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Incubators as an engine for growth

By David Kidney, Executive Chair, West Midlands Health Technologies Cluster

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David Kidney, West Midlands Health Technologies Cluster

I was pleased to chair, in March, a roundtable about health tech incubators as an engine for growth in the West Midlands. This was a roundtable co-hosted by my organisation, West Midlands Health Technologies Cluster and the Greater Birmingham & Solihull LEP’s Growth Hub.

In the West Midlands, there exists a patchwork of health tech incubators offering supported workspace, sometimes discounted costs and in some cases major extra help such as mentoring and access to specialist equipment.

These incubators feed into a whole health tech ecosystem which is strongly supportive of successful businesses.

It all amounts to an offer which is supportive of spin-out, start-up and growing businesses in our region as well as attractive to businesses from elsewhere into our region.

The aim of this roundtable was to examine one of the tools that we have for supporting businesses, namely our offer of incubators.

We wanted the audience – a diverse representation of the skills and geography of our region – to appreciate the contribution incubators already make and help us to develop them to be even more impactful.

We heard about the evidence and academic underpinning of the value of incubators.

Amongst the benefits are a strong stimulant of innovation and a place for growing not just businesses but skills training for leaders and managers.

It was recognised that incubators represent just one tool among many, and of course we were mindful of the interlinked nature of the range of tools at our disposal. For example, businesses ready to move on from incubators will need advice, technical support and move-on accommodation.

It was satisfying to learn that we have a firm consensus in the region about the value of incubators and how we might strengthen the value they add to our region’s health tech sector. My summary of our conclusions is that:

  • We have existing health tech incubators and we know what works;
  • There is a regional commitment to make support more joined-up;
  • Flexibility of the offer of support is key;
  • Incubators are places where innovation is valued and promoted;
  • Upskilling of managers and leaders is a feature of existing incubators;
  • Jobs in health tech will increase because businesses can grow on; and
  • We should work together to create a pipeline of interconnected facilities and services to support our health tech companies and sector to thrive.

I was grateful to our two academics from University of Birmingham, Doctors Abigail Taylor and George Bramley, for their presentation about what the evidence tells us already about incubators as an engine for growth.

We also heard of an inspiring case study about Unit 9 at Birmingham’s Research Park from the Growth Hub’s Andrew Shortt and Birmingham Research Park’s Angie Reynolds.

Everyone was impressed by this example of an opportunity seized and at a reasonably modest cost.

The Cluster and the Growth Hub have agreed to act together on the findings of the roundtable.

Our plan is to develop the region’s offer on incubators both to offer flexible support services to their business users and to fit these services demonstrably in a whole-system support for growth in the health tech sector.

We will stimulate innovation in the design of incubator services. They do not all have to be offered in buildings, some may be provided virtually.

Incubator provision in buildings may take many forms – wet and dry laboratories, clean rooms and more – and the business models of a variety of providers will vary.

The design must take account of business needs for technical advice, access to specialist equipment, administration and mentoring. They should in themselves be places for skilling up managers and leaders.

We will strive to make our region’s health tech ecosystem even more supportive of successful businesses.

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