SMEs in the West: who, and where, are the 'nearly novel'?

Rich Young
CEO/Founder | Smarter Knowledge Exchange Ltd
3rd January 2021
Member roleChamber member

I was amused this week to read a list of the – allegedly – ’20 best places to start a business’ on Good news: the article was titled, ‘Why are entrepreneurs looking outside of London to start their business?’ Bad news: the West didn’t get a look-in, unless you count Plymouth which came in at No.9 and, I suspect, would rather be labelled SouthWest…? 

Amused because, as a founder of a start-up, that just doesn’t ring true to me. It’s not something we’ve tapped into specifically, here at Smarter Knowledge Exchange, but the ecosystem around Bristol/Bath for tech start-ups especially is clearly world-class: SetSquared, The Engine Shed, TechSPARK, and a fantastic series of entrepreneurially-minded universities are leading players, of course, but by no means provide the totality of support available.

And then amused, further, by the timing, as a article appeared in my Twitter timeline the next day proclaiming, “Bristol is the sixth most active city in the UK by number of high-growth technology companies—behind London, Edinburgh, Cambridge, Manchester and Glasgow—and fifth by total equity investment raised into these tech companies since 2011.”

But – this is the New Year after all – I paused and reflected. What if the measure was how many SMEs could have scaled-up but didn’t? What if the measure taken was not just of those firms judged ‘high-tech’ but from a broader range of sectors, with a different – but equivalent – capacity for innovation and growth? What if – back to the outstanding university support available in the region – the measure was the number of connections with academia that could (even should) have taken place, but didn’t? How do we rate then? 

Or do we have too many SMEs whose potential for innovation remains unrealised? Who remain, regrettably, ‘nearly novel’?

Much has been made by the Government of the potential for the UK’s SMEs to do more to build on the country’s strengths in innovation. It was there in the 2017 Industrial Strategy, almost with a lament that the country with a pedigree which stretches from, “Sir Frank Whittle’s jet engine to Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web, from Sir James Dyson’s bagless vacuum cleaner to the automatic kettle of Russell Hobbs,” is now lagging behind others in turning its bright ideas into super-sized, or at least, super-successful firms.

It was there again in last Summer’s R+D Roadmap with a commitment to, “Support entrepreneurs and start-ups and increase the flow of capital into firms carrying out R&D enabling them to scale up.”

But nowhere have I read any facts and figures to accompany such urgings: an estimate of the number of the high-potential firms which could be doing more, the sectors in which they are to be found, and their spread around the country.

I don’t doubt, for one second, the policy priority. But for those of us trying to do our bit to help give those SMEs a helping hand, it would be interesting to know precisely who and where the Government thinks these companies are, so offers of help can be sensibly directed.

With the help of LinkedIn Sales Navigator, and with an eye on our own niche role of making it easier for SMEs to connect with universities, we had a stab.

We started with the assumption that the SMEs most likely to partner with universities might fall into one of 3 broadly-defined categories:

-       “Advanced Manufacturing.” (Using the Sales Navigator search terms, we grouped together firms in Automotive, Defence and Space, Electrical/Electronic Manufacturing, Mechanical/Industrial Engineering, and Nano-technology.)

-      '“Health and Wellbeing.” (Health, Wealth and Fitness, Health and Hospital Care, Medical Practice, Mental Health Care, and, for good measure, Alternative Medicine).

-       “Sustainability.” (Architecture and Planning, Construction, Logistics and Supply Chain, Renewables and Environment, Transportation, and, finally, Utilities.)

These felt, to us, to be the knowledge-dependent firms for whom input from a university partner might make most difference.

And we thought firms with somewhere between 11 and 200 employees would have the resources available to manage, and benefit from, a university partnership too. (Strictly, the most-favoured definition for an SME in the UK stretches up to 250 FTEs but Sales Navigator does not have that as a search option.)

“The computer says…” there are 847 firms, at the start of January anyway, that fit those criteria, with company profiles on LinkedIn, and who are based in Bristol, Bath, South Gloucestershire and Gloucestershire. (Happy to provide the geographical breakout of the data for anyone interested.) 

At Smarter Knowledge Exchange, we are working hard to provide an easier entry-point for just those firms to access university support. (But the sales patter is for another day.) The question here is…How many of those 847 SMEs in our region are amongst the ‘nearly novel’, not the shining stars of the incubators, accelerators and VC world, but the companies who, with a bit of help, could still innovate their way to substantial growth in 2021? And how, working together across the region, do we identify and reach out to them? Then this really would be one of the best places in the UK to start a business. 

As we begin to emerge from COVID-19, it’s a debate we need to be having.

All thoughts very welcome to, through or @smarterke (for Twitter). 

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