A business support model for innovation in rural areas

Chris Lambert
Lancaster University

Darrell Smith
University of Cumbria

Steven Fish
Lancaster University

The county of Cumbria is home to one of the best known and most visited national parks in the UK, the Lake District, however its innovation ecosystem is described as ‘patchy’ for a number of reasons. These include innovation assets existing within a single sector (nuclear) and its supply chains; corporate ownership of businesses outside of the region and an emphasis of innovation assets existing amongst larger enterprises (Cumbria Local Industrial Strategy, 2019). These features result in businesses, particularly SMEs being less likely than in many other locations to be able to tap into a local network of innovators (Cumbria LEP, 2019). Additionally Cumbria is the third largest county in England with a population density of 74 people per square kilometre compared to an average density in England of 407 people per square kilometre (Office for National Statistics Mid Year Estimates 2018).

The Cumbria Innovations Platform (CUSP) is a European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) initiative designed to enhance innovation in Cumbria. To achieve this CUSP has a number of aims:
• Work with small and medium sized enterprises to enable them to think and then work more innovatively or to develop new technological solutions that encourage those businesses to increase investment in research and innovation.
• Develop links and synergies between enterprises, research and development centres and the Higher Education sector. The intention is a ‘challenge led approach’ that accelerates appropriately targeted interventions and network development.

CUSP is a collaboration delivered by Lancaster University and the University of Cumbria. It offers a flexible approach to innovation support that includes: masterclasses; workshops; student placements; in-depth-technical assists and Ph.D. supported R&D collaborations. The three-tiered levels of engagement can be described as ‘Communicate’, ‘Collaborate’ and ‘Create’:

Tier 1 (Communicate)
Light touch recruitment and awareness raising through business development and a series of local events, acting as a ‘shop window’ to follow-on support services available. The aim is to increase awareness of the support available by communicating widely with businesses. This is primarily delivered by the University of Cumbria.

Tier 2 (Collaborate)
Innovation management support through the creation of peer-to-peer learning via deep trust networks (DTNs), experiential learning, masterclasses and solving innovation challenges as a cohort of trusted businesses. The aim is to enhance collaboration both with the HEIs and horizontally with other SMEs. This is delivered by Lancaster University Management School.

Tier 3 (Create)
Technical development activities through access to facilities and expertise for the design, build and test of new products, thereby resulting in a tangible creation. This is delivered by the Faculty of Science and Technology (FST) at Lancaster University through the departments of Chemistry, Computing and Communications, Engineering and Physics.

CUSP provides multiple entry and exit points for SMEs into a bespoke client journey. This might mean an SME attends a masterclass/ workshop where they receive a ‘light-touch’ intervention and then exit the programme, or they may progress from the masterclass into a longer interaction with the University partners that includes a student placement lasting several months. The route for an SME is guided by their innovation challenge and therefore the support provided is bespoke. This tiered business support means that companies have their routes to market and opportunities for growth accelerated, i.e. reduction in time for product development.

Of the funding body output categories, performance up until the end of September 2019 is as follows (target is in brackets): Enterprises receiving support 104 (97), representing 107%; Employment increases in supported enterprises 4.5 (7), representing 64%; Number of enterprises co-operating with research entities 29 (32), representing 91%; Number of enterprises supported to introduce new products to the market 10 (9), representing 111%; Number of enterprises supported to introduce new to the firm products 21 (30), representing 70%.

Additionally the broader impact of CUSP has been externally assessed by EKOSGEN see https://www.ekosgen.co.uk/. The findings indicate a regional impact in terms of both jobs created and Gross Value Added (GVA).

Addressing innovation challenges in rural areas brings about its own set of hurdles when HEIs work with SMEs. The development of a tiered model that emphasizes communication, collaboration and creation as a core direction-of-travel has resulted in higher levels of product and process development/ creation. This has been firmly positioned as demand-led, leading to tailored intervention, appropriate to the needs of the business. The integration of business support expertise from different providers and disciplines under the CUSP banner has without doubt contributed to the successes reported here.

Feedback from a subset of SME project beneficiaries identified a number of benefits that CUSP is delivering to Cumbria, i.e. SME’s are:
• More likely to engage with the Universities on other projects
• More likely to seek support through other routes
• Have improved business networks/ collaboration
• Have enhanced their business/ technical skills

Learning from this initiative has also identified three main reasons for SME’s engaging with the support provided:
• Business strategy/ business growth
• New products/ process development
• Leadership/ management/ commercial skills development

Based on the activity thus far described, an extension to the CUSP project has been applied-for in order to build on and learn from the experiences of the first three years. Key to this extension is to continue what has gone before in a bid to create a community of innovators. This community describes the fourth ‘C’ in our model: Communicate, Collaborate, Create and Community.