, 20 November 2015

Contributed by Ana Avaliani at RAE. The sixth blog in a special series celebrating innovation and using it to take your business idea and 'Make it Happen!'
Innovation may seem like an abstract concept but it is actually an intrinsic part of human development. Our recent report, Investing in Innovation, explains innovation as the process by which new ideas generate economic and social value. Innovation has led to great developments that have changed the way we live our lives and is tackling global challenges like creating greener energy and improving mobility. It is also fundamental to economic performance: between 2000 and 2008, innovation accounted for half of the UK’s productivity growth. Engineers play an important role in innovation. Sectors with high concentrations of graduate engineers report higher than average levels of innovation activity and innovation-related income, as well as higher levels of labour productivity. 
The UK consistently ranks highly on global scales of innovation – of 144 countries, the UK ranks 9th in the Global Competitiveness Index 2014 (GCI). Countries which score higher, including Germany, Singapore and Finland take great pains to boost their innovation performance. With an increasingly challenging and globalised market, it is vital that the UK looks to enhance investment in innovation to remain competitive. 
The journey from an idea to an actual product or service that can benefit people is not a linear one with a clear path. The UK has an exceptional research base and exceptionally talented inventors, but to turn ideas into reality, we need to ensure strong support of the innovation process, in order to bridge the so-called ‘valley of death’ – where ideas go to die. 
Entrepreneurs are vital to the innovation process, through their role of turning new ideas into real products and services. 99 per cent of UK companies are SMEs, yet they currently receive less than 4 per cent of R&D funding. Futhermore, due to the risky nature of early stage businesses, many can face a struggle to secure investment or support. It perhaps hardly surprising then, that so many SMEs fail before they reach their fifth birthday.
If we were able to improve SME’s chances of success, we would likely see a marked increase in the number of UK innovations being brought to market. So how do we improve those chances? Financial support is of course vital in helping start-ups get off the ground, and also in helping to de-risk them and ‘crowd in’ private investment to help them grow.
Other means of support can be even more valuable, however. By nature, many early-stage entrepreneurs or inventors often lack the requisite business experience and skills to take an idea to mass market. A group of experienced angel investors, for example, will be looking for communication, marketing and team management skills in potential investments, as well as technical know-how. Knowledge-based support can therefore play a huge part in the success of early-stage businesses, and their ability to innovate. 
This is exactly what we seek to do at the Royal Academy of Engineering Enterprise Hub. We connect entrepreneurs with business leaders who provide money-can’t-buy mentoring and advice. The Hub also provides grant funding, formal training and access to networks for engineering entrepreneurs.
The UK undoubtedly has a rich research base, but entrepreneurs hold the key to unlocking the commercial potential of Britain’s innovations. No one can turn an idea into a reality alone, so support is vital to help them succeed. Only then will we see an increase in our innovation output, and a rise in our ability to benefit from the ideas generated in the UK. Given the far reaches of effective innovation, and its significant return on investment, such support would see a return not just for entrepreneurs, but for us all.  

About Ana Avaliani (Head of Enterprise at the Royal Academy of Engineering)

Ana leads the enterprise hub team at the Royal Academy of Engineering. Before joining the Academy, Ana was a management consultant with PA Consulting Group, Technology and Innovation Consultancy, where she worked on a series of projects to support business growth and internationalisation. Prior to that Ana worked at the Greater London Authority and the University of Greenwich leading projects promoting industry/academic collaboration focused around new ventures. Ana started her career in telecoms sector, working for one of the largest service providers in Eastern Europe, scouting technologies coming out of Universities and Research Labs from around the globe.  She is actively involved in mentoring, working with the graduate students at the University of Cambridge. 
You can follow The Royal Academy of Engineering and The Royal Academy of Engineering's Enterprise Hub on Twitter at @RAEngNews and @RAEng_Hub

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