Net Zero and equality are key to ‘Levelling up’ the region: Insights from the third Accelerating Investment & Innovation Summit

05 December 2022

untapped unicorns

Estelle Blanks, CEO at Innovation SuperNetwork 

In the past few weeks there has been a lot of activity across the whole of the North on how we drive forward our region in the face of economic uncertainty and the net zero challenge.  

Last week I attended the Great North Conference in Manchester, organised by the Northern Powerhouse Partnership & National World. It featured politicians and business leaders from across the North West, Yorkshire & North East. The discussions were complex and really reinforced for me the collective challenges we face here in the wider North, and the importance of coming together collaboratively to face some of this.  

So it was with this mindset that we hosted our third annual Accelerating Investment and Innovation Summit on Tuesday (29th November). As always, our online summit was a hotbed of discussion, and again brought together policy makers, businesses and regional stakeholders to uncover the greatest challenges facing the equity investment and innovation finance landscape.  

Incidentally the summit opened just a few days after our delivery partner, British Business Bank (BBB), released their Nations and Regions tracker. As always the tracker is packed with insights to help us understand how we’re performing. But there are three points I wanted to share that really underpin some of the key themes we saw emerge from the Summit on Tuesday: 

  • A large focus for the report is on how BBB are breaking down barriers to investment in deprived areas. The North East topped the report’s ‘depravation scale’ with 31% of the population living in such areas.  
  • It also highlighted (via the Resolution Foundation) that an estimated extra £13.5bn of investment is needed in 2022 to meet the UK’s climate change goals, rising to over £50bn annually by 2030. For businesses operating in Net Zero sectors, the highest proportion securing first round investment could be found not in London, but in the North East with 67% seeing success.  
  • A sign of the increasing strength of the overall UK equity ecosystem outside of London is the increasing number of angels outside of London. The number of deals involving an angel outside of London increased 21% to 373 between 2020 and 2021, whilst the value of those deals increased by 87% reaching £1bn.  

So this leads me onto the Summit itself, where the common thread weaving through the day was the scale of the need and the opportunity for the North in regards to levelling up, the net zero challenge, and ensuring more inclusive investment to support not just more female-founders (which remains a key priority for us here at the Innovation SuperNetwork), but those from ‘deprived’ backgrounds, which also accounts for a large number of ethnic minority communities.  

Our day kicked off with a keynote speech from business founder, investor and female entrepreneur Sophie Milliken. Sophie inspired us with her story and really highlighted some of the barriers our regional and female founders face when seeking investment. What was most interesting was how she reflected on her personal journey, the decisions she made and the lessons she learned along the way.  

Her reflection that she was alone in the room with male investors of a certain age and background, and the impact this had on her confidence to make the right decision for her business, is why we strive to bring more female investors into the region through our work on the Newcastle Angel Hub.  These themes were pulled out again in our panel ‘Diversifying your approach from to end-to-end‘ led by Jenny Tooth, Chief Executive of the UK Business Angels Association and a real champion for female entrepreneurs with her work on the ‘women backing women’ campaign.  

Jenny highlighted that just 2% of entrepreneurs are backed by women in the North. It is clear that a lack of female investors is holding back female entrepreneurs from accessing the investment that they need. Addressing diversity in the investment landscape, will also unlock the opportunity for more female-led businesses to innovate in key sectors. By supporting more women, and individuals who have their roots in the North East, to consider investing, we’re opening the door for those regional entrepreneurs and female-founders seeking start-up and scale-up investment.  

Ensuring our regional businesses can secure investment is just one part of the puzzle when we consider ‘levelling-up’ so we were really pleased to have speakers from key policy driving organisations discussing the opportunities for the North.  

Adam Kelly, MD at the British Business Bank spoke about the interventions the bank is driving to help level the playing field, with an extension to the Northern Powerhouse Investment Fund providing finance for the North East.  While Dean Cook, Director of Place and Levelling Up, at Innovate UK spoke of ‘big bold partnerships’ and Innovate UK’s commitment to driving sectoral clusters.  

This message was reflected in our ‘changing the dynamics’ panel, where we discussed the need for more innovative financing tools for business to leverage both public and private sector finance. 

Henri Murison, CEO of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership echoed this in call for not only public investment, but for R&D intensive, private sector businesses, to drive economic growth around key sector strengths. Calling for more ambition from policy makers in ensuring the North benefits from clustering, he named the work of OREC in Blyth as an example of where public and private is coming together to see this happening at scale. 

This discussion highlights the scale of the opportunity for the North East. Especially when taking into consideration the government’s recent announcement on centring investment zones around universities located in ‘deprived’ areas. These points underpin discussions had in our ‘creating real-world impact’ panel where the focus was on universities and their impact. Led by Jen Hartley, Director at Invest Newcastle, the discussion drew focus on the success of the Northern Accelerator Programme to boost the volume and quality of spinout businesses coming from the region’s universities. It also reiterated that without the right infrastructure, ecosystem and financial support in place to maximise on government-led opportunities, we will lose the chance to create wealth, opportunities and jobs.     

Part of this opportunity undoubtedly lies with Net Zero and the scale of the challenge we collectively face. Innovation will be critical to our collective ability to decarbonize and hit the ambitious targets in place for 2030, that will enable us to hit our critical Net Zero goals in 2050.  

Catherine McGuinness former Chair of Policy and Resources Committee for the City of London chaired our session on the Green Drive. The scale of the opportunity for North East businesses to be part of the story was undeniable. With 5000 energy related businesses in the North East, Northumberland, Sunderland and North Teesside form a natural cluster opportunity around decarbonization, with an already strong business base working in electrification of transport and energy.  

This is just a short summary of the many points made during a day of important discussion. As in previous years, we were pleased to have ‘graphic recorder’ Ben Nightingale with us who helped us make sense of the key discussion points through some wonderful illustrations. You can explore the graphic he produced here.

If you’re interested in the innovation or investment ecosystem, are a business seeking finance, or an investor looking for new opportunities, please get in touch. We’d love to work with you! 

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