Change and challenge

Change and challenge is driving innovation to a new level in Leeds City Region says Dr Martin Stow, Chair and Director of University of Leeds’ innovation hub Nexus.

Businesses have seen so much change – from Brexit and COVID, to Government instability, the cost of living and climate crisis – but as well as presenting challenges, these changes are also providing a stimulus to new ideas.

And it’s not only about new ideas, it’s about increased adoption of those ideas. Just looking at the digital health space, there has been more adoption in the last six months than in an entire decade.
Of the over 110 companies now in the Nexus community, half are in the healthtech sector, reflecting not only the strengths of the University of Leeds, but also the extensive assets across the city region, which is seen as a healthcare innovation cluster, particularly in digital health.

Many of the entrepreneurs and businesses in our community are harnessing innovation to address health inequalities and to deliver better diagnoses and targeted treatments. We’re also an integral part of the newly-launched Leeds Innovation Arc – the innovation neighbourhood formed around our universities, the proposed new adult and children’s hospitals in the city and major private sector partners.
As our city’s reputation continues to grow internationally, fintech and environmental businesses are also delivering significant growth opportunities. This is particularly apparent amongst businesses involved in green financing and smart cities technology.

Nexus is attracting global companies looking for a UK base to accelerate their growth. Businesses based in New Zealand, Estonia, the US, Canada, Norway, Italy and France have now joined our community, with a strong pipeline of interest and approaches from across the world.

Leeds’ participation in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Regional Entrepreneurship Acceleration Programme (REAP), has been instrumental in getting the city and region to think in a different way, increasing the understanding of innovation as a catalyst for growth.

The current BUILD accelerator which came out of that programme, is now supporting a diverse range of entrepreneurs, many of whom had previously struggled to get the support they needed – over 50% are female-led businesses and over 40% led by entrepreneurs from ethnic minority backgrounds.

Designed by local entrepreneurs who wanted to give something back, the programme provides expert mentoring as well as practical advice and support. Focusing on ideas related to Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) goals, it is helping some inspiring people turn their ideas into reality.

A great example is Caterpillar Health, one of the first businesses to go through the programme, who recently gained £450,000 worth of funding as a result. I’m incredibly proud of the Nexus team’s role in the programme and in driving the importance of ESG as key to the continued growth of Leeds and our wider city region.

My past experience at multi-national healthcare company J&J (Johnson and Johnson) showed me the true value of ethical business. Robert Wood Johnson, a former Chairman of the company, established the Credo 80 years ago. It’s a statement that lays out how the business is run with integrity and based on ethical principles. The Credo talks about the first responsibility of the company being the well-being of the users of its products and services: the patients, doctors nurses and others. It also sets out the need to operate in a way that allows business partners to make a fair profit and underlines J&J’s responsibility for its employees and the communities in which it functions. In the Credo the final responsibility is to shareholders. Doing what’s right was fundamental and our business decisions were governed by it.

More and more companies are waking up to that and recognising that if you design, produce and test products which only cater for one specific group, you’re creating sub-optimal products. We have to be inclusive in the way we develop new concepts. Diversity of thought gives you a different perspective and breadth of ideas and working collaboratively is fundamental to facilitating the development of ground-breaking products and services.
Tackling real world issues and challenges and making a positive impact on society and the environment is also hugely important from a skills and talent perspective. Recent research from University of Leeds students Union showed that a large proportion of students wanted jobs which had a societal impact and addressed key issues for the country and the world.

Yorkshire has more science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) student graduates than any region in the UK. For many of them, their choice of career will be informed by the opportunity to work with organisations and businesses that make a real impact on things that matter to people and the planet. Collaboration across science and social disciplines will be vital in attracting that talent and driving a major acceleration in innovation over the next few years.

The theme of collaboration and partnership runs throughout every aspect of our community and remains the cornerstone of the Nexus-effect for innovation-led business growth. We’re specifically designed to cultivate innovation, both as a community of like-minded businesses and as a much wider network of entrepreneurs, world-class academics, partners and advisers.
In the face of change and challenge, the role of innovation as a tool for growth is more critical than ever and it’s only by working together that we will drive impact and value for business, the environment and society.