Mike Hughes takes a tour of one of Yorkshire’s biggest business events – Venturefest.
Trying to stage a business event that reflects a place like Yorkshire with its cities, towns, villages and ports is quite a challenge – but this year’s Venturefest might just have pulled it off. Stepping in to run the event for the first time, destination organisation Make It York said around 1,000 visitors, more than 100 exhibitors and sixty guest speakers turned up at York Racecourse.
The event was spread over four floors of the Knavesmere stand, split into zones such as Creative & Digital, Agri-food, Bio Synergy, Universities and even a Donut Den for one-to-one networking. As well as the zones there was a long list of seminars and presentations to reflect that wide variety of businesses visiting from across the region.
Andrew Sharp, head of business at Venturefest organisers Make It York, said they are already making their plans for next year. “We were delighted with how things went,” he said. “Collectively, the speakers and the workshops provided some very good advice for the hundreds of people who turned up. I think it did what we thought it was going to, which was to showcase the very best of Yorkshire innovation.
“The venue worked really well and allowed people to circulate and see as many exhibitors as possible and have those really important meetings to generate business.
“This was the first Venturefest that Make it York has organised and we certainly want to see it continuing as a pivotal showcase for the region and a platform for business and we want to take it forward next year.
“We are here to help those innovators and entrepreneurs be successful and get them all in the same space for some networking and collaborative projects and to get the investment they are looking for.
“We were really pleased with the calibre of the people we had at the event, particularly the speakers and the people who led the inspiring and informative workshops. One thing that really caught my eye was the fuller range of events going on to attract interest from right across the spectrum.”
But with the presence of big hitters like Google Garage, Sky Agile Masterclasses, Tesla Cars and Barclays Eagle Labs, the event’s real power is in what it might be kickstarting.
The ripple effect of a major gathering like this will spread around the county and can have long-term effects for many years. No self-respecting Yorkshire entrepreneur will meet someone for the first time, realise there are synergies to be explored and then walk away and not contact them again.
In a few years, there could be a noticeable addition to the local economy because of collaborations and support that began at Venturefest.
“Certainly, there are relationships built here and started here that Make it York will be working with all year to help build investment and growth and strengthen the region’s businesses,” agreed Andrew. “The success of the event shows that there is really strong growth in York and the wider region. We are seeing strong investment coming in to help build a really positive picture of people all getting on and doing the business, whether they are start-ups or more established companies.”
One company that falls somewhere in the middle is ClearSky Medical Diagnostics, which won the day’s main prize - £5,000 and 12 months of focused business support – in the Pitchfest competition.
The company is based at The Catalyst on York University’s Heslington East campus and specialises in medical devices for the diagnosis and monitoring of Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and a range of other neurodegenerative conditions.
Its founder, Dr Stephen Smith, told BQ: “It was quite a full-on day, but I recognise the importance of these regional events and one of the things I have learned about the enterprise scene in Yorkshire is that it is a really well-connected community, with a lot of support for businesses. It’s a great environment for ClearSky.
“Venturefest was an absolutely fantastic event, with two really big achievements. One is to bring together this network of people from throughout a very well-connected region. But also I think there is a way through events like VFY to demonstrate that there is so much going on up here and that is an important area of technological development.
“We need events like this to shout about it a bit more, because at the moment I think we are a bit of a well-hidden secret. For my wife and I, coming to Yorkshire 22 years ago was the best move we have ever made. It is a wonderful place to live and the lifestyle is certainly better. You just feel that people look after each other here.
“The company has been established for a couple of years now in a sector that can be very hard to get into, with a lot of regulatory issues and clinical studies. But we are at a very exciting stage where we have the regulatory approval and the IP protection and are really starting to get traction.
“I have been an academic at York for 22 years, and then got a Royal Academy of Engineering fellowship which allowed me to really get going and set up a company. It has been a real breath of fresh air to me, and I am now always looking at my research to see what opportunities there are to work towards solving a problem and making a difference to people’s lives. The Venturefest win will really help us deliver that.
“As we go further along in our journey the funding from Pitchfest will be very welcome, but one of the biggest challenges we have is learning how to penetrate the NHS and convincing the right people in the right places at the right time that what we have is going to be useful. So the help and mentoring from this very well connected network is particularly welcome.
“For ClearSky these are very much the first few steps. We have developed a portfolio of four products. The first is already in the market and the second should be there before the end of this year.
“But as with any good business idea, you start to see other opportunities develop as you go along. In a very patient-centric environment we should be delivering healthcare to the patient rather than the patient coming to the hospital, and with the Internet and better connectivity we can think about how we could deliver our types of diagnostics facilities into homes.
“That turns the whole thing round, because I think it is recognised by most people that we cannot sustain the current model of the NHS and we need to find more efficient ways to do it and make more of the resources we have.”
The other Pitchfest finalists on the day were Supply Box, Desi High Street, Kwizzbit and Myroo Skincare.
Supply Box is based at Entrepreneurial Spark on Park Cross Street in Leeds and is an online platform connecting schools with a community of supply teachers to supply fully vetted and qualified staff.
Desi High Street is the UK’s first online marketplace bringing together a range of ethnic or ethnic inspired shops into one platform.
Kwizzbit hosts an interactive quiz, combining the traditional format of a pub quiz with the excitement of interactive digital entertainment.
And Myroo will be a familiar name for BQ readers, with owner Rachael Dunseath appearing as our cover star in our Autumn edition, where I spoke to her about her allergen-free skincare range. Rachael is still making remarkable progress with her business and won the People’s Prize after an audience vote at Venturefest.