Addressing the large number of innovation inactive businesses was identified in the West Midlands Science and Innovation Audit as a key opportunity to increase regional productivity and growth. As one of the two objectives of the Innovation Alliance WM is to build and maintain a thriving innovation ecosystem, the Innovation Alliance WM tasked partners to look at enablers and barriers to SME innovation and how business support might be adapted to tackle our long tail of innovation inactive SMEs.
On 23rd February, we ran a workshop on innovation support for SMEs in the West Midlands. The aim of the workshop was to explore existing WM SME innovation support programmes, how they can be enhanced, and if there are gaps which the Innovation Alliance WM and its partners can fill through catalysing collaborative efforts. The workshop was attended by SMEs, LEPs, Growth Hubs, sector and business support organisations and Science Parks, and had a particular focus on demand pull and business need, rather than knowledge/ technology supply side push.
Background research identified a wide range of innovation business support activities available in the WM. However, it was agreed that these activities were sometimes disconnected and results focussed. Whilst it was understood that this was often a consequence of the rules associated the public funding of many business support programmes, it does mean that collectively innovation support is not optimised to SME needs. There is also a wide range of private sector led innovation support, often from sector specific membership organisations or from banks, but this is less visible to the public sector. This can make it difficult for signposting and brokering organisations to navigate the varying support options, and of course it can be a challenging landscape for individual SMEs.
Discussion at the workshop further centred on the enablers and barriers to SME innovation and how they could be enhanced and overcome respectively. Networking and knowledge transfer activities are strong in the WM and need to be maintained and developed further, although it was noted that this will become more challenging with the loss of European funding, unless alternative support is negotiated. These networks should be used to build better connections between innovation programmes. We also considered finance, skills and leadership, as well as local promotion and brokerage to help business understand the benefit to be gained from engaging in innovation. Note, a separate blog on finance for WM SMEs will be published shortly, but other key challenges and opportunities that came out of the discussion were:
Workshop participants identified a range of actions to be progressed by those present and wider partners in the Innovation Alliance WM. Some of this was around building on the convened group and the data presented at the workshop to strengthen networks and share knowledge of programmes and good practice. However, the Innovation Alliance WM Executive team will also take some specific actions and facilitate further discussion on project ideas over the coming weeks/ months, including:
- The next Innovation Policy and Practice event on 3 May will consider good practice in two regional businesses that have been continuously innovating to thrive, and we will continue to showcase successfully innovating businesses via various channels.
- There will be a Pitchfest and ‘Venturefest-Lite’ event on 27th September and a full VenturefestWM event in March. This barriers and enablers identified in the workshop will strongly influence the programmes – watch this space.
- The next Innovation Alliance WM Blog post will be a refreshed look at WM Finance for small businesses.
- The Innovation Alliance Executive will work with partners to Create example roadmaps of end-to-end support for SMEs to share.
- We will catalyse the development of collaborative innovation support projects, such as a pilot for rolling out the MAA approach to supply-Chain innovation across other sectors.
- We will encourage partners to Influence discussion on future funding (eg post ERDF) from an SME perspective.
The Innovation Alliance is a coalition of the willing and as such we need your support to help us progress these next steps, taking this discussion forward into action. If you would like to receive information from the Innovation Alliance including upcoming workshops and events, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Authors: Sarah Newton & Jane Holmes, Innovation Alliance WM)