Break the barriers to keep UK global player

Andrew Witty, CEO of GlaxoSmithKline
Andrew Witty, CEO of GlaxoSmithKline
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Sir Andrew Witty has called for a new era of collaboration between academia and business to help Britain keep up in the global economy.

The chief executive of GlaxoSmithKline said the UK has an extraordinary wealth of ideas, technology and human energy, but is losing out to foreign rivals who are better at exploiting research.

Sir Andrew told the Yorkshire Post: “I honestly believe that if we can get this right we could create industries that ought to be this century’s equivalent of the shipyards and steel mills that transformed the industrial economy centuries ago.”

In a major new report published today, he calls for the elimination of unnecessary regional barriers, the incentivisation of universities to do more to enhance economic growth and major government backing for globally competitive technologies.

Sir Andrew said the natural instinct for universities and regions to compete is encouraged by government funding streams, when institutions and towns and cities should be working together to create world-beating factories.

He said: “We need to win on the global stage. The competition is everywhere else in the world, except Britain.”

He underlined the risk of British inventions building foreign industries.

Sir Andrew added that “a British invention revolution” has the potential to create five or six significant new industries across the UK over the next five to 10 years.

He said: “There was no smartphone industry six or seven years ago. Today we can’t live without them. That’s a sector that has exploded on to the global scene.

“What we need are some of those in Britain. I believe we have the raw material. We need to align ourselves and collaborate more.”

In his report, Sir Andrew highlighted examples of existing collaboration between academia and industry, including the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre in Sheffield, Leeds Metropolitan University’s high interaction with SMEs, Leeds University’s continuous professional development programmes and Bradford University’s support for start-ups.

Looking across the Atlantic, he singled out Boston’s cluster of biomedical companies and the technology industry in Silicon Valley as excellent examples of collaborative working.

Sir Andrew added that the future of UK manufacturing has to be founded on those ideas “bubbling away” inside academic institutions in places like Newcastle, Sheffield, Plymouth and Bristol.

“I’m passionate about UK plc and I’m passionate that Britain has a future in manufacturing. That’s what motivated me to get involved,” said the CEO, whose company had revenues of £26.4bn last year.

Sir Andrew said universities should be incentivised to play a greater role in local SME support and supply chain creation as well as coming up with breakthrough inventions and suggested this should become their “third mission” alongside research and education.

He also called for universities to establish a presence on the boards of local enterprise partnerships. And he argued that British universities should make it easier for small businesses to engage with business schools.

In response, the Russell Group of 23 leading universities, including Leeds, Sheffield and York, claimed that collaboration with business is a core part of the mission of all its academics.

“But we need to bridge the gap and help everyone work together,” said Dr Wendy Piatt, director general of the group.

“As Sir Andrew says we need to eliminate unnecessary regional barriers and marshal our resources ‘to run a global race’.”

She added: “Discoveries at our world-leading research-intensive universities have generated billions over the years.

“But it’s vital for the UK’s economy that ground-breaking discoveries make it all the way from idea to implementation and from prototype to profit.”

Julian White, of the White Rose University Consortium of Leeds, Sheffield and York, told the Yorkshire Post: “We need to find better mechanisms to unlock all the research that goes on.

“There is a huge number of examples where we are doing that, but we can obviously do better.”

David Willetts, the Universities and Science Minister, said he appreciated the perspective of a global business leader who bases a large proportion of his work in the UK.

“We know that universities are engines of innovation and have an important role to play in driving our industrial strategy.

“We will now consider the recommendations and respond mo-re fully in time,” he said.