Encouraging regional leaders to take risks and reap rewards with innovative firms

Business champions in the West Midlands spoke about how changing the culture of procurement can benefit innovators and public sector buyers during a showcase of the DIATOMIC Accelerator programme, convened by Connected Places Catapult.

Public sector leaders spend as much as £300 Billion on third party suppliers every year in the UK. But if just 5% of that money was spent on innovative products and services it could unlock £15 Billion to support some of our most creative companies.

One region exploring how procuring new solutions could unlock value for local businesses and people is the West Midlands, where Connected Places Catapult is leading the DIATOMIC Accelerator, bringing together nine innovative firms with Birmingham City Council.

At a showcase event to promote the programme at the STEAMhouse in Birmingham in April, Principal Place Development Lead, Catherine Hadfield explained: “DIATOMIC is all about digital innovation, and the programme is supporting SMEs in the region with innovative solutions to some of the region’s biggest challenges around housing and waste management.”

Catherine chaired a panel session, and asked those alongside her for their thoughts on how best to create frameworks that allow innovation to thrive.

“For me, it’s about leadership,” replied Rikesh Shah, the Head of the Innovation Procurement Empowerment Centre. “It means senior professionals saying to their teams they have permission to experiment with new ideas offered by the market, not to worry if they get something wrong, but to learn – and to have the right guardrails in place.

“We have to take a few more risks and create more of an entrepreneurial environment, rather than playing it safe and not achieving our desired outcomes in the long run.”
Rikesh Shah, Head of the Innovation Procurement Empowerment Centre at Connected Places Catapult

Rikesh added that the aftermath of Covid showed how it was possible for large firms to be more innovative in their engagement with the market, “but suddenly all this red tape came back, and the problem-solving spirit was lost”.

Alongside him on the panel was Emily Stubbs, the Head of Policy at the Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce. “Covid proved to be an incredible mass exercise in showing that innovation was possible,” she said. “Small companies have to dedicate a lot of time and resources to tender for public sector contracts, and particularly high value ones. Programmes such as DIATOMIC help provide useful support to help them to navigate the challenges.”

Emily also said it can be very difficult for local businesses to connect with the public sector and interact with large organisations, but that companies who do well often “put themselves out there” and try to start a conversation. “Use the connections you have to identify where the opportunities are,” she advised.

DIATOMIC Accelerator Cohort

Diversity in focus

Catherine Hadfield – who recently chaired a podcast on inclusive innovation in the West Midlands – asked how leaders in the West Midlands should best reach out to businesses run by women and professionals from minority ethnic backgrounds in order to help address the region’s housing and waste management issues.

“We need to get better at bringing in businesses run by people from diverse backgrounds into public sector supply chains, and we can do that by working better with those organisations that are already offering them advice and support,”
suggested Conrad Parke, the Co-ordinator from the Birmingham Anchor Network which supports local businesses and creates employment opportunities for local disadvantaged communities

He added that the new Procurement Act coming later this year promises to help remove barriers to small businesses accessing the public sector supply chain, but commented that there needs to be a collective response from a region to agree on what those barriers to entry are, in order to reduce the amount of red tape they face.

Pia van Antwerpen, Community and Engagement Lead for SuperTech West Midlands – a cluster body for professional services technology and innovation – said the public sector must look to better educate and support founders looking to bid, if wanting to reduce their entry barriers. “The tendering process for accessing public sector projects and opportunities is complex, and in some ways like a game; one where each move requires significant time and resources. With little to no guarantee of winning or even support to ‘learn the ropes’ this something many early-stage entrepreneurs can’t afford to do.”

She added that companies looking to choose the right accelerator programme to work with must identify which business goals they need help with, and whether the mentors and benefits offered are aligned to their success needs. “Don’t just follow those around you,” she noted. “Go to where you need to be”.

Fostering a culture of innovation

Earlier during the showcase, Connected Places Catapult’s Executive Director of SME Development and Academic Engagement, Alex Weedon described the DIATOMIC Accelerator programme as fostering a “culture of innovation” that aims to create demand for new ideas to solve market challenges.

“If we can focus more local authority spend on supporting local supply chains and more specifically innovation, we can make a real difference,” he said.

The DIATOMIC Accelerator is being led by Connected Places Catapult in collaboration with Birmingham City Council, STEAMhouse and the Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce. It is part of the wider West Midlands Innovation Accelerator, which is designed to bolster the region’s innovation and R&D capability and spark commercial growth and investment.

The West Midlands Innovation Accelerator is delivered in partnership with the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, Innovate UK and the West Midlands Combined Authority.

Find out more about the nine SMEs in the first cohort of the DIATOMIC programme.

Listen to Catherine Hadfield chair a panel discussion on the Connected Places Podcast around inclusive innovation in the West Midlands.