Why innovation is key to restarting the economy - comment

The coronavirus pandemic is bringing opportunity for firms with the right mindset, says Gillian Galloway, head of innovation at Highlands and Islands Enterprise.

Galloway praises 4c Engineering creating 7,000 visors for NHS staff. Picture: contributed.
Galloway praises 4c Engineering creating 7,000 visors for NHS staff. Picture: contributed.

The past few months have brought some of the most difficult working and living conditions in recent memory, and for many businesses trading has simply not been viable. The financial cost of Covid-19 on the Highlands and Islands has been widely reported and many are welcoming the cautious return to a more normal way of life.

The pace of life changed for many in the wake of the pandemic and we have seen several businesses across our region using this as an opportunity. Space allows creativity, and creativity engenders innovation. Many businesses have used this downtime to innovate, picking up projects and pipe dreams that have been left on the shelf during busy periods of trading.

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Innovation was traditionally associated with certain sectors, such as technology, life sciences and engineering, but the pandemic has brought with it the impetus to innovate across all sectors. Some businesses were forced to innovate when their ability to interact with customers vanished overnight. They found new ways to reach them, upping their digital marketing and online presence to remain front of mind.

This has opened up a world of opportunity, providing channels to reach more markets than ever before. Many are innovating without realising, having shifted business models from business-to-business to business-to-consumer via e-commerce platforms selling direct to consumers.

Every walk of life has been touched by the pandemic, from jobs, to schooling and education – even basic tasks such as going to the supermarket have changed. However, some sectors have seized opportunities relating to the Covid-19 response and diversified their offering, in areas such as testing, hand sanitiser or sensors for social distancing.

This is illustrated by Inverness-based 4c Engineering, which pivoted its capabilities to produce personal protective equipment for NHS staff at Raigmore Hospital. The technology development company identified a problem and came up with a solution: creating 7,000 Corran visors, made from locally sourced material. Highlands and Islands Enterprise’s (HIE) innovation team helped take this project to the next level by providing a Small Innovation Grant that resulted in a second iteration of the visors. This shows that even in the darkest of times, a spark of innovation can create a beacon of light.

Shake-up

Innovation in workplaces is playing an integral role in the return to work, from safe social distancing for staff, to staggered start times. This shake-up of the traditional workplace would never have been envisaged before the pandemic and is a positive for firms in the Highlands and Islands where less rigid notions of office working are often needed due to geography.

A great deal of what I’ve discussed shows examples of incremental innovation in a pandemic but just think of the possibilities when things start returning to a new normal. Every day, HIE’s innovation team helps businesses across the Highlands and Islands to adapt and innovate, providing bespoke advice.

We look at business models and share insight into markets. We walk through the various stages of product or service development, providing technical solutions and advice on intellectual property protection. We can also help identify the best funding for your project whether that’s HIE’s own Small Innovation Grant or research and development grants. We also provide support to apply to national funding calls.

Sometimes a business knows it needs to be doing things differently, but it doesn’t know where to begin. Our innovation team can carry out a review of your business to highlight areas ripe for innovation, providing an actionable plan. If a business has an idea but is unsure of next steps, we support you to develop a project plan to get a concept off the ground.

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And we facilitate collaboration with companies, academia or innovation centres when specific expertise is needed to take a concept to the next level. This virus has forced many businesses to reassess how they operate. It has acted as a catalyst for change, proving agile organisations that can adapt and diversify are the most successful.

There is plenty of change on the horizon. From operating in a post-pandemic world, to exiting the European Union, to complying with legislation around lowering emissions, companies must be flexible and we are here to help.

Life is in a constant state of flux where everything is evolving and businesses must evolve as well to remain key players, particularly in a post-pandemic world. By remaining open to adapting business strategies and models, challenging times are more easily navigated.

And by pulling together and sharing ideas and expertise, real breakthroughs can be made, ensuring a brighter tomorrow. This has been a troubling time for everyone, but hopefully it has given us all a chance to hit the reset button and provide a new beginning from which to build and innovate.

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