One of the winners at last week’s Chwarae Teg Womenspire was Dr Youmna Mouhamad who triumphed in the highly competitive Women in Stem category.

Naturally, the University of South Wales was delighted with this result as Youmna joined us as a Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE) Enterprise Fellow earlier this summer to develop her startup, Myana Naturals. 

This business is using patented technology to enhance black women’s haircare experience by facilitating the application of lotion to afro hair and our incubator, the Start-Up Stiwdio, will be working with Youmna to ensure that the product is launched to the market over the next 12 months.

The Enterprise Fellowship programme run by the RAE is one of the best kept secrets in supporting new technology-based firms in the UK and  was created to support innovative, creative entrepreneurial engineers who have an exceptional engineering innovation that they want to turn into a business. 

Not only does the scheme focus on giving fellows the confidence, skills and experience needed to succeed as an entrepreneur, but it also supports them with a network of expert advisors who are there to enable them to develop their innovation.

And it is one of the most generous programmes available to budding tech entrepreneurs in the UK, providing up to £60,000 equity-free funding, tailored mentoring and training, marketing and promotion support as well as access to the RAE’s drop-in workspace in central London. 

To date, the programme has provided training, mentoring and £7.5m of seed funding to 139 Enterprise Fellows across the UK. This has resulted in 622 new jobs and £148m of additional equity capital raised for the fellows’ businesses which suggests that whilst it is one of the best kept secrets in terms of promoting enterprise, it is also one of the most effective.

But it is not only in supporting engineers to become entrepreneurs that the RAE is making a difference to industry in the UK. It is also active in driving policy ideas and its latest paper, in association with the National Engineering Policy Centre, on the priorities for the next UK Government spending review should be required reading for politicians and policymakers in Westminster.

Its call for the UK to become a science, engineering and innovation superpower, enabling it to deliver the maximum economic and social returns from its investment in science, is one that will resonate with many in academia, business and technology organisations.

To achieve this, it suggests a number of priorities for the Chancellor to consider if he wants to level up the nation through investment in infrastructure, innovation and talent and increase jobs and skills in a post-Covid 19 economy.

The first recommendation is the creation of a national workforce planning strategy to address the long-term UK skills challenges across all sectors. This should be supported with a new evidence-based STEM (Science Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education strategy to address issues such as chronic shortages of physics, mathematics and computing teachers.

To complement this, the number of people completing higher technical qualifications and engineering apprenticeships needs to be increased especially as it has flatlined over the last five years. 

In terms of infrastructure, the UK Treasury should incentivise offsite manufacturing for new projects and low-carbon retrofitting for existing buildings to improve efficiency and reduce carbon emissions. It should also invest properly in broadband and 5G to support an advanced digital economy and support small businesses across the UK to upskill, adopt digital technologies and create new supply chain opportunities.  

There should be a focus on measures that encourage businesses to invest in research and development in the UK and take their prototypes through to commercial application. This can be achieved through enhancing current attractive funding mechanisms (such as R&D credits) and encouraging more joint ventures between government and industry in developing innovation across the economy.

Finally, there needs to be a significant investment in energy at the scale needed to trigger transformational change, especially in low carbon heat technologies, carbon capture, usage and storage, low-carbon hydrogen production and nuclear generation capacity. For example, a healthy hydrogen sector could unlock new pathways to net zero for many challenging high emission sectors including heating, transport, manufacturing and energy storage

Of course, none of the above recommendations above are new in themselves but it is heartening to see a coherent joined approach which embraces low carbon, innovation and digital concerns as being at the heart of the economy in the UK. 

It is worth noting that a number of the areas highlighted by the RAE, especially in terms of skills, are devolved areas of responsibility which gives the Welsh Government the opportunity to take a lead on some of the proposals to improve STEM skills here in Wales. For example, it could immediately address areas such as the current shortages in the number of science teachers, STEM careers education, and progression to post-16 academic and technical qualifications.

But the overall message from the RAE – that of developing the UK’s transport infrastructure, energy supply and digital networks to deliver an inclusive, sustainable economy – is one that both the UK and the devolved governments need to grasp if we are to create a new direction which will result in better jobs, quality of life and increased prosperity in every part of the UK over the next few years.

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