West Mids transport sector turns out for launch of the Clean Futures Catalyst

Innovative small businesses and larger companies in the West Midlands gathered at the STEAMhouse in Birmingham for the launch of the Clean Futures Catalyst.

“Don’t accept the status quo, and don’t accept an answer until you are satisfied,” remarked Natalie Wadley, co-founder of materials specialist ChangeMaker 3D to delegates at the Clean Futures Catalyst launch event on 28 February.

Natalie was one of two start-up company representatives supported by the Clean Futures Accelerator programme who were invited to address the launch of the Catalyst – which aims to support a larger number of local businesses in the West Midlands who are developing technologies designed to make transport more sustainable. 

She spoke of the need for disruptive companies such as hers not to give up in trying to convince stakeholders to try out new products or ways of working because they are different to the normal methods of operation.  

Natalie outlined a series of frustrations felt as a small business but spelt out how she had overcome challenges with the support of willing stakeholders. Her company develops 3D printing technology for use on rail projects such as HS2 to reduce the use of concrete – and therefore reduce carbon – associated with building infrastructure such as retaining walls. 

She said that in her line of work, there is limited carbon data available to compare conventional versus new methods of construction. She explained that the “cost versus carbon debate” must begin “earlier in the supply chain discussion” to allow carbon savings to be given greater value.

There is a huge void between demonstrating innovation and the cultural change that is needed to drive it through,
Natalie Wadley, co-founder of ChangeMaker 3D

Natalie also spoke of difficulties in securing public liability insurance on one project in order to showcase new clean construction technology, where “insurers didn’t want to engage”. It took 16 months “of continually banging down the door” to have conversations with underwriters and secure £1 million of insurance. 

Alongside her on stage was Les Gill of Global Nano Network – a manufacturer of eco-friendly batteries – and another of the current cohort of firms taking part in the Clean Futures Accelerator. He said he recognised Natalie’s frustrations around insurance, and also pointed out that “the gestation period” for small companies to bring new products to market can be long. “We burn cash and only have small pockets, so are only going to be able to survive with support,” he said. 

New technology aimed at reducing environmental impact has to be considered much more than is currently the case, he added. “There needs to be a reprioritisation of what is ‘good’ and more of a focus on the full lifecycle of a new product. 

“We have a unique battery recycling process that doesn’t require toxic acids in the re-purposing process. However, right now we have to focus on our component production process to bring in revenue to grow. We should not feel we are alone trying to do all this; we need commercial support from industry.”

But Les said clients should not simply accept the latest technologies coming through because they are “the brightest or the best performing”. Because if they don’t have a recycling process behind them, “they should be less of a priority than those that do,” he said. 

He also said that many in the supply chain are aware of the need to decarbonise, but there is sometimes an “inability to act”. 

Les also pointed out that education providers have “a great role to play” in helping the next generation of construction professionals to think greener. But he added: “For manufacturers working in high density energy industries of the West Midlands such as ceramics and glass, it is no good just changing the lightbulbs; because they have furnaces the size of your house. This is where disruptive innovation companies like ours should be encouraged to help them.”

Larger firms offer their advice 

Also speaking at the event were Marcus Henry of Jaguar Land Rover and Stephen Bryden of the Great British Railways Transition Team who outlined efforts in the automotive and rail sectors to transition towards net zero. 

“More environmentally friendly products do not have to be more expensive,” said Marcus. “If they are resource efficient, they could be cheaper. He advised small companies to “talk to one another and begin the journey on environmental leadership; you may make yourself more competitive.” 

Stephen welcomed the efforts of smaller companies to get involved in developing new green technology. “Climate change is too important an issue to ignore,” he remarked. “Keep asking the awkward questions.”    

Connected Places Catapult’s Executive Director of SME Development and Academic Engagement, Alex Weedon said the pathway to securing commercial revenue does not yet exist for many innovators working on net zero developments in the transport sector. Programmes such as the Clean Futures Catalyst, he added, can therefore help small companies to market their services by providing them with access to knowledge, testing facilities and connections in the West Midlands. 

“Clean Futures represents a joinedup approach by bringing challenge owners together with innovators to create jobs and growth over the longer term,” he said. “The Catalyst is absolutely vital to the sustainability of the Clean Futures programme in the longer run; by extending its reach to help embed a culture of innovation in the region.
Connected Places Catapult’s Executive Director of SME Development and Academic Engagement, Alex Weedon

West Midlands Combined Authority’s Innovation Board Chair, Mike Wright told delegates of the wider Innovation Accelerator programme of which Clean Futures is part, and said his aim next year is to see evidence of technology delivering impact in the region. “We have a rich history of innovation, research and development that is grounded in advanced manufacturing, automotive and aerospace. Now we are now trying to translate that to different areas of interest such as clean tech.” 

Transport for West Midlands’ Head of Transport Innovation, Chris Lane spoke of the need to reduce private car use in the region in order to meet net zero targets, and said it was important to treat all communities fairly in the transition to greener travel. He also outlined the region’s local transport plan which contains three areas of focus: ‘avoiding’ travel in the first place; ‘shifting’ travel to active modes and public transport; and ‘improving’ transport options such as with more zero emission vehicles. 

One facility that innovators in the West Midlands will be able to make use of is the Black Country Innovative Manufacturing Organisation’s (BCIMO) new innovation centre at Dudley, which includes a 2.2km long test track and a 870m long tunnel to test new rail related transport technology, plus meeting and event spaces. 

Alex Weedon, Paul Fairburn, and Olivia Brown

Operations and marketing manager Olivia Brown said of the event: “I was delighted to present our ‘cog model of innovation’ and how the development of technology is supported through our Clean Futures Catalyst, Accelerator and Commercial Investment Hub activities. We received a lot of positive feedback following the event and we look forward to continuing those discussions over the coming weeks and months.” 

Support for the Clean Futures Accelerator is also offered from the Institute for Advanced Manufacturing & Engineering at Coventry University.

Coventry University’s Lead Business Advisor Brian Stevens was joined on stage by his colleagues Head of Innovation Deepak Farmah and Head of Digital Transformation Richard Lane to outline the benefits of taking part in the Clean Futures Catalyst. They also explained that two masterclasses will be hosted in March for innovators involved in clean tech, followed by a workshop on 17 April and a series of showcase events for participants.

Event host Paul Fairburn, the Director of Innovation at Coventry University said afterwards that he was delighted to have launched the Clean Futures Catalyst, to help small businesses over the next year as they work on transport decarbonisation initiatives. “The key for me is that people are part of this network,” he said. “We will work with them to understand some of their decarbonisation challenges and feed that back into the Catalyst programme to ensure we give them the support they need.” 


Sign up to receive information on the Clean Futures Catalyst: please email

On 30 April the Clean Futures Accelerator will open for another round of applications, with transport innovators in the West Midlands encouraged to apply for funding and support – register to be notified when applications open. 


Clean Futures is being led by Connected Places Catapult alongside partners: the Black Country Innovative Manufacturing Organisation, Coventry University and CU Services Limited. To ensure sustainability and long-term benefits, the Clean Futures project is establishing the Clean Futures Catalyst, led by Coventry University, which is bringing together the wider West Midlands transport community to enhance the region’s capacity for clean technology across all sectors. Clean Futures is part of the West Midlands Innovation Accelerator – a locally-led initiative delivered in partnership with the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, Innovate UK and the West Midlands Combined Authority.