• George Oliver

A (brief) introduction to the Leicester innovation ecosystem

This is a simple article about a complex local innovation ecosystem written largely through the central thesis of a single book.

This is not to say that the book - Startup Communities by Brad Feld - is wrong or right. Rather, for reasons which will become clear, it is used as a framework for taking a broad sweep through three core components of the innovation ecosystem in Leicester and Leicestershire.

Use of the term ‘innovation’ is ubiquitous in business conversations in 2021. It’s a very current concept which is everywhere on LinkedIn and the programmes of business schools. It is rarely far from the centre of talk relating to the levelling up agenda and Government aspirations to increase economic output and productivity.

However, it is a term often misused as a way of describing somebody coming up with a clever idea. As Wikipedia helpfully points out (next to a picture of Edison, no less):

Innovation is the practical implementation of ideas that result in the introduction of new goods or services or improvement in offering goods or services.

Those are my italics. The implementation part is essential. I learned as much while studying innovation at business school. I also learned about the necessity of doing from various conversations with the types of innovators these communities are designed to develop.

For the purposes of this article, therefore, innovation is the practical implementation of ideas. But how does that manifest itself in Leicester and Leicestershire? And where is activity coming from?

Who is driving startup communities?

“Leaders of startup communities have to be entrepreneurs. Everyone else is a feeder into a startup community. Both leaders and feeders are important, but their roles are different”

(Feld, p. 31)

In May 2021 I asked on LinkedIn what drives startup communities. I considered such communities as formal and informal networks of entrepreneurs looking to find a place where they can gain the support to practically implement their ideas.

Mine wasn’t a particularly scientific survey. It was designed to start the ball rolling. However, the response was pretty emphatic from the 120 people who responded.

Leicester innovation startup poll rates entrepreneurs

Entrepreneur-led startup communities

Feld is insistent that entrepreneurs must have a long-term commitment to their startup community. Communities should be inclusive and evolving in order to reduce risk of stagnation.

This requires a great deal of commitment from entrepreneurs - as leaders - in volunteering their time for the free sharing of ideas. So what do they get in return?

“Any entrepreneur who has been the leader of a startup community knows the incredible amount of energy to be gained from other entrepreneurs. These entrepreneurial leaders follow a ‘give before you get’ philosophy: they have no idea what they are going to get out of providing this leadership, but they expect it will be more than they invest.”

(Feld, p. 33)

How Leicester Startups works

Leicester Startups is a startup community which was founded in 2013 by local entrepreneur Ben Ravilious. It is funded by the Leicester and Leicestershire Economic Partnership (LLEP), supported by local universities and, in the shape of Ben, has a seat on LLEP's new Innovation Board (see below).

Ben takes inspiration from the Feld model of an entrepreneur-led community offering support and encouragement in nurturing the development of innovative, scalable, technological or intellectual property based startups.

This is achieved through creating a forum for startups to access advice, specialist mentors and co-founders. It is a Community Interest Company and works on the “give first” principle advocated by Feld. Activity includes:

  • Networking events

  • Mentoring

  • Seminars

  • Accelerators

  • Hackathons

Innovation centres and studio space

There are various places where startup communities form and gather. Some are recognised and dedicated spaces for small and growing businesses. Others have connections to universities or local authorities. Others are on university campuses themselves. More of that in a moment.

There are a raft of startup spaces and makers sites designed to incubate fledgling enterprise. These venues - often the result of partnerships between government and universities to gain public funding - have a range of young businesses and often group broad sectors. Examples include:

  • Dock opened at Pioneer Park in 2013 as a business development hub for high tech and innovative businesses. It offers office, lab and workshop space. Extended in 2021

  • LCB Depot, Makers Yard and Phoenix Square are three spaces for creative businesses operating in the city. Offers range from flexible co-working packages through to managed workspaces and studios

The role of universities

The three universities in Leicestershire are a central part of regional innovation strategy. Each has a public entry point for the development of enterprise.

Most obviously this it through various knowledge transfer schemes designed to get research and theory into business in order to solve real world problems through innovation. The practical implementation of ideas.

This often includes grant funding from projects such as ERDF and ranges from small projects for SMEs through to large knowledge transfer poartnerships for major corporate players.

As such, university innovation centres present a 'bricks and mortar' gateway to university networks for entrepreneurs with an idea but no existing network to make it happen. Universities also link to a host of online support events and networks either managed by the universities, in connection with them, or acting independently.

Meanwhile, informal co-working networks attached to the universities offer low rents and access to coaching for local entrepreneurs, freelancers, innovators, students, graduates and those looking to start a business.

Memberships typically open up access to events, networking groups, business training and surgeries and access to a community. They include:

  • The DMU Innovation Centre is based on the edge of De Montfort University's city campus and encourages members and non-members alike to utilise its space in order to create new relationships

  • University of Leicester positions its Innovation Hub as a ‘front door’ to launching ideas with a dedicated incubation and innovation space offering support, expertise and facilities

  • The iNet service at Loughborough University helps SMEs access grant funding for R&D and innovation projects. Its Loughborough Enterprise Network is designed to support students and graduates into business.

The role of Government

Feld is clear about the role of Government in Boulder - the US location of his own startup community:

“Government had little to do with it and there weren’t committees wading in bureaucratic quicksand wasting hundreds of hours of people’s time strategising about how to create more start-ups. Boulder caught fire because a few dozen entrepreneurs believed in their hearts that a rising tide lifts all boats and they derived great pleasure from making that happen.”

(Feld, p.18)

Feld gets even more forthright later in the book as he argues that the hierarchical structure of Government (as well as its election cycles) is not compatible with an agile startup community built around networks.

His solution is for startup communities to create a “parallel universe of activity” which leaves Government to do what it will do around the edge of the core community (p. 143).

State development of ideas

Simultaneously, however, Feld acknowledges that Government (as ‘feeder’) has an important role to play in supporting the emergence of Innovation communities.

There are doubtless numerous counter-arguments as to why the role of Government is more significant than this in enabling innovation.

Mariana Mazzucato, for example, argues in her book The Entrepreneurial State that it is Government investment in the earliest stages of developing really big ideas which enables commercialisation by entrepreneurs at a later stage.

Tiers of the Leicestershire innovation eco-system

There is a complex public and public-private sector in Leicesteshire in which multiple organisations, with varying degrees on national and local Government involvement, work in and around the innovation sector. A basic introduction might include:

  • Innovate UK: The arms-length agency tasked with supporting and enabling innovation in UK business through Government funding. Large investor in projects which accelerate and research and development across all sectors. Regional branches.

  • Midlands Engine: The public-private partnership formed with the aim of driving economic growth by bringing together large authorities, universities, LEPs and businesses as a bloc for the East and West Midlands.

  • LLEP: The Leicester and Leicestershire Economic Partnership was formed to have strategic involvement between the public, private and third sectors. Its written purpose is to lead and drive economic prosperity across the Leicester and Leicestershire area through partnerships, intelligence and innovation.

  • Business Gateway Growth Hub: Not purely for startups, the function of the Business Gateway is to act as a single place for businesses to access practical support and funding. It offers free advice and acts as a funnel to some of the other local services and offers. Delivered by Leicester City Council, Leicestershire County Council, East Midlands Chamber and the Leicester and LLEP.

  • East Midlands Chamber: The membership business organisation - for companies of all sizes - with established links to Government and local decision-makers.

  • Local authorities: Councils have localised innovation experts and projects, often conducted in partnership with other agencies. One example is the Careers and Enterprise Hub in Loughborough, a £750,000 partnership between the town’s university, college and Charnwood Council which opened in May 2021 as one of the UK’s first projects using town deal funding. Another example is the Harborough Innovation Centre, which is owned and managed by Harborough District Council and offers space for small and growing businesses.

  • Local networks: As described above, there are a number of informal communities, some attached to places and some online. Some, such as Dock, offer space and are led by public projects. Others operate from coffee shops, pubs and other meeting places.

Picture of the Careers and Enterprise Hub in Loughborough
The Careers and Enterprise Hub in Loughborough

What next for Leicestershire innovation?

The LLEP recently founded an Innovation Board with the vision of creating “a long term Innovation Strategy for Leicestershire, which builds collaborations, growth and opportunities, and safeguards the future prosperity and productivity of our businesses, workforce and communities.”

Innovation is, in turn, fundamental to the emerging LLEP strategy for the region to build back from Covid with an industrial and economic strategy which uses innovation as a means of increasing growth and productivity.

Leicestershire Innovation Week

Leicestershire Innovation Week takes place from 21 June to 25 June 2021. It features a series of events, staged by the county’s three universities, the LLEP, Business Gateway, the Leicester Mercury and others. 1284 founder George Oliver co-founded the LeicestershireLive Innovation Awards which serves as the focal point of the week. The event, originally scheduled to take place online on the evening of June 24, will now be staged face-to-face in September.

George will chair a panel discussion with Leicestershire tech start-ups Previsico and Nemaura Pharma as part of Loughborough University’s Starting an Innovation Community event on June 22.

The three firms will talk about the Loughborough Enterprise Network and their experience of moving through the enterprise ecosystem. Previsico and Nemaura Pharam have both achieved rapid success in both commercialising their ideas as well as rapidly scaling their business model. Tickets here.

Promotional poster for Leicestershire Innovation Week
Artwork for the 2021 Leicestershire Innovation Week

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