The importance of innovation has been a constant and familiar message from policymakers and business leaders for many years. But what is innovation and what role does research and development (R&D) have in it?
Innovation can be defined as any new idea or improvement that brings commercial value. It can range from a new product to a new way of delivering a service or a new process that makes a business more efficient.
Older established businesses may have been doing the same things the same way for many years, achieving a low but steady growth that satisfies the business owners. But a failure to innovate can leave them vulnerable to new disruptors in the market – what’s happened to some of our familiar high street stores is a good example.
Conversely a willingness or hunger to embrace change can lead not just to survival but new opportunities for higher growth.
For many businesses, without R&D there can be no innovation. This is particularly true of businesses in sectors such as technology, the life sciences and manufacturing where bringing new products to market is key to growth.
Yet shockingly report after report has shown that the UK spends less on R&D than its major competitors. According to the most recent ONS figures, the UK’s R&D spend in 2016 was just 1.67% of GDP, less than the EU average of 2.03% and a long way from the EU’s target of 3% by 2020.
The same figures show that R&D spend in Wales was just 2.16% of the UK total. And businesses in Wales spend less on R&D than their counterparts in the rest of the UK – they only accounted for 61% of R&D spending here, compared to 67% for the UK as a whole.
Both UK and Welsh governments have put a lot of effort in recent years into encouraging more R&D spending and innovation among businesses. The UK Government’s R&D tax credits are designed to encourage companies to develop advances in science or technology that relate to their business. Both large and small companies can qualify for the relief, and the project doesn’t have to have been successful to qualify.
Meanwhile the Welsh Government has been working with science and technology businesses to promote a range of projects that will advance research and innovation, including a centre of excellence for digital and cyber security in Ebbw Vale, the Advanced Manufacturing Research Institute at Broughton, and the Data Innovation Centre in Cardiff.
In a world where technologies and skills are constantly changing, being successful means being at least abreast of the change – or better still, leading it. To achieve this means being first with the new ideas – and doing that takes research and experimentation, and the development work that turns a great idea into something of commercial value.
So if you want your company to be leading the market, look to your R&D.