Innovation might be something of a buzz word within the business community, but for the North East, many believe, it’s the key to sustained economic growth.
As far back as 2013, Lord Adonis had identified the region’s strengths when it comes to doing things differently – and since then, the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) has been championing the agenda with considerable success.
In this context, welcome the return of Venturefest North East, a free full-day innovation conference bringing together businesses, corporates, investors, academics and advisers.
In 2014, 500 people attended the event and organisers are hopeful of attracting 100 more this year.
“We’ve been thrilled to receive overwhelmingly positive feedback from attendees and partners alike,” said Simon Green, head of business support at Newcastle Science City, which organises the event alongside the LEP and the Knowledge Transfer Network, with support from Innovate UK.
“The response has been incredible, with 94% of people interested in attending future events.
“We recently launched 2015’s event with around 150 people on a cold, wet January night, so people are really interested and engaged with Venturefest.”
He added that the conference gave attendees “time to get away from their day-to-day headspace” to explore new ideas and make new connections.
“It’s a great opportunity for businesses, entrepreneurs, investors and advisers to get together and push forward discussions around innovation,” he said.
“For those starting out it’s a way into the innovation community, to find out more about innovation across a range of sectors and how to implement it. It’s also a way to find out the latest regional and innovation policy, and to learn about funding opportunities.”
Beginning life in 1999, Venturefest started out as a charitable initiative funded by Lord Sainsbury.
The Technology Strategy Board – now Innovate UK – then took over, rolling it out on a wider scale. The initiative is now held in 10 UK locations, with the North East’s inaugural conference taking place last year.
Among the highlights at that event was a talk from Google project manager Joe Faith, who – in keeping with the ever-surprising theme of innovation – spoke of how speeding up one’s failure rate as an entrepreneur can speed up the rate of success.
He also discussed the process of creating a minimum viable product to gauge demand and test the market for ideas.
Simon Evetts of Wyle Lab, an adviser to the European Space Agency, meanwhile, tackled the theme of space medicine being applied on earth, while Dr Craig Gerrand of Newcastle Hospitals discussed 3D printing innovations in prosthetic limbs.
Also on the line-up were the Leighton Group’s Paul Callaghan and Matt Mead, who runs Nesta’s social impact investment fund for innovative ventures tackling major social need in the UK.
Throughout the day, a series of workshops were also held, focused on various specialisms, on top of one-to-one coaching and an Innovation showcase, highlighting new products from some of the region’s most innovative businesses.
More than 40 exhibitors offered business advice and, with help from GrowthAccelator, over 250 “elevator pitch” meetings were held between businesses and funders.
A total of 14 start-ups were offered funding at the event itself, while many more businesses made valuable connections leading to investment. Among them was Ami Davies, of BrandAmi, who is hoping to develop a prototype of the Little Explorer, a hi-tech, educational child safety device which provides an alert should a child leave a pre-determined safe place.
“Venturefest has enabled us to get to the stage where we now raising finance to get a prototype created,” she said.
“It’s gives you exposure to investors – when you start on this journey you don’t really know where to go.
“It introduces you to the process, makes you more aware of how many investment opportunities are out there and alerts you to the type of funds available.
“For me, it opened up a number of valuable investment opportunities, allowed me to make some great connections and helped me understand the investment process and what it is to make a business investment-ready.
“I don’t think you really understand it until you do it.”
Last year’s conference also featured a number of important announcements.
Innovate UK, for a start, chose the occasion to launch a new £2m national feasibility funding competition for the technology sector.
Roy Sandbach, who now heads the North East LEP’s innovation board, likewise outlined the organisation’s innovation strategy – the framework for an investment of more than £100m of European funding allocated to the North East.
To Professor Sandbach, innovation means the following: matching what’s needed with what’s possible for economic value and social good from anywhere.
And Venturefest slots neatly into that definition.
“Businesses have all sorts of needs and very often – particularly with SMEs – they need a relatively short-term solution or innovation or more knowledge or more expertise,” he said.
“In the end it’s all about finding those things somewhere.
“They are looking for breadth of knowledge and depth of expertise and networks.
“Venturefest is just one way of gaining that, but it’s an important and visible event that puts access to those things at the forefront.”
Prof Sandbach, who has worked internationally with P&G, added that, on a wider scale, the event was crucial in showcasing the strengths of the North East.
“One of my tasks with the innovation board will be to get a foot in the door with senior figures in innovation in big multinationals, encouraging them to do some of their innovation in this region,”he said.
“To do that, we’ve got to show our strengths in all sorts of directions, along with leading-edge thinking.
“Venturefest North East has been recognised as the exemplar against which others are being judged.
“We shouldn’t underestimate the value of that message.
“We need a region that looks leading-edge and credible, not one that has any sense of fragmentation.
“We are not second division. We have got to be premier league and Venturefest plays a part in that.”
Ian Tracey, head of access to funding and finance at the Knowledge Transfer Network, agreed, suggesting the event played a part in attracting investors from London and elsewhere.
The region, he added, was already growing levels of inward investment, as better-quality products triumphed over lower prices.
And where Venturefest shone was in its ability to create those all-important informal relationships from which great things could spring.
Recalling last year’s event in the North East, he said: “What I was struck by was the atmosphere inthe room – vibrant, busy and friendly.
“The innovations themselves were practical and useful – no wacky ideas, which was refreshing.
“The energy in the room was fantastic.”
Nationally, plans are in place to grow the Venturefest network further.
Before the North East event, meanwhile, potential workshop partners and speakers are being approached, with a full event programme to be announced later in the year.
Ultimately, it’s hoped the event won’t just be a one-off, becoming instead, as Mr Tracey put it, “the highlight of a year-long engagement”.
Venturefest North East 2015 will take place on Tuesday, October 13, at the Hilton Newcastle Gateshead.
Registration is now open at www.venturefestnortheast.com