Four students from the University of Warwick were chosen to work closely with Innovation Alliance for the West Midlands to explore the world of innovation. We were allowed to do this in-depth by being a part of Venturefest West Midlands 2019. Venturefest WM is a platform for entrepreneurs, investors and innovators to meet, exchange ideas which could lead to investment, inspiration or collaborations for growth-focused businesses. From registration and client-facing to keynote speeches and Pitchfest, the event was oozing with energy.

New ideas, new techniques, new solutions all under the same roof, being presented not only to investors and attendee’s but to service providers offering products, services, advice and support. Venturefest no doubt exceeded expectations, we witnessed the most creative ideas and spoke to the most passionate individuals about their projects.

Going into Venturefest and seeing the range of people, companies, institutes which were present I expected to observe a lot of competition between different stakeholders. However, it was surprising, yet refreshing to have experienced working in an environment where there was nothing but a sense of appreciation and admiration for one another’s work and commitment.

Furthermore, such an ambience gave me the confidence to be able to interview various stakeholders such as the Chief Executive of Sustainability West Midlands, Anna Bright, on the importance of an event like Venturefest WM. Hear her thoughts here…

Not only this but engaging in conversation with the representative from the University of Warwick Science Park, who are amongst the sponsors of Venturefest, allowed me to gauge the amount of effort going into supporting and promoting innovation in the West Midlands. Being able to have access to the greatest minds and the biggest players when it comes to innovation in the West Midlands was a monumental opportunity that Venturefest enabled me to experience.

Nonetheless, as awe-inspiring as the rest of the event was, the highlight of Venturefest, for me, was Pitchfest Heats 3. Pitchfest, a pitching opportunity which has previously put 100 entrepreneurs directly in front of investors and helped bring over £3,000,000 of investments to the region’s small businesses. I was lucky enough to be covering Pitchfest Heats 3, where the third set of finalists pitched their products to a panel of judges. This particular exhibition stood out the most to me, as it not only enabled me to pick up on the do’s and don’ts of successful pitching but made me realize that innovative ideas know no bounds. This is because the pitches included products, from recyclable tyres, composite braiding to a new type of poppadum snacks or an event management software. Covering Pitchfest heats 3 reiterated what innovation meant to me. Caroline Bishop, chair of InnovationXchange said it best, “we’ve all got skills and resources we can use, we just need to apply them differently.”

(by Mishaal Bhurgri)

This 4-week internship has been spectacular. It has enlightened me on my strengths and weaknesses and has exposed me to the opportunities present in the professional environment.

We began the internship by attending Venturefest as both staff and delegate. Being a part of the team managing the reception desk allowed me access to the diverse backgrounds of the audiences that attended Venturefest. I was pleasantly surprised to know that people of different ages and professions were interested in innovation. From students and researchers seeking inspiration from existing and rising entrepreneurs present at the conference, to long-time businessmen and women seeking ideas to reform and adapt their current businesses to evolve to new ventures. This taught me two lessons:

  1. It is never too late nor is it too early to start thinking and contributing towards innovation.
  2. Innovation cannot happen in a silo, open collaboration and discussion through conferences like Venturefest allow the free flow of ideas beneficial to all parties who want to achieve success in their ventures.

I attended two workshops and the final afternoon keynote session during Venturefest. Detailed blogs regarding the content of these events can be found in the links here. The key takeaways from these sessions that I believe are essential for all students, fresh innovators and entrepreneurs alike are:

  1. Collaboration is key: The purpose of Venturefest was to act as a bridge to network innovators and entrepreneurs to wider audiences of investors and the public. It is important that start-ups capitalise on these opportunities by actively building connections through networking events such as Venturefest and Pitchfest in order to ensure sustainability and the long-term success of business ventures and its impacts.
  2. Be brave: The interactive workshops throughout Venturefest has instilled greater confidence in me as it encouraged me to engage with different stakeholders throughout the event, and to share my opinions and thoughts throughout conversation. At the same time, Pitchfest honed my ability to participate in debate and inspired me to be courageous in challenging current business conventions and to put forth new and controversial ideas that would see progress.
  3. Thinking of others: In a business sense, it is to take into account multiple stakeholders, especially end-users (customers), and to find a harmonious balance between their diverse interests. As a sustainability student, it encouraged me to think further on current and future stakeholders, and to ensure that innovations provide positive impacts towards society as well as the environment.

After Venturefest, I collaborated with my other teammates in creating comprehensive blogs to evaluate the event. I really utilised and enhanced my creative abilities as well as my journalism experience throughout writing these blogs. I had the challenge of condensing all the content I had compiled throughout Venturefest into a knowledgeable yet engaging pieces that would provide benefits to readers of all ages and industrial backgrounds. I needed to be able to capture our reader’s attention through catchy titles , a balanced use of  formal and informal language and vivid images of the events. Furthermore, I was also responsible for analysing the post-event evaluation survey and collecting an excel spreadsheet of useful data for future Venturefest events. My experience in marketing and communications that I’ve gained from Innovation Alliance will prove very useful for current student work and my professional career in the future.

(by Hana Chua)

The Innovation Alliance work placement has flipped my perspective of what it means to be part of the “innovation ecosystem” upside down. Without a technology background, I was initially sceptical as to whether there would be a space for my ideas, aspirations and passions within this environment. I could not have been more wrong – I was already partaking in innovation without consciously realising it! If you are an individual who is bursting at the seams with creative thoughts, then there are countless opportunities to get involved with or start innovative ventures.

Venturefest West Midlands is an ideal platform to start, shape or grow your business proposals. Working as part of the event operations team for Venturefest WM 2019, as well as attending the keynote speeches, panels and workshops opened my eyes to the multitude of business in the region. I witnessed and contributed to investors, academics and innovators thriving in collaboration with each other to make the most of the talent that is available in the West Midlands. Following the event, I conducted an in-depth survey analysis from the online feedback forum, which confirmed that my positive takeaways from Venturefest were also experienced felt by fellow attendees.

I believe that each and every one of us has the innovative mindset within. Whether it lies dormant or is utilised to its full awe-inspiring capacity is partially dependent on the individual themselves acting on these innovative urges. Yet, Venturefest WM illustrates the power that government initiatives, existing businesses and mentoring can have for drawing out this potential.

As a university student reading Global Sustainable Development, I was particularly inspired by the abundance of sustainability-related innovation that was present at Venturefest WM. There were many businesses exhibiting environmentally-conscious projects, such as biodegradable packaging, recyclable tyres and repurposed food waste. Moreover, in my video interviews on the day, I was able to speak to supporting organisations, including Sustainability West Midlands, who were actively seeking to transform these innovative ventures into success stories for the region.

From a local community viewpoint, it was heartening to see organisations, businesses and entrepreneurs targeting their outreach to include marginalised groups in the euphoria of innovation. In the Digital Skills workshop, for example, a convincing vision of the capacity for digital education to transform the lives of disadvantaged individuals, who may otherwise be unable to find a way to belong in the workplace, was passionately communicated to the room.

It is not uncommon to assume that profit cannot be achieved whilst creating a positive social impact, or that being successful as a business is only possible at the expense of environmental degradation. Venturefest WM proved otherwise, and I have fully embraced the communications work that I have since completed to promote the numerous innovation opportunities.

I have seen in practice that environmental and social sustainability should not be viewed as a burden for businesses – it is instead an opportunity for societal progress and economic growth within the innovation landscape. This is a valuable lesson that I will take with me into my research and employment, in the near future.

(by Lucy Page)

Serendipity was the recurring word throughout this internship for me. The innovation ecosystem was never something I had really thought about. I didn’t know anything about the concept or how it worked, let alone had I ever imagined myself working within it. So when the opportunity to work for a company called Innovation Alliance came into my mailbox my curiosity was grasped. What was this unknown industry? Shortly following that initial email I met Iain Mansell, an innovation champion across the West Midlands, and he explained the work of the company. At this point, my curiosity spiked. It was fascinating to learn about how a small business such as Innovation Alliance for the West Midlands could have such a huge and beneficial impact of the productivity of the innovation ecosystem. Within a couple of days I went from knowing nothing about a whole industry to writing out a passionate application to be a part of it. My first encounter with serendipity had occurred.

Four days into the internship and I was about to encounter my next wave of fortuitous events. It was the day of Venturefest and we made our way, bright and early, to the Birmingham NEC. In the first panel talk that I attended, titled ‘Big West Midlands opportunities as Innovation Test-beds’, I saw serendipity in abundance. As the panellists spoke on their individual projects, from HS2 to the Birmingham Commonwealth games 2022, members of the audience voiced their interest and expertise on the issues in question. One member of the audience spoke on virtual hubs that can be implemented into businesses to help foster collaboration between colleagues. Another, explained new legislation that had been created to make the process of procurement and related contact law faster to navigate. Both of which were ideas that fascinated the panellists. I was seeing new business connections being made before my very own eyes. The whole session was a literal exhibition of the work that Innovation Alliance does. It is their job to curate these powerful moments of serendipity to help the innovation ecosystem of the west midlands thrive.

Just a couple of hours later, I experienced my very own serendipitous encounter. I was explaining to the aforementioned Iain Mansell that I had my own business idea on the backburner. He told me that just moments before he had been on a panel with a woman in  a very similar industry to which my idea was based in. He swiftly led me over to meet this woman and to allow me to explain my idea to her. Just like that, my very first business contact was made. We exchanged details and straight away she was giving me helpful pointers and telling me the names of other people that I could contact. Again, this is just another example of the fortuitousness that this internship created for me.

However, the conclusion is of course that these examples and experiences, though very happy and beneficial, were not serendipitous at all. It is what Innovation Alliance for the West Midlands was created to do. To make business connections and to allow the innovation ecosystem of the West Midlands thrive. Just by simply being at Venturefest I, and so many others, were able to meet people and make connections that would have otherwise been serendipitous in the wider business world. That is my lasting impression of the company I knew nothing about just six weeks ago, and why I now see just how vital their work is.

(by Tom Liggins)

“The Innovation Alliance for the West Midlands has benefited greatly from the hard work of the University of Warwick students. In return we have helped developed their skills in marketing and communications, including the use of digital tools; content writing; and event management and analysis. We wish our Venturefest Squad the very best for the future!”

Iain Mansell, IAWM