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Dr Ruth McKearnan on plans to spot the gazelles on the business horizon

Where do we find more entrepreneurs with ambition, who are not scared of taking risks and have a long view of business growth? It’s a regular question asked by Dr Ruth McKearnan, chief executive of the government body Innovate UK, and a woman on a mission. If this award-winning bio scientist is allowed the freedom to apply innovation to scale up small to medium enterprises, then it will be a refreshing alternative to the stop-start of previous government business support interventions.

Written by Paul Brown on 7th March 2016

Dr Ruth McKearnan on plans to spot the gazelles on the business horizon

Where do we find more entrepreneurs with ambition, who are not scared of taking risks and have a long view of business growth? It’s a regular question asked by Dr Ruth McKearnan, chief executive of the government body Innovate UK, and a woman on a mission. If this award-winning bio scientist is allowed the freedom to apply innovation to scale up small to medium enterprises, then it will be a refreshing alternative to the stop-start of previous government business support interventions.

On a recent visit to BioCity Nottingham, Dr McKearnan took part in a Wise Words event to share the highs and lows of her career in science, and to explain her hopes for the organisation she joined in May 2015. Despite the pre-Election commitment to innovation, the Chancellor took a tougher view on spending priorities, leaving organisations such as Innovate UK to produce more with less. Not for the first time in her career was Dr McKearnan faced with turning a negative to a positive; she handled the closure announcement and managed the transformation of the former Pfizer plant in Sandwich in 2011. Now she sees a better ROI for UK PLC by identifying the firms that will fly, firms such as SwiftKey launched by entrepreneurs Jon Reynolds and Ben Medlock with the help of a £75,000 Innovation grant and sold to Microsoft for £250 million.

If we are to see a step-change in the rate of transition from many start-ups to solid growth companies, the focused and analytical Dr McKearnan has a five-point plan, and she wants to engage us all in its progress.

First we need to pull ever more science and technology innovations out of the leading Universities. Innovate UK already works closely with the Research Councils and this begs the question as to who should take the lead.

Then there is the practical matter of scaling up to medium-sized firms; the Holy Grail of the business advisory world is to be able to separate the gazelles from the elephants. Whilst Innovate UK continues to provide highly competitive grant-funding for early stage R&D, to take a product to market – and through the valley of death – means turning to European project finance in the form of the Horizon 2020 SME Instrument. Fortunately, help is at hand in the East Midlands for anyone who needs to know more about this: http://www.tbat.co.uk/tbat-funding-clinic.aspx#FundingandProtectionforyourInnovations-Thursday10thMarch.

McKearnan’s third action point is to spread the impact of her team’s efforts across the whole of the UK, recognising the value of technology and science clusters in Scotland, the North West and the Midlands. She may be helped in this by the natural tendency for firms to flee north from an overheated and high-cost South East.

If her forth ambition is to be realised, the eleven new Catapult Centres need to be better networked. Sharing data, expertise, know-how and know-who works well for many an entrepreneur – so why not for these Centres?

Finally, McKearnan has a mind to challenge the way fast-growth firms are funded. She sees possibilities in merging funding models, the use of share options by the NHS in paying for clinical trials, a more sympathetic tax regime and a general review of the way things have always been done. Less than a year into her new post, Dr. McKearnan is not short of innovative ideas.

So, if you were sitting opposite the CEO of Innovate UK, what would be the one additional task you might give her as she heads into 2016? After all, it does sound as though she is very much on the side of business, and could benefit from your ideas.

See other blogs related to: Lifescience

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