“There are no small parts, only small actors.”
That’s an old saying from show business that applies to business as well. There are no small businesses, only small thinkers. The giant companies we all know, such as Apple, HP, Google, Amazon, GlaxoSmithKline, all had modest beginnings and grew as they innovated to become market leaders. Inside every SME are the seeds of success.
The UK government understands the role of SMEs in innovation and is providing £98 million to support research and development in businesses operating in the science and technology sectors. Science minister Chris Skidmore sees this investment as important to developing talent and capabilities: “Delivering on our research and innovation ambitions means putting people first, whether they are just starting in their career or are leading major projects in academia or industry.”
Of that funding, £78 million comes from the Future Leadership Fellows scheme and is being administered by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). This scheme is intended to help researchers move from discovery to marketable products.
For example, Izzy Jayasinghe from the University of Leeds is pursuing affordable imaging technology, which allows the visual inspection of structures as small as individual proteins and genes. It is hoped this will give insight into global issues including the effects of environmental change, ageing and long-term disease.
The remaining £20 million is going to universities to create University Enterprise Zones. These UEZs are intended to provide specialist support to small businesses in areas such as artificial intelligence, clean growth, smart energy and agri-food.
Following the dream
The thought of striking out and following a dream, which was the founding step for every SME, intimidates many UK workers. One survey found 36 per cent lacked the confidence to go it alone. Fortunately, whether an existing business or a start-up, there are many options for support available to UK businesses. Grants and loans and non-monetary support are available from a range of organisations, all aimed at helping SMEs tackle the challenges that come with innovating with limited resources.
Innovate UK, an agency within the UKRI, offers further support, including its Smart funding that helps businesses take innovations from concept to market. Innovation Loans are available for companies whose innovations are close to being market-ready. Innovate UK has further funding schemes to help companies innovate in numerous ways, including up to £30 million to set up flagship centres supporting the manufacturing supply chain in the latest electronics and machines needed in the burgeoning clean power sector, and working with Chinese partners to develop new smart farming technologies.
To help drive home the idea that innovation can come from anywhere and there are SMEs that think big when it comes to innovation, Innovate UK celebrated its tenth anniversary in an innovative manner. It produced a slick publication, lavishing the type of glamorous treatment usually reserved for celebrities and, instead, applying it to innovative organisations. It shows the power great ideas can have.
The benefits to innovating and taking on these crucial global issues goes beyond securing grants and loans, though. These are issues that matter to consumers. Researchers asked consumers whether a brands’ embracing of environmental, social or political causes was becoming more important to their purchasing decisions. Forty-two per cent said it is becoming more important or much more important. Innovating to help improve important global issues can have real bottom line impact, both in terms of funding and revenue.