The Last Word: Estelle Blanks

March 8, 2021

Closing this month’s issue of North East Times, Estelle Blanks, the newly-appointed chief executive of Innovation SuperNetwork, discusses how grassroots policy development and better access to finance could help transform regeneration efforts across the North East and bring more innovative products and services to market.

As someone who has worked in economic development and innovation for many years, what do you consider to be one game-changing policy that could turbo-charge regeneration across the North East?

I don’t think the answer lies in one policy, but in truly transforming how policies are made.

For me, game-changing intervention is enabling policies that are devolved, has a basis in grassroots engagement, and considers local and regional issues.

Grassroots policy development and devolved innovation funding enables longer-term policies to be enacted, and results in increased and more sustainable potential impact.

Top-down innovation policy all too often restricts the potential impact by being time-limited and focusing on specific areas or industries. These policies can lack the nuance to consider issues affecting local economies, be less inclusive and stifle collaboration.

Why do you think this idea would deliver great benefits?

Access to innovation finance would be an area where we would see significant regional impact. We know there are some very specific issues impacting the amount of research and development we see in the North East. This includes a relatively low level of private investment in regional start-up and scale-up businesses, as well as available grant funding.

The challenge lies in instilling confidence in both businesses and funders to attract patient capital into the region.

We’ve seen significant success in this area when we leverage grant funding alongside private investment. The quality of businesses we have in the region speaks to private investors when we connect the two.

At the same time, we need to work with businesses to develop innovation pathways to undertake research and development and bring more innovative products and services to market.

Achieving this through devolved strategic policies and funding, which respond to local challenges, can set the region on a path to build greater market share nationally and internationally, increasing jobs and opportunities.

How will you look to drive this policy forward in your new role as chief executive of the Innovation SuperNetwork?

Building on what we have achieved in the last six years, our pragmatic and collaborative approach has paved the way for this multi-faceted method of engaging with organisations at all levels.

Our work through the Newcastle Angel Hub connects innovative companies with national and international investors.

We part-fund clusters working in digital, healthcare, social innovation, energy and manufacturing, with the aim of supporting disruptive businesses to not only increase demand for regional investment opportunities, but the supply.

Enabling the environment for regional businesses to develop in this way relies on an established innovation ecosystem.

We’ve worked with partners to strengthen this environment, allowing regional businesses to connect, collaborate and tap into networks and markets nationally and internationally.

Finally, our approach includes working closely with policymakers, from the North East Local Enterprise Partnership, combined authority and local authorities to Innovate UK and UK Research and Innovation.

This builds lasting partnerships and long-term collaborative programmes that have a genuine agenda to see growth for the region in sustainable industries.

Estelle Blanks