Apr 25, 2024

Climate innovation: what role can universities play?

Alyssa Gilbert is co-chair of the UUCN, Director of Innovation at the Grantham Institute (Imperial College London), and Director of Undaunted – a partnership between Imperial and the Royal Institution. Ahead of Innovation Zero, she shares her perspective on the importance of universities in climate innovation. 

This blog reflects my personal experience working in a university on climate innovation, both at my home institution, and collaborating with universities all over the UK and further afield. I am always happy to hear, and learn from, other voices!

I believe that universities can play a transformative role in stimulating technology innovation for climate action. This type of innovation will only deliver part of the greenhouse gas emissions reductions and climate resilience that we urgently need. However, business model innovation will speed up the use of the technologies we already have, expanding their impact.

So what is the role of universities?

Many technology innovations are born in the research community – some within universities and others within innovative business settings. These discoveries and inventions need to be connected effectively to use cases, business experts and investment to grow and mature effectively.

In 2021, the UK Universities Climate Network (then, the COP26 Universities network) created an innovation showcase, sharing images of what research innovation looks like across UK universities. This project showed us that, across the UK university landscape, climate innovation is on the agenda of some researchers.

However, tapping into the innovative spirit is not enough – that’s why many universities now offer a range of support programmes for staff and students to build entrepreneurial skills. This type of support, which bridges the research and innovation world does not always have a clear home within university structures, nor an obvious funding source – factors which make it difficult for some institutions to provide the inspiration and structured support that proto-innovators require.

Programmes, where they do exist, vary wildly in their quality, pervasiveness and nature. In some ways this variety is helpful, creating varied ecosystems with their different strengths – some universities are better at delivering innovation via basic research, others at the prototype or manufacturing stage. On the other hand, sometimes this variety illustrates gaps, where we are failing to capture innovative potential as rapidly as we need to.

Universities are also often criticised by private sector investors for safeguarding intellectual property too closely, crippling the long-term prospects of the most ground-breaking technologies and inventions. It is tricky to find a balance between incentivising academic invention and entrepreneurship, delivering fair recompense to the university, unlocking university-level support for business growth and development, and offering a sufficiently attractive opportunity to private investors. Universities take different approaches here – with  the 2023 USIT guide from the TenU group of universities attempting to offer some consistency  and standardised approaches to intellectual property whilst providing clarity and a clear perspective of opportunities to inventors and founders

Also, we shouldn’t forget that universities have an equally important role in delivering the skills base for climate innovation via undergraduate, Master’s, PhD and other education programmes. The recent rise of programmes integrating climate change and innovation shows promise for the UK climate innovation pipeline.

So – what can you look out for?

Firstly, more work is being done help unearth research with a potential to deliver climate innovation – finding these solutions within our research base and rapidly bringing them to fruition is essential as climate change action becomes more pressing.

Secondly, I expect to see specific climate innovation activities grow in UK universities. In parallel, these organisations are collaborating more, sharing our different strengths and building a more cohesive innovation network with each other. The UUCN innovation sub-group continues to work in this manner, with plans for a new online showcase of climate innovation, as well as attempts to secure joint, rather than competitive, funding.

We will be presenting some examples of our work to support early-stage start ups at our panel event at Innovation Zero, highlighting a selection of programmes from those available in the Greenhouse Accelerator programme at Imperial, through to a programme in Cranfield University, activity at the University of Derby and the University of Strathclyde, alongside a perspective from the British Antarctic Survey. Please do join us there to find out more about what is happening across the universities landscape on climate innovation.

Thirdly, we should continue to build regional partnerships and relationships with related actors, such as the catapults, ARIA- the UK’s new innovation agency, Innovate UK and other public or semi-public actors with the potential to build a more effective and impactful climate innovation ecosystem.

In parallel, nurturing trusted relationships with private sector actors, particularly the specialist climate investors, who are serious about the sector, can help maintain delicate partnerships with universities to maximise potential success – both in impact and in commercial outcomes – and create cohesive community.

Taken together, the UK climate innovation community can strive for much higher ambition in terms of climate impact and commercial outcomes, if we work together. In this way we can learn from the success of other innovation ecosystems – like those in the US – whilst building in some of our unique characteristics.

I am a firm believer that all kinds of other innovation are required to enable successful implementation of climate innovations at the scale and pace at which we require them. For example, innovations in policy, civil society, research, and education are all essential. In this regard, universities are in a unique position to inspire, build, and reward joint working and partnerships within and between organisations to connect technology experts with those in social science, business, culture, marketing and the arts to deliver the full impact potential of climate innovation.

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