The journey of STEAMhouse

After nine years of international research, building communities and forging exciting collaborations, Birmingham City University (BCU)’s STEAM journey is culminating with the launch of the STEAMhouse innovation centre, a breath-taking five-storey building replete with world-class facilities. Joanna Birch – Director of Innovation, Enterprise and Employability at BCU – reflects on a rewarding adventure.

Posted 27 September 2022

Jo Birch at the new STEAMhouse building.

Supporting innovation in Birmingham (and beyond)

The idea for STEAMhouse geminated over an 18 month period, building considerable desk based research, international benchmarking and local insight. 

The model on which STEAMhouse is based came together in a meeting room in University House.  After some hours of reviewing the essential ingredients of success, the team built the baseline for the STEAMhouse building you see today.

With its main focus around supporting innovation, the model used the key ingredients, of collaboration across expertise, through clusters, across knowledge, policy, practice and business using the ingredients from Birmingham’s coat of arms – the combination of Science and Arts.  It met our determination to be the University for Birmingham and our mission to work with individuals to transform their lives to help them achieve their potential.

As we pulled together the model, I don’t think we realised the true scale of this opportunity. We knew that we had something fresh, something that aligned with the DNA of BCU and the region, but we didn’t envision it reaching the heights it has.

Since starting this incredible journey, our STEAM work has:

  • Created 65 new enterprises, who have constructed 75 new products;
  • Forged 27 linkages globally, including a new innovation centre in India;
  • Formed a connecting group of academics, as well as STEAM fellowships for academics and STEAM degrees for PhD students;
  • Won and been nominated for a number of accolades, including Times Higher Education Awards.

Personally, I feel the journey has been incredible, and yet it feels like it is just beginning…

Providing better support for startups, entrepreneurs and creatives

STEAMhouse began by bringing together brilliant minds from across the University, alongside key strategic partners.  Bringing in creative practitioners formed a key element of the process. From these discussions, we put together four lines of enquiry:

  • Birmingham’s proud heritage – The city was built on the artist and the engineer, so why not use this industrial transformation power to reimagine innovation for the future?
  • Better support for startups – Birmingham was performing strongly in startups but struggling for sustainable growth, with our innovation core and ecosystem outputs lower than they should be.
  • Increasingly complex innovation challenges – We needed to bring fresh thinking into interdisciplinary approaches in order to solve problems.
  • Assessing international research – This yielded some interesting findings, namely bringing together different actors in ecosystems in order to support a more effective transfer of ideas.

We spent months reaching out to industry, practice and policymakers to review the challenges, understand knowledge gaps and collect substantial global evidence to review how these ecosystems were working.

To complete the process, we undertook visits to makerspaces in Europe, the USA and Canada to understand how these innovation places worked. We wanted to ensure we got the right mix of skills and ambitions in our community, so that we could harbour a real collaborative philosophy.

Understanding the needs of the region

Chapter one, arguably, began with the launch of the STEAMhouse Pilot, which opened in Digbeth in 2018.

Those early days were all about understanding our users, their needs, what processes worked and what impact that we could make. Essentially, this pilot would tell us as much about what not to do as what to do.

We learnt about what kit people need and we discovered how powerful our technical team were in delivering innovation results. We have learnt how to ensure innovation in Birmingham is delivered in a cost-effective, efficient and quick way.

As time progressed, we grew to embrace a number of partnership projects to develop tools and techniques. We then enhanced these with global research on best practice, supported by field visits.

New members of the team were introduced, as well as new services, and we saw a community of users grow.

The pilot confirmed to us that the theory worked but, more than that, it incentivised us to work harder to ensure we brought our ultimate vision to life.

The next chapter

It is such an exciting time to be a part of BCU. The past eight years of research, collaboration, hard work and knowledge exchange has led to the opening of our new STEAMhouse innovation centre.

It is a magnificent building that will drive innovation and bring together practitioners, creatives and businesses from different walks of life in order to think differently, do better and achieve more.

We have created a vibrant community of practice, and with our recent accreditation from the Institute of Innovation and Knowledge Exchange, it is positioning us as the innovation HQ for the region.

All of this will help communities take their ideas and opportunities to the next level, implement and scale them, becoming part of a wider innovation community in the process.

There are lots of incredible buildings in the UK and they field some amazing innovation. However, not all of them facilitate great communities of practice.

I really hope STEAMhouse becomes known not just for its amazing Victorian façade and history, but as a place of energy that inspires and enables amazing ideas to become reality.

Furthermore, I hope that those who engage can access the skills, knowledge, insight, production capacity and peer-to-peer friendships that I believe will drive progress.

The journey has been more than eight years long, but along the way we have kept iterating, engaging with our community, reviewing and adapting. Hopefully, as a result, we have created robustness in our thinking and gained a strong alignment with the needs of users.

As we move forward, this feels like the beginning of a new chapter. The journey continues…