With the latest deadline for the United Kingdom to quit the European Union just over two months away at the time, a record number of entrepreneurs gathered in Manchester for Venturefest North West, the sixth edition of this annual expo and conference for local business innovators. While Brexit never seemed too distant from the minds of many exhibitors at the late-November show, it was far from the only topic addressed throughout the course of the one-day event.As part of his welcome address, Richard Jeffery, Director of Business Growth for GC Business Growth Hub, the event’s organising body, stressed the importance of research and development. He also noted that the UK currently invests just £35 billion (US$45 billion), about 1.7% its total economic output, into R&D annually and called on the government and the business community to raise that to nearer 2.4%, putting it on par with the United States and Germany.Addressing the assembled attendees, he said: “Collaboration can transform small businesses. Here, in the room today we’ve got a whole bunch of innovators who have some amazing ideas. We’ve also got the entrepreneurs, the people who know how to take those ideas and make a business out of them. We’ve also got the people with the fuel, the people with the cash, the investors. In fact, what’s unique about today is that we’ve got all three under one roof and that’s an incredible opportunity.”
Of course, any ambitious new business starting up in the UK at present faces the looming spectre of Brexit. Common responses from exhibitors asked to comment on the implications of Britain imminently leaving the EU included: “Who knows?”, “I wouldn’t be the person to ask about that”, “I don’t know if we’re allowed to talk about anything political”, or even just a wordless shrug and a shake of the head. The atmosphere, while far from pessimistic, was profoundly uncertain.Among the exhibitors at the 2019 event was Inventya, a business innovation consultancy based in nearby Warrington. Explaining where the business fits into the overall mix, Innovation Consultant Ryan Makin said: “Basically, we help SMEs through the commercialisation process, including securing funding, commissioning market research or navigating their way through the R&D tax arrangements. We also have teams that work in partnership with the Enterprise Europe Network (EEN) – an EU-backed support service for export-minded SMEs – in order to help small businesses branch out into Europe.”Cautious when pressed as to the likely impact of Brexit, he said: “You’ll have to ask the big boss. While we were initially quite worried, we now think we’re going to be all right, although it all still depends on exactly what happens. Obviously, we have the EEN side of things and that could be affected, but we have offices in Europe now so that’s why I’m saying we should be OK. We’ll see what happens as there’s just still so much uncertainty about it.”Another exhibitor at the show with robust EEN connections was Innovate UK. A division of the United Kingdom Research and Innovation organisation, it is a public body that aims to “accelerate UK economic growth by stimulating and supporting business-led innovation”. Directly funded by the EEN, it is also affiliated with The Growth Company, the Manchester-based body that oversees the Venturefest initiative.
Explaining why it was a priority for the organisation to attend the event, Research and Partnership Development Officer Andreas Standley-Johansen said: “We’re here to spread the word about our services. EEN is the largest business-support network in the world and it’s particularly geared to the needs of SMEs. This is a great place for us to meet innovative companies that are looking to go international.”Turning to the issue of Brexit, he said: “There’s always going to be a need for SME support, and I don’t think that’s going to wane, no matter what happens with Brexit. The UK’s only going to be more internationally minded if it leaves the EU. In our case, we will continue as before but for other businesses, it will depend very much on which sector they are in and how they operate. If they’re very heavily reliant on imports, then obviously they need to consider changing their business model.“There are, however, many opportunities and we need to be optimistic and be ready to take advantage of any new possibilities as they emerge. As we are already internationally focused, we’ll carry on helping companies find business wherever there’s any potential.”One of the more famously innovative companies exhibiting at this year’s event was Mesmerise Global. Currently in the process of relocating to Manchester city centre, the company specialises in augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) and mixed reality (MR) media and employs a substantial number of film makers, digital designers, audio designers and storytellers.Outlining the company’s backstory, 3D Designer Conor Mclean said: “We’re basically an AR and VR solutions business, although we’re now moving more towards supplying products. To date, we’ve worked with some very big clients – including Facebook and Morningstar – while also having worked in many international markets. We have several clients in the Arab Emirates and we’ve had VR games used at conferences in Mumbai, Chicago and Australia – all over the world, really. Despite that, I wouldn’t say we’re necessarily ready for Brexit. To be honest, we don’t have much of a clue, but then who does?”
One of the great UK innovation stories of recent years – and one with strong local connections to the event – has been graphene, a hugely useful single-layer allotrope of carbon first isolated at the University of Manchester in 2004. The university now operates the Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre (GEIC), a facility that had a notable presence at the show.Clearly somewhat evangelical about this particular innovation, Dayle Whittaker, a GEIC Administrative Assistant said: “Graphene’s the thinnest, strongest, lightest, most conductive 2D material. At GEIC, we’re trying to commercialise some of the graphene-based research via the Bridging the Gap Project, which sees us working with a number of local SMEs. The idea is that, while graphene might be seen as quite a big deal and quite expensive to get involved with, we can help secure the funding smaller businesses need if they are to work with graphene and integrate it into their products.“Its main applications relate to composites, electronics and energy products, such as solar cells and lithium-based batteries. Samsung has incorporated graphene into its batteries and, as it’s more conductive, it has actually extended their useful life. Swifty Scooters [a Manchester-based manufacturer of electric and foldable scooters], meanwhile, is looking at integrating graphene into the structure of its carbon fibre-based scooter frames as a way of making them lighter and stronger. Potentially, graphene has applications in pretty much every area.”The business potential of graphene is, indeed, enormous, but it remains to be seen whether Brexit will prove a help or a hindrance to its future development. Acknowledging this, Mr Whittaker said: “I think it’s safe to say Brexit will definitely have an effect on companies and on ourselves as a university. As to just what effect, we’re as much in the dark as anybody else, really. We work with companies and partners all around the world and we’ve got quite a globally based market, so, obviously, Brexit is likely to cause us some problems. Right now, though, no one knows exactly what they will be.”