The University, The Innovation Centre, Studio X, Colbea, regional and local authorities, schools, colleges and most importantly, entrepreneurs – these are the elements that make up the Regional Innovation System of NE Essex and Suffolk. To work as a system though it needs purpose and vision, so can we achieve that?
For the last seven months I have been honoured to be engaged with ’Studio-X, The University of Essex’s innovation space at the Wivenhoe Campus. I cannot take credit for much since a lot of the hard work was done by Simon Meade now of Cambridge Wireless, and of course Rob Singh, his dedicated staff and the staff at the University. I can though say it’s been a real blast and a lesson in the power of vision in the process of change.
In January of this year I entered an 80% completed venue, unoccupied and cold but, it had that smell of newness everywhere. You know the scent you get if you are ever lucky enough to own a brand new car, the sense that here was something where a future relationship between yourself and that space will be created. The newness would evaporate over time, to be replaced by an aura of activity, hard work and lots of fun on the way, we are not there yet. As the car offers the promise of new roads to be travelled and journeys to be made, so Studio-X within the Innovation Centre, held exactly the same sense of opportunity to come.
Space is just that, space; you come to realise how dead space can be without people in it, without unpredictable chatter, the sounds of ideas being crafted and human interactions being made. It was this challenge that I wanted to address, to stop for one moment and start to vision how this facility was going to change the regional innovation landscape for good.
NE Essex is now my home. I have lived here for the last 30 years, raised a family here and built friendships. For much of that time I travelled back and forth to London – early trains and late home times, is the common fodder of the commuter. I was born in Peterborough at the start of 60’s, a cathedral city with a small population, I would describe it as a place with a heart, where families had history and people had connections. Perhaps best known for its sugar production, engine manufacturing plants and a football club with a reputation for slaying giants. Peterborough sits in a prime location, less that an hour from London, providing easy access to the North and pathways to the rest of the country.
This geographic feature, along with cheap labour and low cost commercial property, became the prime selling points prompting an exponential growth in population where villages merged into suburbs that, in turn, were connected by a network of homogenous roads that once on, blended into one freeway. Always hard to navigate since you rarely knew where you were for much of the time. ‘Progress’ leaves a wake and sometimes the churned up surface waters are not the only thing to be disturbed, often the very foundations that shape the course and flow of water can become destabilised especially when change travels at a clip. When things become murky, the vision obfuscated, people’s anxieties are raised and direction becomes secondary to survival. The sense of place vanishes and with it the culture that ties people together.
I have nothing against Peterborough, I only observe how hard it is to get back something once its lost. I rarely go there now so things may be very different and I hope they are. I only reflect on that place because the same symptoms are observable here in my region. As you drive at a snails pace from one sector of region to the next you notice a new housing estate emerge from derelict gravel pits, properties on flood plains become the norm and a traffic flow unable to cope with the barbell of congestion established by a commuter pattern. To be fair the traffic is the least of my concerns, it is the daily exodus that I am concerned with. If we are building clusters of activity away from here then we are letting our talent pool leave, letting the creativity that our schools, colleges and universities are fostering, flow away like water on a rocky hill. This exodus weakens our ability to shape a future that meets the challenge of change and growth. To reverse the pattern before it’s too late we have to create quality jobs, those jobs that invest in people, pay well and offer opportunity for self-actualisation. We can’t do that unless we all work as one, a community focused on lifting the aspirations of the entrepreneurs who live here.
We now have a place, The Innovation Centre and Studio X, where such promise exists. It is up to all of us to instil the belief that we can make it work for the region, for the entrepreneurs who strive within it and for the talent pool who want to stay and work here. A place without a purpose is an empty vessel – our job at Relocon, through the work we are doing with the University, with the local enterprise agency, the local and regional authorities and through all our connections to local entrepreneurs is to shine a light on all of this good stuff. To look within, to look around and to look to the future. There is a saying – look after the bee and the hive will prosper – the entrepreneurs are our bees, the startup culture the honey that feeds us, we now have a hive so let’s nurture it.
In my work I engage with many different startup environments, talk to funders, work with entrepreneurs and always relate any piece of advice or solution to a problem, back to our purpose of ‘how does this help create quality jobs in NE Essex and Suffolk? Why? Because I want my grandchildren and the next generation to have real opportunity, a choice to find quality work here, to build families here and create communities that are proud, connected and working towards betterment.
For those naysayers who say we are small, we can’t do anything worthwhile – I say all it takes is knowing what the leverage is within the system, know that and we know how to push on the right levers. At the moment the leverage is what we do with the Innovation Centre, how we educate entrepreneurs and in doing so lift aspiration. The team at Oxford Innovation, led by Dan Smart and the Essex Startups team are working hard in partnership to make this come alive. Those who have visited the space are absolutely on-board, they see the future and they want more of it.
When looking to the future I am inspired by the way other places have developed and grown. We are though not a Cambridge, Edinburgh or London – we are what we want to be, different, not committed to one sector or another, a cluster of entrepreneurial vitality that will find its own path.
In the State’s, perhaps the foremost advocates of entrepreneurial start-up environments, one such destination simply emerged from the journey from East to West coast. Boulder Colorado is still a small city with a population of around 100,000 growing to 250,000 when you add in the extended metro area. It is, though, an engine of tech startup activity, and one of the reasons why Colorado features 4th in the VC league table of deals done. This started in the 1970’s and continues today. I would encourage everyone interested in the culture of clusters to read Brad Felds’ Startup Communities, and reflect what it would take to do the same on your doorstep. Its success was its ability to attract entrepreneurs into the region and build an ecosystem that encouraged them to stay, not because of any short-term incentive, but because they saw its potential as a great place to live. Top ranked for heath and wellbeing, constantly engaged in the arts and creativity, a strong University and a quality of life, these are the reason why people invest.
My contribution to an aspiration like this comes through Relocon. At the University I have developed a two year accelerator programme that sits at the core of the delivery. Designed for student entrepreneurs, supported by platforms that link business to students through challenge events, and eventually to a trail of funding and finance, this delivery will be the reason why the community will grow. I have learned so much in seven months about raising the aspirations of a few, now Relocon’s challenge is to use this experience and raise the aspirations of the many.
If you want to know more about the Innovation Centre then please contact Daniel Smart at firstname.lastname@example.org – he and the team would welcome the opportunity to discuss the space and all it offers.
If you would like to know more about Relocon – our forthcoming offer and the programme we are looking to deliver for local entrepreneurs then contact us at email@example.com – Karen, Adam and I will be happy to chat about what we are doing.
Relocon is an entrepreneurial educator, agitating the ecosystem that supports the creation of a startup culture within NE Essex and Suffolk. We believe that opportunity starts from looking within.