Innovation Insider – Building West Midlands Businesses’ Innovative Capacity

Brexit and Covid-19 have caused mass uncertainty in the business world. Organisations in the Midlands are seeking help to adapt to changes in the market, find opportunities, and create new products and services.

Patrick Bek, Head of Service Innovation and Experimentation at Birmingham City University (BCU)’s STEAMhouse centre for collaborative innovation, discusses providing businesses with support and resources to develop new products, services and strategies that can help them find a way through uncertain times and reach new markets.

Better and clearer support for businesses

One thing we have learned from engaging with regional businesses is that the word ‘innovation’ can be a little obscure. What does it actually mean to the day-to-day running of a business?

Often, when we think of innovation, we might think of creating a new product. However, there are lots of ways to innovate and create value.

Businesses can change their organisational culture and see significant gains, or they might innovate the way they communicate with their customers, or simply change how they get their products in the hands of their customers.

They are all powerful ways to make efficiencies and drive income. At STEAMhouse, we can support with each of these strategies.

Before STEAMhouse, I worked as an innovation consultant in the South East, where there are lots of consultancies who offer innovation services. There’s far less of this support available to businesses in the Midlands, which is why I’m so excited to be working at STEAMhouse.

Our approach is designed specifically to meet the needs of Midlands-based businesses. We want to take the jargon out of innovation and make it practical and accessible. Because STEAMhouse is part of BCU, it’s important to us that we do the innovation work with businesses, not for them. It’s important that our clients and members have the opportunity to skill up as they go – that’s what makes our approach so different. In my time as an innovation consultant, I learnt that it’s difficult to build new things if the culture and structure of an organisation doesn’t support it, so we put people first.

Whether you’re a commercial or not-for-profit business, a great way to begin an innovation journey is to look at how your teams are organised, how they communicate and figure out whether what they’re doing already is stifling their ability to innovate.

At STEAMhouse, we believe collaboration is the key to unlock the potential in a business.

Adapting to current uncertainties

Covid-19 has forced us all to innovate in one way or another and has shown businesses how adaptable they can be.

We’ve spoken with lots of organisations in the region who had solid business models with their products and services reaching the right markets – but suddenly they saw Covid-19 upend the very things they found stability in.

What do these businesses do next? How are behaviours changing in their customers? Can they edit their products and services to meet new and emerging needs, or do these businesses need to go back to the drawing board and devise new ways of reaching their target market?

We also know of well-established, growing businesses that have solid product and services and a comprehensive understanding of their customers, but because of Covid, they are now thinking “what next?” – how do they scale up and go to the next level?

For early-stage businesses, it’s an exciting but particularly difficult time to be a startup. However, we’ve seen the resilience of our STEAMhouse Incubator members really shine through – you can’t keep a good entrepreneur down!

We support startups hand-in-hand, with more than just business advice – we guide our members and clients to make use of innovation methods that can steer their entrepreneurial journey in the right direction.

Addressing the innovation needs of the region

We have taken time to listen to the challenges that businesses are currently facing.

We know there are many growing businesses that need support to scale up and take their business to the next level. In the past, many of those businesses have been tempted to move out of the region but we’ve developed a support offer aimed at helping them flourish right here in the Midlands.

However, we don’t just hand over some methods for them to try or tell a business how to innovate. We don’t do the work for them, we work with them to help skill up people while they develop new things. We want our clients and members to be able to do it for themselves next time around.

We want to learn about the businesses we work with and understand what’s going on inside their organisation. We want to learn about their customers and their ambitions for change. By mapping the business in this way, we can help shape a process that enables them to create new income generating opportunities.

Alongside our innovation consultancy services, our STEAMhouse Create Programme, funded by the European Regional Development Fund, is designed for resource poor businesses to support them with prototyping new physical products.

Wrapped around access to workshops and technicians is business support that helps members with things like understanding how to run a business, understanding their market, and reaching target audiences.

We want enterprises of all shapes and sizes in our region to know that we can support them in all sorts of ways to create new things, whether that be a product, service, strategy, or campaign. Our door is open all they need to do is get in touch.

Furthermore, our recent accreditation from the Institute of Innovation and Knowledge Exchange (IKE) will enable us to offer a set of practical training programmes and workshops to businesses that can inspire a whole new set of products, strategies and ways of thinking.

IKE training covers every aspect of innovation and what it means to hardworking businesses. It also offers participants the chance to skill up in methods that are used in some of the world’s most innovative organisations.

Businesses can learn from real-life case studies and learn how methods have been applied to organisations similar to theirs. Participants will learn about all aspects of innovation methodology, providing a really rich introduction to how this is done in practice.

Whether it be about adjusting your products and services, or establishing a new culture of working, we are on hand to work alongside you to make innovation part of what you do every day.

Find out more about how BCU can help your business to innovate by visiting their business support platform, BCU Advantage, or the official STEAMhouse website.

Author, Patrick Bek

Head of Service Innovation and Experimentation at STEAMhouse