Bioeconomy Innovation – More than just technology development

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At NNFCC we have proven understanding of how innovation works, and it goes far beyond technical development.

Innovation drives economic growth and business resilience, however too often innovation is considered solely in the context of technical development. A far more complicated series of actions is required to transform an invention or scientific discovery into a product or process which provides value, in other words an innovation.

For manufacturing industries including biorefining and industrial biotechnology, this means implementing a process which produces a product for sale, therefore generating value from commercial revenue.

At NNFCC we’ve adopted Technology Innovation Systems (TIS) Analysis as a structured tool for assessing the effectiveness of innovation systems. Understanding the innovation environment around a technology allows companies to commercialise more effectively and Government to make considered and strategic interventions to support corporate innovation.


Innovation systems

Innovation can be considered to occur within an ecosystem, with multiple stakeholders performing a range of actions, all of which, play an important role in the innovation process. Identifying flaws and bottlenecks within innovation systems can lead to increased levels of innovation at a national level and within businesses.

An innovation system is built from components which provide the structure for the system. These components include the systems actors; the organisations contributing to a technology, as a developer or adopter, or indirectly as a regulator or financier; the institutions, which lie at the core of the ecosystem providing the rules and boundaries in which the system operates. Formal institutions include governmental laws and policy but informal institutions reflecting societal morals values and ethics are also important. The third component of the system is technological factors which define and constrain the system such as costs, safety or reliability.

Innovation relies on the effective interaction of the systems actors. Without this interaction, knowledge development and transfer will be limited; legal and regulatory frameworks could be misguided or inappropriate; entrepreneurs will be poorly informed on business opportunities and risks, and industry, academia and Government will struggle to find a consensus around the legitimate direction of technology development.


Assessing the effectiveness of systems

Based on an understanding of the innovation system components the analysis looks at how effectively seven inextricably linked system functions, discussed below, are performing. Careful analysis allows the identification of actions designed to improve the system and enhance the innovation process.

A TIS analysis asks questions about the legitimacy of development. The so-called direction of search refers to activities that shape the needs, requirements and expectations of the actors within the innovation system. Reaching consensus on the direction of the search allows effort to be focussed on specific technological options allowing the strategic deployment of limited resources. Of course, care should be taken that the search is not too narrow. For example, within the realm of public research funding for industrial biotechnology there is an ongoing discussion of whether, and if so where, funding should be focussed.

Any innovation will face a degree of resistance to change. The extent to which advocacy coalitions are formed is dependent on the nature of the change and the implications for market incumbents or society in general. Recent debates around food versus fuel and the use of genetically modified organisms demonstrate the importance of positive or negative advocacy coalitions for innovation. 

A clear direction of search creates the necessary conditions for knowledge development, TIS examines the learning activities which drive not only technological development but also the understanding of markets, social dynamics and sustainability considerations. Knowledge development considers academic research as well as the work of consultants and the benefits of ‘learning by doing’. In the UK, we have a world leading bioscience knowledge base providing a strong foundation for industrial biotechnology innovation.

Knowledge development clearly relies on a range of disciplines and expertise, and effective knowledge exchange is critical. Knowledge exchange and knowledge diffusion can be facilitated through the effective organisation and support of formal networks, through meetings, workshops and conferences and through project collaborations. The UK has invested in a comprehensive system of networks across the bioeconomy including 13 Networks in Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy, Knowledge Transfer Network Special Interest Groups and local cluster organisations such as Biovale.

Like any activity, innovation requires resources. The assessment of resource mobilisation looks at the allocation of financial, material and human capital within the innovation system. Resource requirements will vary depending on the nature of the innovation and its point of development but will include technical skills, finance and subsidies, infrastructure such as educational systems and technology scale up facilities and raw materials for manufacturing. The scale up facilities offered by BioPilotsUK form an essential part of the UKs bioeconomy innovation system.

Without an innovation sponsor, emerging technologies will struggle to compete against incumbent technologies. Market Formation assesses the activities that contribute to the creation of a demand for the emerging technology. Market formation may involve financial support for the emerging technology, or taxing the use of competing technologies. It may also involve the development of standards and labels or mandating the supply of a product, as seen in the renewable energy market.

Finally, to bring technical development to the market requires entrepreneurial activity. Projects need to prove the commercial attractiveness of the emerging technology in a practical environment. Access to finance, internal or external, rests on the entrepreneur’s ability to demonstrate the commercial viability and economic payback of the innovation.

At NNFCC we have spent the last 13 years working to understand how innovation happens, assisting Government departments and agencies in implementing innovation supporting policies and working with business to realise innovation actions.

Through two European funded projects we can practically support SME innovation in the bioeconomy sector. The Superbio and BioBase4SME projects provide networks of companies offering professional business services from market and life cycle analysis to business planning and technology scale up to support business innovation.

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For more information on these projects or to learn about working with NNFCC, look at our website,

 This article was written by Dr Adrian Higson, NNFCC's Lead Consultant on Biobased Products.