Award-winning firms from across the South West gathered to share insights on how to create industry-leading products and services
Opening the first Regional Growth Leader event organised by the National Business Awards, Mayor of Bristol George Ferguson set the scene for a debate on ‘Leading & Enabling Innovation’ and explained why Bristol was chosen as the first host venue.
“We are enabling a world-class centre of innovation,” said Ferguson, highlighting an HSBC report which described Bristol as a super city. “We want to create a world-class hub of creative businesses which will lead the way for many years to come.”
The Mayor also said that a connected enterprise culture in Bristol, where ideas spring from a generosity of spirit endemic to the region, was being enabled by hubs such as Business West, Bristol & Bath Science Park and Paintworks, Bristol’s creative quarter.
“One of the softer benefits of the Science Park is ‘creative collisions’ as entrepreneurs connect in a community,” said Bonnie Dean, CEO of Bristol & Bath Science Park who highlighted the serendipitous connections borne out of such close proximity and similar challenges.
Being an entrepreneur can be lonely, said James Austin, Investment Director South Wales and South West, Business Growth Fund. “We are turning the 20 plus companies we have invested in into a community where CEOs can connect and share experiences, or get advice from peers on challenges and opportunities.”
Ann Parker, Head of Operations at Wayra Europe emphasised the importance of a multi-cultural network to inspire creativity. “Wayra has invested in over 240 start-ups across the globe and they can all connect to bounce ideas off each other and gain new perspectives”.
With various hubs emerging around Bristol, particularly for its burgeoning creative industry, Dan Martin, Editor of Business Zone asked if it aspired to creating its own Silicon Valley or Tech City.
“Everyone talks about the halo effect of London’s Silicon Roundabout but that part of London is still quite polarised – with a lot of deprivation and poverty in the area,” said Stephen Bradley, Director of NESTA. “If Bristol wants to create such a hub it should consider the civic elements as well as the commercial ones and ask how many people feel disenfranchised. It needs to consider how it builds connections between business, academia and the community.”
A culture of innovation
A panel debate led by Mike Norton, Editor of the Bristol Post, drew insights on creating a culture of innovation from five specialists leading and enabling it at a national, regional and organisational level.
Initially focusing on creating the right physical environment to stimulate ideas, everyone on the panel agreed that informal settings promote creativity. “Look at the Google example of an open meetings culture with their TGIF meetings where anyone can speak to the founders, and with connected open meeting rooms so you have to walk through to your meeting; it promotes collaboration and breaks down boundaries,” said Stephen Bradley, who is leading an international initiative to show people how to innovate in their own organisations – from start-ups to charities to international organisations.
“For large corporations, you need to take people out of their everyday workplace and mix up teams to enable them to join up, identify new opportunities and share insights,” added Philip Konopik, Senior Consultant at Market Gravity, who helps clients including British Gas and Visa Europe to develop and bring new customer propositions to market.
But it takes more than a change of scene to enable innovation, said Ann Parker from Wayra - a seed-stage startup funding firm set up as a division of Telefónica in April 2011 that has since become the world’s largest ICT accelerator. “Empowerment is key for innovation; people must feel empowered to innovate in all areas of the business or to challenge the norm,” she said. “Businesses should also celebrate failure, learn from it and share that learning to improve future innovation.”
This empowerment should also extend to customers, said Rob Law MBE, CEO of Magmatic, the brand behind the much-loved children's brand Trunki – which has won a raft of accolades including D&AD and Design Week awards plus the coveted Santander SME of the Year award at the 2012 National Business Awards. “A lot of inventors are precious and paranoid about their ideas but a focus group might help to ensure that patent is stronger first time.”
Rob also made the point that innovation isn’t always about new products and services. “It’s also about innovating in the workplace and improving processes,” he said. “When someone’s suggestion is put into practice in the business it’s hugely motivating and supports that culture of innovation.”
Several delegates asked the panel’s advice on the best ways to gather ideas. Philip Konopik said one solution was to create an internal ‘venture board’ that meets a couple of times a year or quarter where teams pitch their ideas, competing for internal resources and budget - with the best developed and invested in.
“This means employees take personal responsibility for their ideas and think them through for their pitch,” he said. “It’s also good to create a pipeline of ideas and tier them into those you can act on quickly and others that need more development.”
Only invest in the good ideas…
Market Gravity specialises in idea incubation and future scenario planning to help clients create the best new propositions and prioritise pipelines. “Create an assessment checklist for your pipeline,” he suggested. “What market demand and customer need does the idea meet? Will it achieve a certain level of profit? Will it exceed a comfortable level of cost? Will it put too much pressure on resource or supply chain? Does it align with our corporate values?”
Deciding which idea to invest in is a challenge for businesses and banks alike – so what sets the best apart? “Ambition and drive always impress but focus is reassuring when it comes to investing in an innovative business because it means they know their strengths and they know their market,” said James Austin of the Business Growth Fund, which has invested around £30m in SMEs in the South West – with Trunki recently announced as the first recipient from Bristol, gaining nearly £4m in investment and a new board member.
“Focus is vital and everyone needs to understand the why of the business so they keep asking how it relates to that core goal,” added Rob Law, who is focusing all of his firm’s creativity around children’s travel products but investing in international expansion.
The real challenge is execution, of course, and there were various perspectives on this. “We meet people with lots of brilliant ideas but sometimes they have difficulty with the execution,” said James Austin. “We’re looking for ambition balanced with the ability to create change; we’re also looking at the strategic ability of the individual or team, and their willingness to embrace change or take advice from a non-executive director.”
The final thought came from NESTA’s Stephen Bradley who said that businesses can learn a lot from the not-for- profit sector. “The need to transition to new forms of delivery in the public and third sector requires a culture of user understanding and prototyping, testing services in tandem, and constantly monitoring user needs since failure is not an option,” he said. “In the private sector, businesses often form on an idea with no real understanding of demand or need – so the business plan survives until it meets the first customer.”
The next Growth Leader debate will take place on 27th June as part of Accelerate 2013 - Britain’s first annual festival dedicated to high-growth businesses, with 1,000 delegates expected to descend on Liverpool’s Arena and Convention Centre (ACC).
Visit www.accelerate2013.co.uk for more information on how to attend and contact firstname.lastname@example.org to reserve a place at our Innovation Forum.