A note from Nick Sturge, Engine Shed Director: the innovation ecosystem

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In celebrating a major milestone – five years of growth for us – it’s normal to reflect on one’s successes. This month I’d like to focus, however, on an area that we haven’t put a huge amount of effort into, despite it being an overt plank of what we say we’re about.

30% of the surplus that we generate from operations goes into our Development Fund and a chunk of that has been put aside, over the five years, to spend on projects or activities that we think will stimulate new areas of innovation or strengthen nascent innovation areas. It’s not been about supporting innovative companies (that’s within our Growth agenda, and the SETsquared incubator) but aimed at more systemic change. One of our advisers has been saying that we should be demonstrating robotic hosts in our Members Lounge, but I don’t think that’s it either.

To date we have used some of this money to subsidise new meetups and innovation-led networks, and in 2016, we seeded a £45k project (with £1k of our money) with the Digital Catapult’s IoT Boost programme to create a low power radio network and support programme for IoT start-ups. But little else. Partly because we’ve had plenty of other stuff to do and partly because there hasn’t been a loud crying need, so our attention has been diverted.

There are some technology areas which I have always thought should be stronger clusters locally, but for some reason aren’t, such as MedTech, FinTech, and PropTech (to use the common parlance). These areas are bubbling, but Bristol & Bath is not known as a major centre for these. Does that matter? Not necessarily, unless the small number of companies in those areas would benefit from there being a stronger cluster.

Today we are announcing our first innovation partnership, as an experiment to see what role we can play here. We have partnered with Geovation, the innovation arm of Ordnance Survey, to provide access to data and services for GeoTech and PropTech start-ups – and reciprocating by offering existing national Geovation members access to our Members’ Lounge, events and SETsquared workshops.

We are leveraging our network of hubs, incubators, and accelerators in the region so that all start-ups who are members of those other entities have access to the benefits of this partnership, because that’s the best for the region. Our launch event is on 1st February and I encourage you all to promote this to companies that might be interested in understanding more about Geovation and our partnership: geovationbristol.eventbrite.co.uk.

We are looking for ideas on what else we can do to stimulate innovation in the region – so when you’re next in the Engine Shed Members’ Lounge, why not make a suggestion on our Graffiti Wall (but be quick, it’s only there until 19th February).

What we will be looking at is the recent Nesta report on Inclusive Innovation. Inclusive Growth is so last year. But seriously, it is becoming increasingly obvious that we must find ways to enable citizen-led innovation not only to engage a much wider demographic into economic activity but also to ensure that the products and services that we create are grounded in the needs and language of the users they should be serving. And, for that matter, for societal benefit. Is it helpful, for example, for the technology behind AI, that will increasingly permeate our lives, to be predominantly developed by white, male Californians?

I think this is a huge opportunity for Bristol & Bath to take a lead on and at Engine Shed, we’ll find a way of nudging that forward.

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