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Innovate UK finally prepares to launch search for permanent executive chair

Innovate UK is finally preparing to launch its search for a permanent executive chair, nearly a year after the neuroscientist Dr Ruth McKernan stepped down from the investment agency’s top job.

The government said in November 2017, when Dr McKernan announced she was to leave her role as chief executive, that it would launch a recruitment campaign to find a successor “shortly”.

According to an announcement published at the time, it was expected the successful candidate would become the agency’s “first executive chair”, a role created to reflect Innovate UK’s new position within UK Research and Innovation.

“The introduction of UK Research and Innovation is the natural transition point and an opportunity for a new leader to refine the organisation, and continue to drive business innovation in the UK,” McKernan said in a statement.

But five months later she remained in post and assumed the new job title, before Ian Campbell, Innovate UK’s then health director, took over on an interim basis the following month. However, nearly 12 months on, the government does not now expect to appoint a permanent chair until this Christmas.

“The overall objective for the recruitment campaign on which the executive search agency will be delivering is to appoint an exemplary candidate to the [Innovate UK] Executive Chair by Christmas 2019 and UKRI board non-executive members by October 2019,” according to a tender notice unearthed by Tussell and seen by NS Tech.

The government is offering a recruitment agency up to £60,000 to fulfil its wish list, which includes five candidates for the executive position and 10 for the non-executive director roles. A recruitment agency will be appointed by 23 April and expected to deliver candidates before the end of September.

The successful candidate will be tasked with growing Innovate UK within UK Research and Innovation, which subsumed the agency as part of the government’s industrial strategy last April.

The proposals were met with concern from some members of the industry. In response to a public consultation, the Royal Academy of Engineering said there was a “lack of clarity regarding the strategic intent behind the integration proposal”.

“Considerable effort will be required to ensure that creation of [Research UK] does not increase bureaucracy by adding an extra layer in the management chain,” it added. “These changes should be framed as a means to improve the administration of research and innovation rather than as an exercise in reducing administrative burden.”

After the government’s industrial strategy and grand challenge funds were unveiled, the Royal Academy of Engineering softened its approach to the government’s plans. “The ISCF and the developing Industrial Strategy more broadly are important steps in readdressing the balance between investment in research and innovation,” it said in an evidence paper submitted to parliament’s science and technology select committee.

But the academy added: “This should not be at the expense of, or prevent, Innovate UK from expanding its core activities. The recent research and innovation budget allocations show a decrease in Innovate UK’s core budget, from £714 million in 2017-18 to £695 million in 2019-20 (these figures exclude allocations to Innovate UK to administer the Wave 2 of the ISCF).”

The agency has recently rolled out a series of loans designed to complement its existing portfolio of financial products. “While a diversity of approaches to innovation support is necessary, there remain serious concerns about whether innovation loans will incentivise the type of risky innovative activities that grant funding does,” the academy said.

A spokesperson for Innovate UK said the agency had always envisaged that a permanent executive chair recruitment campaign would take place in 2019. He added: “The Executive Chair has delegated authority and autonomy over the remit of Innovate UK, determining the strategy and funding for business-led innovation, and working with the CEO of UKRI and other Executive Chairs to drive forward the mission and vision of the organisation.”