Charlotte Horobin, Membership Director, Midlands & East of England at EEF, led the second panel session of VenturefestWM 2018, which explored the many different ways that product and process innovation happen in a business to business (B2B) environment. 

Charlotte’s fantastic panel was made up of Dr Andrew Mair, Chief Executive at Midlands Aerospace Alliance; Dana Elman, Policy Advisor for Innovation, Federation of Small Businesses; and Paula Gary, Head of Procurement of Midlands Metro Alliance.

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The Panel: Charlotte Horobin; Andrew Mair; Dana Elman, and Paula Gray

Andrew described the breadth and depth of the aerospace supply chain across the Midlands, where innovation doesn’t come from university spin-outs, but from a sustained focus on moving innovations up the supply chain – a ‘from the bottom up approach’ to innovation.

This contrasted with Paula’s experience of the construction sector, which operates in an environment where contract overruns are costly, so trying out new ways of doing things is seen as unnecessarily risky.  This reality, coupled with an ageing workforce has meant that the construction sector has been poor at innovation.  Paula talked about her work heading up procurement for the delivery of 34 km of live tramways across the West Midlands, and the effort her team are putting in to reach down the supply chain and into the workforce to uncover better ways of doing things – a real culture change!

Dana talked about the FSB’s recent survey into innovation in SMEs and how much of the constant innovation in smaller companies is about incremental rather than radical innovation. 76% of smaller businesses said they have introduced a change in a product, a business process, an organisational change or a marketing approach, all of which is innovation in its widest sense.

This led to an interesting discussion around the language of innovation, and how the word itself can mean different things to different people.  Some thought innovation could be a dirty word, and that the simpler ‘making things better’ is a term that everyone could understand.

The panel rounded off the session by summarising their views on how more B2B innovation could be encouraged. The FSB had some specific recommendations in their recent report, requesting tax relief on management training costs, and grant support for innovators to adopt digital technologies.  Other suggestions included having internal innovation champions, having buy-in from the bottom up and the top down, and encouraging a culture which values new ideas. Everyone agreed that the West Midlands has a fantastic pool of talent and a deep well of ideas, with a great history of making things happen.

(Author: Jane Holmes, Innovation Alliance for the West Midlands)

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