Reflecting on VentureFest North East: A manifestation of, and call for, change.

24 May 2023

Estelle Blanks, CEO at Innovation SuperNetwork

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks reflecting on the scale and impact of VentureFest North East, not just this year but over the last decade.

It’s incredible to think that from the very first conversations I had with the Technology Strategy Board in 2012, we have succeeded in delivering one of the most successful VentureFest events in the country, resulting in measurable impact for businesses across the North East and an increase in regional innovation.

This fact has led me to reflect more fully on one specific session that took place as part of this year’s event at the Common Room. The session looked at the System Design Framework to explore how we could accelerate our journey to NetZero (more on this later). In the room we had leading expert Alastair Somerville from Design Council, alongside our own experienced and knowledgeable team (Sarah Cox, Angela Lynch & Charlotte Hope) and Charlie Charlton, whose leap from broadcasting to business engagement brought much value to the conversation.

This made me think about the innovation journey we have been on in this region and how VentureFest has been a catalyst for systems change in the innovation ecosystem and business support arena through the formation of the Innovation SuperNetwork in 2016.

The System Design Framework promotes design thinking but emphasises the role of relationships, vision, leadership and sustainable thinking. In order to effect change and deliver economic growth through innovation, we need to work together to examine our challenges and find new ways of addressing them. We need to understand our innovation system’s components and roles each stakeholder plays within it. VentureFest was a catalyst to bring people together, inspire entrepreneurs, industry and researchers to take action and kickstart innovation journeys. Together, we are moving the dial. More innovation activities, more investment and new innovation practices have emerged. If we continue on this path, there is a genuine chance that we look back in 10 years time and contemplate radical changes not only in our innovation capabilities and key metrics but also in how we are contributing to a more sustainable and equitable society.

This leads me to the next point.

This year, VentureFest urged us to take action for Our Future Now. It focussed on solving some of our most pressing societal challenges with the innovations, technology and resources that are available to us, now. The race to net zero was a golden thread throughout the day, with a mix of sessions taking a high-level look at the scale of the problem we face alongside practical interrogation of some of those issues.

Our opening keynote on day one at the Boiler Shop featured expert voices from Siemens and global sustainability non-profit, Forum for the Future. Siemens is the largest industrial manufacturer in Europe and Finbarr Dowling, Project Manager, gave us a window into the core principles around which they build their ESG policies. Taking a holistic look at sustainability issues, he talked about a range of projects including local biodiversity initiatives. Importantly, he emphasised how we aren’t building a sustainable future if we’re leaving communities behind and the challenges we face in truly ‘levelling-up’ the UK.

His points resonated with me, as we think about innovation as a tool for building a more equitable society, and were expanded on by Martin Hunt, Managing Director for the UK & Europe at Forum for the Future. Martin looked at the macro issues linked to the climate crisis and the impact it’s having on communities across the world. His talk recognised the need for systemic change if we’re to mitigate large-scale catastrophe that risks the lives and wellbeing of millions of people. Innovation is key to this change.

The morning keynote was wrapped up by Adah Parris, the TED Talk Emerging Global Innovator who challenged the audience further and asked us directly, ‘what kind of ancestor do you want to be!?’ Her approach to questioning ourselves was at times uncomfortable, enlightening, and ultimately inspiring. I hope our audience went away inspired to do all they can to make a difference in their local communities and business sectors.

Prof. Nick Wright from Newcastle University was one of the academics who went on to dive into change at a sector level and challenged us to consider the possibilities of Hydrogen as a sustainable fuel source in Aviation. He was joined by Prof. Craig Gaskell (Teesside University) and Dr. Noura Al-Moubayed who both delivered provocations to consider the changes we could make in education and tech to be more inclusive and afford people from all backgrounds the opportunity to succeed and be seen.

Day one was truly packed with inspiring and thought-provoking content, but also celebrated some of the incredible businesses that are innovating in our region – many of which are enabling systems change in their sectors. In our Innovation Showcase we had 11 businesses at the forefront of innovation, including Wessington Cryogenics who are providing the engineering solutions to make working with hydrogen a useable fuel source. A prime example of how innovation is enabling the change we need to see in the world.

We also celebrated innovation through our North East Innovation Awards, highlighting the businesses who have pushed boundaries in the last 12 months and the individuals who are championing and enabling innovation and inclusivity. My congratulations to them all.

Finally, we heard from Judith McMinn, Founder of Rezon, whose entrepreneurial story of driving a decade long dream is now making waves in providing brain health technology that will transform sport.

This really is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the variety of topics explored and the conversations had across two days at VentureFest. Day two’s practical exploration of innovation included a deep dive into how one of the region’s leading transport providers, Nexus, could use their data to better serve communities and support the region’s growth. We had practical help and support on offer to businesses from our partners Blu Sky Accountants, Ward Hadaway, Catax (Innovation funding specialists) and Cyber North. We looked at access to the NHS with the Academic Health Science Network and explored how the B Corp framework could help start-ups and SMEs take steps to building sustainable and equitable companies for the future.

As my reflection comes to a close, I can confidently say that VentureFest North East 2023 was a culmination of ten years’ worth of work in bringing together the ecosystem in the North East to not only support business growth, but importantly planet and people.

I look forward to seeing where the next decade takes us.

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