Support manufacturing and scaling as well as start-ups or you’ll lose the ability to innovate, warns Saïd Business School academic

Saїd Business School, University of Oxford

As the Government makes £15 million available to establish new University Enterprise Zones across the country, an Oxford academic has warned that too great a focus on short-term innovation could damage its long-term ability to innovate and grow. New policies are needed to encourage longer-cycle innovation and local production.

‘Liberal market economies such as the UK and USA believe primarily in supply-side policies in which laissez-faire venture capital markets and technology-push research funding drive innovation,’ said Dr Hiram Samel at Saїd Business School. ‘This over stimulates short-term innovation so we get thousands of app builders, but does less for the long-term, more complex innovation that yields national competitive advantage and local employment and growth. Our research in the USA has shown how a start-up culture leads companies with novel technology to move overseas at the crucial manufacturing and scaling stage, taking with them important knowledge, skills, and capabilities. Start-ups are great, but the Government should also look at policies to encourage longer-cycle innovation and scale-up.’

Dr Samel’s comments arise from a major study of the growth patterns of start-up companies in the USA. He says that the lessons drawn from this work indicate that the UK should implement new policies now to ensure that manufacturing keeps pace with innovation.

In a new article Samel and his co-author, Elisabeth B. Reynolds, executive director of the MIT Industrial Performance Center, revealed the preliminary results of their study of 150 start-up companies that licensed MIT technology between 1997 and 2008. They looked at growth patterns and, particularly, at the crucial move from the research and development phase to manufacturing, when it is common for companies to move overseas. According to the paper, ‘When firms head overseas to scale their products, the US loses the knowledge, skills, and capabilities that come with this next stage, and this diminishes its ability to innovate in the future.’

According to their research:

·         Although the availability of financing in the USA is conducive to start-ups, most investors, particularly venture capitalists, want to exit their investments within about seven years. This does not fit with the longer time-frames involved in scaling novel technology, such as advanced materials, life sciences, energy and semiconductors.

·         Being part of innovation ‘ecosystems’, such as Silicon Valley, Boston, or Austin, gave firms access to specialised resources and experienced suppliers which enabled companies to get their ideas into early-stage production.

·         However, companies faced financial constraints as they tried to scale. Only 6% raised funds through IPOs, with most finding the capital they needed from corporate investors, including multinational companies and governments. As a result of these new relationships with investors, companies often started their scaling up operations in the new partner’s country or production centre.

‘Our research took place in the U.S., but many of its lessons are applicable to other countries with a similar attitude to research and innovation’ said Samel. ‘When young firms head overseas to scale-up, they often take their tacit knowledge – the knowledge that has taken years to develop – with them. The originating country loses not only that knowledge, but also the chance to learn the skills and capabilities that come with the scaling stage. In the past, young companies scaled domestically and these capabilities stayed within the local industrial ecosystem, playing crucial roles in succeeding generations of innovation.

‘When firms scale new technology overseas they leave little trace of capabilities for future innovators, decreasing local investment, jobs, new businesses and ultimately economic growth. The nature of future innovation may be uncertain but we do know that it is built upon a foundation of continually evolving industrial capabilities. Once the centre of gravity for industries shifts to the manufacturing countries, so does the best talent and the most innovative technologies. The UK, USA, and other similar economies need to do more to make themselves compelling locations for scaling innovative, production-oriented companies’. is a B2B online publication for the UK business community.
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