If we want to build strength in places and tap into talent across the UK, we must create the conditions for success, argues Midlands Mindforge CEO Lisa Smith.

University of Birmingham's Aston Webb Building, a red-brick building with a glass dome ceiling housing the student support services

Since the establishment of the second UK university in the 13th century (University of Cambridge), higher education institutions have been in constant competition with each other. University league tables and systematised ranking systems have fuelled this competition further. What started as academic rivalry has developed into a multi-million-pound industry, with universities employing whole teams dedicated to climbing the rankings and leapfrogging their peers.

Our modern challenges — from the future of artificial intelligence to adaptation to climate change to the next frontier of space exploration to the challenges of an ageing population — cannot be solved by one university alone, no matter how skilful its researchers are. The scale and complexity of the challenges mean that the future must, and will, be increasingly defined by the products of collaboration — between universities, industry, government and civil society more broadly. 

Collaboration means building strength in places, creating ecosystems of support which enable talent to flourish. In the UK, university spinouts and startups outside the Golden Triangle of London, Cambridge and Oxford continue to struggle with securing the requisite funding for up-scaling. 18 of the top 20 research council spinouts from the research-intensive universities exist in the Golden Triangle. The lack of critical infrastructure and an enabling financial ecosystem outside of London have become the most serious obstacles to having more scale-ups from across the UK.

This means that regions like the Midlands, despite overflowing with talent and ideas, remain underdeveloped in terms of their commercial and economic output. If we are to build regional confidence and develop strength in places, we must bridge these funding gaps and make finance accessible to these incredible talent pools across the UK. 

Universities in the Midlands are leading the way in establishing the collaborative working practices needed to generate collective solutions. Recognising that our social challenges require co-created solutions, the universities of Aston, Birmingham, Cranfield, Keele, Leicester, Loughborough, Nottingham and Warwick have joined together to create Midlands Mindforge. The organisation aims to knit together investors, researchers and spinouts into a network which will enable sustained business scaling, building on the excellence which exists at a local level and unleashing the potential of the region. 

In pooling their research strengths as part of this joint endeavour, these universities have built the foundations on which the talent of the Midlands — through its diverse innovators, home-grown entrepreneurs, researchers and spinout businesses — can flourish and be recognised on a global stage, bringing the Midlands to the world and the world to the Midlands. 

Their collaboration will also magnify the strengths and outputs of the existing centres of excellence across the Midlands, providing world-class lab space and research on top of which a consolidated and enhanced financial ecosystem can be created.

The BioHub Birmingham, created by University of Birmingham and Birmingham Health Partners, was designed to house life science companies from proof of concept through to expansion and its facilities have attracted businesses from across the UK. These forms of collaboration — between industry, academia and finance — can turbocharge the Midlands’ and wider UK’s economic growth. They can help create a virtuous circle of more successful spinouts attracting more talent and more employment opportunities in the Midlands.

Between them, the university co-founders of Midlands Mindforge already have 126 active spinouts with an estimated £1.1bn total value, all delivering real-world impact and supporting the UK’s ambition of becoming a global “science superpower”. There is an incredible opportunity to build on this base and to leverage the region’s historic research strengths — including the Midlands’ medical pedigree through University of Leicester and the work taking place at the universities of Lincoln, Harper Adams and Keele around agri-food technologies — to harness the next wave of scientific innovation and bring it to the Midlands.