Growth Hubs as an Intermediary of University Business Support: The Case of Coventry University Services Ltd

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Freya Williams examines the role of growth hubs in helping businesses to access support from universities. 

The Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership (GBSLEP) Growth Hub supports local businesses. Support is provided either within the Growth Hub, GBSLEP or external partners. One aspect of this provision is serving as an intermediary between businesses seeking support and local and regional anchor institutions such as universities and further education colleges. A detailed analysis of GBSLEP Growth Hub referrals to regional universities shows that between October 2019 and July 2021, 396 businesses were referred to university partners. Coventry University helped 115 of these businesses through Coventry University Services Ltd (CUS Ltd), a subsidiary company of Coventry University. This blog outlines the types of support provided by CUS Ltd.

About Coventry University Services Ltd

CUS Ltd offers Small and Medium Enterprise (SME) support, knowledge transfer partnerships and continuing professional development courses. Although CUS Ltd is separate from the university’s day to day business of teaching and research, some SME support programmes offer collaboration opportunities with academics. An example of this is the Research and Development Collaborations which draw on academics from Coventry University to support SMEs to develop innovative products or processes in the Digital Construction sector.

Around 10,000 companies per year contact CUS Ltd’s business support team and a tenth require in-depth support including tailored one-to-one support and funding opportunities for product or process development depending on the LEP the business operates in.

For businesses located in the GBSLEP area, CUS Ltd offers three ERDF funded programmes:

  • Focus Digital
  • Innovation Networks
  • Proof of Concept
Focus Digital

Focus Digital has been running for five years with a target of providing intense support to 400 businesses, with GBSLEP businesses making up a third of this target. The programme supports businesses to take a step up the digital ladder by offering workshops on topics like YouTube, branding and website development. Grants for bespoke consultancy and support of up to £5,000 are available to SMEs to acquire new digital products or develop new processes. Typically, the businesses that are supported are small businesses with 15-16 employees and an average turnover of £1.2-1.3 million a year. Between October 2019 and July 2021 Focus Digital was the most referred to scheme offered by the GBSLEP Growth Hub. The size of businesses referred ranged from sole traders to 73 employees.

Innovation Networks and Proof of Concept

CUS Ltd offers two grant schemes accessible to SMEs based in the GBSLEP. These are the Innovation Networks and Proof of Concept programmes and offer funding opportunities of up to £10,000 to cover external costs incurred in the process of developing innovative new products, processes, or services. Recipients of grants are required to provide matched funding and receive payment on the submission of invoices. These schemes serve a slightly wider business demographic to the Focus Digital Programme as their support is also appropriate for micro (fewer than 10 employees) or very small companies. Unlike Focus Digital, businesses seeking a Proof of Concept grant do not need a trading history.

Relationships with local partners

The way support is provided is that businesses initially approach the Growth Hub. The Growth Hub undertakes a needs analysis to determine the most appropriate method of support required including whether to address the enquiry within the Growth Hub or to pass the business on to external partners. If a CUS Ltd scheme is deemed appropriate, the Growth Hub will contact CUS Ltd and enquire if they can help. CUS Ltd then reaches out to the company to carry out eligibility checks and match their services with the needs of the business. On occasions where CUS Ltd services are considered unsuitable the business is referred back to the Growth Hub.

CUS Ltd places great importance on keeping in contact with other local partners including the Black Country and Coventry and Warwickshire LEPs and their respective Growth Hubs as well as the GBSLEP Growth Hub. CUS Ltd aims to keep the Growth Hubs updated with how individual businesses progress.

CUS Ltd has formal and informal relationships with the Chambers of Commerce and support programmes of other regional universities to ensure their activities complement other business support programmes in the region rather than compete with other providers. They are, for example, in close contact with iCentrum, a digital innovation centre located in Birmingham, and STEAMhouse an incubator space for STEAM (science, technology, art, engineering & maths) businesses run by Birmingham City University. CUS Ltd understands the important role of the Growth Hubs and tries to keep them central to a business’ support journey.

Funding and Impact of Brexit

Most of the support programmes provided by CUS Ltd are externally funded. Innovate UK funds the Innovate UK EDGE programme, a national initiative which is delivered across the East and West Midlands through CUS Ltd. Business support offered to GBSLEP businesses by CUS Ltd has been predominately funded by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF). This means that with UK’s departure from the European Union, CUS Ltd’s current funding ends between September 2022 and March 2023, it is hoped that future funding to continue this activity will be accessed from the Government’s Shared Prosperity Fund. It is not clear when this will be available and there is some concern regarding the continuity of some programmes once ERDF funding ceases.

The Effects of COVID-19

The pandemic impacted CUS Ltd’s business support schemes initially in terms of operations (with the move of face-to-face to online workshops) but also in their level of business engagement. At the beginning of lockdown, there was a massive reduction in claims for their grant schemes. This might have been caused by economic uncertainty. Businesses became reluctant to spend resources on innovation. After a few months into lockdown, however, the amount of claims increases – but not to previous levels. According to CUS Ltd, historically grant activity tends to follow cyclical changes, so considering the effects of COVID-19 on the economy, the reduction in grant activity is unsurprising.

Focus Digital on the other hand has thrived during the pandemic. Services saw an increase in demand with the move of workshops to online. With social restrictions in place, businesses were also keen to access help in selling their products online. The initial demand has levelled out and ‘things have now returned to normal’. CUS Ltd’s enquiry numbers are now similar to pre-pandemic levels.

Special thanks to Martin Lucy, Operations & Development Manager at CUS Ltd and John Otter, Business Delivery Manager at CUS Ltd.

This blog was written by Freya Williams, a summer Intern at City-REDI / WMREDI, University of Birmingham. 

The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of City-REDI or the University of Birmingham.

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