Elizabeth Shaw

Elizabeth Shaw, Innovation Manager, North East Business and Innovation Centre

Listen, do you want to know a secret

Elizabeth Shaw, Innovation Manager, North East Business and Innovation Centre (BIC) looks at how small businesses are leading the way.

Ssssshhhhh we have a secret... don’t tell a soul... North East SMEs are innovating!

Throughout 2017 innovation has been a core part of the regional LEP’s Strategic Economic Plans and there is certainly an upsurge amongst the region’s SMEs, with companies like Kromek, Atom Bank and Sage showing innovative talent does exist.  However, it’s the quiet ‘S’ in SME which interests me the most. Those small North East companies are challenging the status quo, taking risks and investing in change that silently contributes to the region’s economic growth and evolving landscape.

What isn’t changing is the perceptions of the North East’s small businesses and their propensity to innovate, whether incrementally or radically.

Whether it’s due to the metrics in which innovative activity is measured, the lack of understanding of what innovation means in real terms or because we are just too busy with the day job.

According to the European Commission’s Regional Innovation Monitor Plus, the North East of England’s investment in R&D is one of the lowest in the UK when compared to innovation and industrial policy trends for the UK and EU.  However, the reality is far from that. Within the same report, sales for new-to-market and new-to-firm innovations in North East SMEs, with non-R&D innovation expenditures and the collaboration of innovative SMEs are meeting the UK average and actually above the EU average.

From my own experience of working with SMEs across the region, there are many businesses quietly innovating, intuitively reinventing their core activity to be more efficient and working passionately, turning their ideas into reality, which we never hear about.

One such company is First Square Equipment, based in Allendale. The company founded by Simon Farley, designs, manufactures and sells excavator fronts and attachments for general construction, mining, demolition and marine industries.

It was Simon’s in-depth working knowledge of the UK and worldwide construction equipment industry, which led him to identify a gap in the market. Simon’s conviction led him to fulfilling the gap and winning the regional Exporter of the Year Award at the North East Business Awards 2017.

Meanwhile in Blyth, Solar Capture Technologies is a solar energy R&D company, with a commercial arm and a highly innovative team led by Steve Caseley. Solar Capture Technologies supply energy solutions to a diverse range of industries from aviation, automotive, and traffic management, to street furniture and offshore all with a common goal, to supply remote power.

Over in North Tyneside, Seaweed & Co has developed a micro-encapsulated seaweed ingredient, which is so versatile it can be used in beverages and sports nutrition products to create sweeter flavours. Businesses like Seaweed & Co which are economically, socially and environmentally sustainable have come to the attention of BBC Radio 4 and the BBC World Service - giving a glimpse of the potential our SMEs have.

In Durham, manufacturing and engineering businesses are quietly embracing Industry 4.0 and the smart data revolution. A great example of this is So-Tech, based in Peterlee. A 35-year-old traditional manufacturing business to the construction industry, the firm has invested heavily in providing a holistic digitised environment to drive efficiency across all areas of production.

Rural parts of Durham may be known for good beer and warm pubs, but it’s the little known businesses like BESOS, based in Barnard Castle, which are continuously innovating, and looking to develop new products for the vegan, lactose and gluten free communities, here and abroad.

What is clear is the need for these companies to momentarily step out of what can be a very lonely environment, to share their successes and at times lessons in failure. One such opportunity is VentureFest, an annual event organised by North East Innovation SuperNetwork. For the last four years the North East BIC’s SME Innovation Programme has proudly supported VentureFest and the Innovation Showcase to uncover the latest products, services and other big ideas of the region’s most cutting-edge businesses.  A key part of the event is an interactive exhibition space where businesses from across the region demonstrate how they dare to do things differently to an audience of over 700 businesses, entrepreneurs, investors and innovators.

The small businesses we engage with are so diverse. From bee hive monitoring devices and DNA based technology, to innovative engineering solutions and clean energy to isolated communities.  Over the last four years our hall of fame has made a great start to changing perceptions of North East small businesses, but don’t tell anyone!