We (Mel and Ceri) have been involved in supporting innovation and startups across Sheffield and Barnsley for a number of years. We love our work, and we’re encouraged by some recent progress regionally, though at times it has been challenging. So, when the region did some work looking at the innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem, we wanted to make sure the effort brought maximum benefit.

An opportunity with MIT

Along with 5 other UK regions, Sheffield City Region (then SCR, now the South Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority) participated in MIT REAP UK in 2020. The programme presented SCR with the opportunity to effect a step-change in the region’s ability to generate and exploit innovation, through applying insights and methodologies from MIT.  However, it took place at a time when internal resources were stretched thin by pressing priorities, including the Covid-19 Response and Recovery plan, devolution and the Strategic Economic Plan.

To enable SCR to achieve the most from MIT REAP, we proposed a six month pilot (The Synergy Project) to explore the conditions needed to promote ‘Innovation-Driven Enterprises’ – start-ups, scale-ups and SMEs with high growth potential and global ambition.

We gained funding support from Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council, Sheffield City Region, Sheffield Hallam University and the University of Sheffield to spend 20% of our time on the pilot from January to June 2021. Over the summer we provided a draft report, which was reviewed and approved for publication.

What did we do?

Building on what the SCR team started in the MIT REAP UK workshops, we set out to develop and deliver the first activity or ‘Must Win Battle’. Our plan was to:

  • Identify the barriers to the formation and success of Innovation Driven Enterprises (IDEs) in the SCR

  • Explore our regional innovation ecosystem, identifying what works, what doesn’t and where there are gaps

  • Formulate and test out activities designed to strengthen the ecosystem and encourage IDEs to start and to thrive

We carried out over 50 interviews, gathering input from entrepreneurs, business leaders and other members of the SCR ecosystem [see Appendix 1 of the report for the list of organisations]. In online meetings, we asked open questions about their organisations and views of the ecosystem. We then analysed the interview scripts to identify the different themes and topics, quantifying the number of people who mentioned a particular barrier [See Appendix 2: Barriers and Gaps report]. Qualitative thoughts on ideas and opportunities were also captured [See Appendix 3: Ideas and Opportunities report]. Key to this was our Connection Team, made up of experienced regional innovation practitioners, who acted as a sounding board and contributed to the approach.

During the course of the project, we gathered a huge amount of information and insight from our contributors and our own research. We have distilled all of this into our final report, which summarises our approach, findings and recommendations. [See Synergy Project Report Final].

What did we find out?

The key barrier to the development of our region’s innovation ecosystem is that it is not joined up. 75% of people interviewed said the innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem is fragmented or disconnected. There is a lack of connectivity and support networks, people don’t know what support is available and how to contact others and it is difficult to find collaborators and to set up collaborations.

We identified that the following areas all need to be addressed:

  • Disconnection and inadequate signposting

  • Visibility of innovation and entrepreneurship

  • Network building – investment, mentors, collaborators etc

  • Clustering around strengths and emerging capabilities

  • Data gathering to benchmark activity and improve support offers

  • Improving understanding between private and public sectors

  • Bringing the 5 MIT REAP stakeholder groups together (local government, corporates, entrepreneurs, universities and risk finance) through some type of delivery vehicle.

Despite there being clear challenges to overcome, the high level of engagement in the project gives us reasons to be positive. The obvious talent, enthusiasm, wealth of ideas and willingness to contribute represents significant potential waiting to be unlocked.

What has happened as a result?

From our learning, we selected some areas to try different short-term interventions, such as creating an information resource about regional innovation and available support [see this website], mapping the customer journey for businesses, facilitating discussions around an investor network and setting up a LinkedIn Directory.

Our recommendations have been well received and are feeding into policy and planning linked to innovation and entrepreneurship at SCR, some local authorities, the Olympic Legacy Park, and regional cluster groups. We have also provided input from our findings to contribute to Yorkshire-wide investment round table discussions and to inform SCR’s policy development around inclusive innovation.

Mainly we want to get people talking about how they can help build the ecosystem – such as through knowledge sharing, collaboration, business acceleration and investor networks – and taking individual and collective action.

What’s next?

As well as our recommendations for next steps in the report, we have shared the following key messages with regional stakeholders.

In order to strengthen the innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem in South Yorkshire, we need:

  • A clear focus on supporting innovative start-ups and SMEs with high growth potential

  • To tackle the disconnection issue across our ecosystem

  • To have proper funding over a decent length of time (for an ecosystem support activity)

  • All stakeholders to step up and work in partnership

  • An (ongoing) open and collaborative mindset

We will be continuing to do everything we can to help make this happen.

How can you get involved?

If you have a strong interest in supporting startups, scaleups and innovation in South Yorkshire, please request to join our LinkedIn Directory.

If you can help to further implement our recommendations, through time, resource, funding or influence, please get in touch.

Many thanks to everybody who has supported us and contributed to the project. It has been wonderful to speak to you all and hear about your experiences and ideas.

Ceri and Mel