Stimulating innovation and business growth in rural SMEs (UK)

Project partners University of East Anglia – Norfolk County Council

Contact data
Eve Cronin/Vince Muspratt
Tel. +44 1603 222211
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Website: website:

Key words Business mentors, knowledge economy, business champions, workshops, rural business, innovation

Main problems to be solved (analysis) Innovation in products and processes is critical to the survival and growth of Norfolk’s economy and yet many Norfolk businesses, in particular smaller businesses and more rural businesses, struggle to perform in terms of innovation. This reluctance to explore new products and techniques can stall the growth which is necessary to fuel Norfolk business.

Founders and owners of micro and small businesses have traditionally been wary of business growth, which is seen as creating new management responsibilities that take them away from the core business activities, and which they perceive as undermining their independence (often through dilution of equity). This uncertainty around growth also provides challenges for the sustainability of a business as the knowledge and experience can often lie with a sole individual.

To support growth in these areas the Norfolk Knowledge Innovation Panel was created to support business activity and operate as a hub of creativity and support for businesses in Norfolk’s rural economy. They will assist them in putting together a comprehensive business case, which can help to secure loans or funding, as well as making them aware of the priorities which are likely to arise in the future. Having a mentor to assist with future planning will make new processes and procedures easier to plan for, and overcome. Having this support gives small businesses the confidence to explore innovation, new techniques and new technologies. This in turn will have a positive impact on Norfolk making the local economy more diverse and dynamic.

Policy frameworks to be dealt with/fitting in Norfolk Economic Growth Strategy Norfolk Local Economic Assessment Norfolk Local Area Assessment Development of Business and Innovation policy on supporting SMEs

Aim of the project

Norfolk Knowledge Innovation Panel

This project encouraged SMEs and rural businesses to develop new products and processes. It began to address with these businesses the practical challenges which can be associated with this type of development as well as promoting the broader problem of “innovation awareness” more widely in the County. Essentially, it gave businesses an opportunity to seek guidance from experienced professionals as well as an arena to test their ideas. The professionals providing support have made a committment to a Norfolk ambition of generating greater business innovation and membership is given careful consideration. The activity can be summarised as providing: • Support with product innovation on a 1-1 basis • Support with business growth • Targeting support from other enterpreneurs – often retired “captains of industry”

Business Growth

This project was intended to provide greater awareness about alternative approaches to business growth and development, such as franchising and licensing, new forms of business finance and the development of new business service market supporting outsourcing, mean that some of these concerns can now be effectively addressed, and thus that the traditional choice between ‘growth’ and ‘lifestyle’ has been blurred. Additional pressures due to the economic climate are also forcing many micro and small businesses to reconsider their position.

Results: (a) 54 enquiries for support (b) 50 applications received (c) 8 cash awards made (d) 5 workshops held (e) Numerous other applicants signposted to mainstream Norfolk Knowledge support (f) Business Growth programme supported 22 participants to expand

Outcome within the WP

Norfolk Knowledge Innovation Panel A Working Group (WG) was established, operating over the period of the project through an approved document setting out the responsibilities for the WG and for the Norfolk Knowledge Innovation Panel (NKIP) itself.

An application process to access support classified applications into three groups:

1. Applicants with high potential for innovation – receiving individual help and investment from NK individuals or a team; 2. Applicants with common innovation issues who could be supported in tandem though a workshop; and 3. Applicants who could be supported through standard NK process (not funded through InterReg)

Using this approach ensures that the resources of the team could be used efficiently and as wide a number of businesses as possible could access the programme. Publicity was also an important element to promote the available support widely and included:

1. Website –; 2. PR release to active business networks; and 3. Publicity through local media including newspapers and radio

Video of a case study (a business assisted to develop their product) and photographs of an innovation panel showcase for rural businesses is available through the following link:

Key local and regional promotion was another crucial element of the project which allowed a wider awareness of the programme. This included Chamber of Commerce events, business events, the Royal Norfolk Show and University of East Anglia events. Outreach work was also done raising awareness amongst unemployed individuals or those at risk of redundancy.

Business Growth

The Business Growth Programme aimed to deliver an integrated package of growth support consisting of workshops and mentoring offered by NK members. This was delivered to identified micro and small business who demonstrated both growth potential and growth motivation. To date, the programme has run twice supporting 22 participants through interactive workshops focusing on the development of a business. The engagement of a mentor is a critical success factor for these workshops providing participants with independent and objective advice. Additionally, the participants are encouraged to take part in events to showcase their businesses their work and the progress they have made to date.

Expected outcome for the region as a whole (impact of the project) Through this project we have seen the development of a sustainable link between local businesses in the region and the University of East Anglia which is able to offer considerable expertise through its school and bring together a panel of business champions who are committed to supporting growth in our local economy. Developing these strong links within the region will be a powerful tool for the future.

People: This project is a strong example of using the expertise of local people, including those who have retired, in order to support growth and innovation in rural businesses. Small businesses will not always have an expertise in every area of business development and the support Norfolk Knowledge offers can assist in filling these knowledge gaps.

Planet: As a region of the UK, Norfolk has a strong reputation for supporting our growing energy and renewables industry. This programme could be used to give support to businesses in any sector. Profit: One of the main advantages of this project has been its sustainable nature. The initial investment allowed for the infrastructure of the project to be established, and the network developed. The project has continued to run successfully subsequent to the VRA funding coming to an end. This is done through mentors offering an agreed amount of hours free of charge and if further support is required or requested by the business the time is charged for on a consultancy basis.

Planning 2010-2012

Costs €310,000.

Financing 48% VRA, 52% University of East Anglia/Norfolk Knowledge

Implementation of the project (cf. CAA)

Which stakeholders were involved? The major stakeholders in this activity was the Business School in the University of East Anglia, Norfolk County Council and independent mentors and professionals who contribute their expertise and experience to these emerging and expanding local SMEs.

What process did you run through to fit the project into local conditions? This activity provides a very strong strategic fit for Norfolk. It encourages the growth of SMEs which are the major employer in Norfolk while simultaneously allowing captains of industry who are often retired to continue to contribute and share their experience. The Norwich Business School has a strong reputation which gave credibility to this activity in its early stages and also allows it to develop in line with emerging businesses strategy.

How did you sustainably implement the project (locally, regionally)? This activity is currently exploring its sustainability and is confident it will be able to provide support to businesses beyond the lifetime of this funding.

Firstly, the support and mentoring is provided through a network of professionals who are committed to making a contribution to the Norfolk economy and must go through an application before being approved as a mentor. Secondly, although the cost of the mentoring was initially publically funded it is anticipated that moving forward Norfolk Knowledge will charge competitive consultancy fees for the expertise provided so as t be able to maintain the service.


1 Which successes were achieved so far in the pilot project? The most important successes of the project to date have been:

- The number of businesses supported to establish themselves, innovate or grow - The success of the project in terms of attracting high quality and committed mentors to support Norfolk’s SMEs - It has been crucial to attract business mentors from a variety of sectors and specialisms so as to be able to provide support to SMEs from equally varied backgrounds.

2 What are the expected boundary conditions for the project to be implemented? (a) Partnership working Having a strong and active partnership between organisations holding contrasting information (for example a strategic policy body together with a business) has been important for allowing this activity to grow and have a positive impact across Norfolk. Bringing together the knowledge and experience of the University of East Anglia with its strong business school, the economic knowledge of Norfolk that the County Council was able to offer as well as the business expertise and acumen of the mentors was a strong starting point.

(b) A community of willing mentors Norfolk Knowledge has attracted many mentors and continues to do so, focusing now on sustainability as the funded activity comes to an end. The organisation works hard to match mentors with the businesses they are supporting. Firstly, this could be a match within a specific sector, for example if a mentor has particular knowledge of the relevant sector, its supply chain or even the geographic area. Secondly, the focus could be on specific skills of the mentor, for example a retired accountant might be in a position to offer support with financial planning. It is important for the success of the project to have mentors from a range of sectors, in particular those sectors which align well to Norfolk’s rural economy.

(c) Low overheads The support of UEA’s business school has been integral to the success of this project. The association with the University allows the project the benefit of its reputation, the expertise of some of its members of staff and the facilities from which to form a base. The financial model allows the businesses and mentors to work well together however the administrative costs of the programme also need to be covered.

The impact the project has had is clear, as evidenced through the numerous business showcases the organisation has hosted. This demonstrates not only the success of the organisation but the close and continuous links it has maintained with the beneficiaries.

3 Which related projects can be studied or consulted (other innovative best practice examples) before starting to think on implementation? This project has already been implemented however we feel that it provides a strong business case for future projects hoping to support emerging SMEs in a sustainable and positive way.

Other examples which have been found which relate to this work include:

Network of Regional Innovation Agents (Spain)

The main objectives of the project were to establish a network of regional innovation agents to facilitate the access to technical services for companies situated in the less-favoured areas of Castile-Leon. The specific objectives were: - To select a group of regional innovation agents; - Provide them with training and induction into networks; - To design and prepare a portfolio of services; - To carry our company visits and offer assistance; and - To produce sectoral overviews of the region.

Rural Business Advisers in Essex (UK) Farms in Essex are relatively highly capitalised in terms of buildings, many of which were build many years (even centuries) ago and are no longer suited to modern farming operations. These buildings can provide workspaces for a wide range of rurally based enterprises, either owned and run directly by the farmer or by other entrepreneurs. A major constraint in the process of conversion is obtaining planning permission. A specialist Rural Business Advisor is helping local businesses, farmers and landowners with the processes involved in converting these redundant buildings for commercial use.

4 What is the applicability / transferability of the project? Essentially, this activity is highly transferable. The most important factor is to obtain the support and buy in from industry professionals who are willing to offer their time to support new businesses. Norfolk Knowledge has worked hard to attract suitable mentors and we are confident that other partner regions in the VRA geographic area would have similar industry leaders.

In an area such as Norfolk, where there are relatively few urban hubs the main source of employment comes from SMEs. However, evidence suggests that SMEs are often less innovative in rural areas and may need support and encouragement to assist them in rejuvenating their existing business. Mentors with a proven track record of success are well placed to assist in this development.

Having the support of the University of East Anglia was important both in providing a base for the activity, but also in terms of providing experienced management for the project through its early stages. This is less crucial as the project becomes firmly established but was initially crucial.

Currently many of the sectors supported through Norfolk Knowledge are those sectors most important to Norfolk’s economy, however given appropriate mentors it is a highly transferable model to other sectors.

5 Which tools does the project bring in to alleviate / help starting up implementation elsewhere? The key tool for this project was to create a panel of business experts from a wide range of sectors – a positive outcome of having a broad panel of mentors has meant that businesses from many sectors have been able to benefit from the available assistance. This has been a helpful tool in Norfolk given that the majority of businesses are SMEs and from a diverse cross section of sectors.

However, it would not be difficulty to envisage a similar project operating with a specialism in a particular sector, and a smaller group of mentors with significant knowledge to contribute in that area.

6 Sustainability How is/can the project be sustainably implemented? What is needed to reach this?

Sustainability is the main focus for this activity once the funded element is completed. This is being activity explored given the continued popularity of the service being provided. Given the nature of the service the most attractive option would be to allow interest businesses to purchase support from a chosen mentor on a consultancy basis. This method provides an incentive to industry professionals to participate while giving Norfolk Knowledge greater financial security.

Date of production of this project format: November 28, 2012