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  1. Spotlight on Policy
21 February 2020

Innovation 4.0: Inside the first knowledge economy

The strategic director of the Materials Innovation Factory at the University of Liverpool on translational research at the heart of the North West

By Matt Reed

The first knowledge economy

The North West of England was the birthplace of the first industrial revolution. UCLA historian Professor Margaret Jacob describes the North West as “the first knowledge economy”, recognising it as the first region in the world to systematically exploit technological innovation to accelerate economic growth.

From cotton mills to canals, the North West led the world in innovation between 1760 and the 1850s, as pressing commercial problems drove innovative solutions and new science. This dynamic environment of translational research and innovation helped the region to create wealth directly from innovation. The same spirit of innovation helped to achieve broader economic prosperity for the UK.

An economic powerhouse

Today, translational research in the North West provides an opportunity to drive regional and national growth. The Liverpool-Manchester corridor (Liverpool City Region, Cheshire and Warrington, and Greater Manchester) has emerged over recent years as a dynamic innovation ecosystem. World-class research institutions, such as the Universities of Liverpool and Manchester and the Hartree Centre, are located in close proximity to the sites of globally-leading multinationals including AstraZeneca, Johnson Matthey, and Unilever. This corridor accounts for 7.1 per cent of the UK’s economy, more than £125bn gross value added (GVA) per year.

The Liverpool-Manchester corridor has strengths in advanced materials, chemistry, and formulations. These sectors employ more than 26,000 skilled people and contribute around £17bn GVA each year. There are over 1,900 small to medium-sized enterprises from these sectors across the region making a vital contribution to the supply chains of the big corporates. These strengths in industry are mirrored by academic excellence at the University of Liverpool and its world leading chemistry research. The combination of academic and industrial excellence in the region has created an unrivalled critical mass of materials chemistry expertise and innovation.

The importance of Innovation 4.0

Over 250 years on from the first knowledge economy, Industry 4.0 – or, the fourth industrial revolution – is transforming the UK’s manufacturing sector. At the University of Liverpool, our aim is to transform the scale, pace, quality, and impact of translational research. By re-engineering traditional innovation approaches we can help to accelerate both academic discoveries and commercial product launches. Through applying the digital technologies of Industry 4.0 to the innovation process, traditional research and development is being transformed into Innovation 4.0.

A materials innovation factory

Central to Innovation 4.0 is the £81m Materials Innovation Factory (MIF) at the University of Liverpool. The MIF is founded on a strategic innovation partnership between the University of Liverpool, Unilever, and UK Research and Innovation.

The 12,000 m² MIF facility is “open by design”, meaning the labs, staff, and advanced equipment, are available for use by academics and industry specialists alike. A dedicated team of technical experts is located on site to assist with experiments and train scientists on how to use our cutting-edge kit. Since opening in 2017, the MIF has attracted funding from commercial partners and the Henry Royce Institute – the UK’s national institute for advanced materials research and innovation. We are changing the way that functional materials are designed at the atomic scale by fusing chemical knowledge, state-of the-art computer science, lab automation, and digital research and development techniques.

Translating research into economic growth for the UK

World-class knowledge leadership in materials chemistry is the value-creation engine at the core of the MIF. We are home to pioneering and highly decorated scientists, including Professors Andy Cooper and Matt Rosseinsky who are both Fellows of the Royal Society. It is this scientific excellence which attracts funding and produces a constant stream of publications in quality journals. While grant income and scientific publications are the basis for creating value, to drive economic growth in the 21st-century, knowledge economy of the North West we need to translate this into other outputs:

• People: The scientific and technical research and innovation staff who have learned how to create and exploit new knowledge are the vital human capital of the knowledge economy.

• Patents: The high-value inventions that galvanise investors to back great ideas with expertise and capital.

• Partnerships: An essential means to create and exploit value. It is through a dynamic ecosystem of partnerships that great ideas become strategic knowledge based assets.

• Platforms: Modern knowledge economies are built on digital assets. They package and exploit know-how, create new partnerships, monetise and exploit clever ideas, and help to drive the creation of new knowledge.

The MIF is actively driving these outputs and delivering a step-change in the innovation productivity of our partners. Building upon the success of the Liverpool-Manchester corridor, strategic investments from regional and national government can support the widespread adoption of Innovation 4.0. This will accelerate future economic growth across the Northern Powerhouse and beyond, and help to stimulate and rebalance our national economy over the coming years.

Case Study: Pioneering materials study

Working with the University of Liverpool and the Hartree Centre, NSG-Pilkington – world leaders in the manufacture of glass and glazing solutions – aimed to discover new high-performance, transparent conducting materials, to underpin the development of the next generation of their market-leading products.

This research project was supported through a Knowledge Centre for Materials Chemistry partnership and EPSRC Impact Acceleration Account funding. It highlighted the opportunity for digital approaches to tackle problems across NSG’s global business and identified specific high-value applications in key markets including automotive, architectural glass and displays.

Through the application of Innovation 4.0 approaches, NSG have begun to embed computational and digital methods into the organisational culture of their R&D teams, creating new opportunities for materials research to drive new product development.

To learn more about Innovation 4.0 and the MIF, visit:

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