WESTFOCUS INNOVATIONS DAY – HELPING ENTERPRISES GROW By Amanda Williams Kempton Park Racecourse Conference Centre Middlesex Thursday, 18 May 2006 On one of the windiest days of the year, the WestFocus Consortium held its Innovations Day on th Thursday 18 May for businesses and entrepreneurs in the south and west of London. WestFocus is the consortium of universities, based in south and west London and in the Thames Valley that works in partnership with businesses and community groups. The WestFocus Innovations Day was planned to ‘provide free help and advice to organisations and individuals looking for new ideas, sources of finance, networks of contacts and examples of best practice’. This looked to be the perfect platform for young graduates such as myself to find help, funding or even just plain inspiration. Inspiration was indeed plentiful. With keynote speakers such as the inventor Trevor Baylis enjoying an early morning brew and chatting amicably with arrivals, by 9.30am the Networking Zone was already living up to its name. I spoke briefly with the inventor of the wind-up radio who was keen to tell me his views on why women should be encouraged into invention. As he asked me to name three women of note in the fields of invention, science or mathematics aside from Madame Curie, I realised he probably had a point. I failed miserably to name any. After leaving the loquacious Mr Baylis reclined on a sofa in the ‘Student Hub’ (each area of the Networking Zone was referred to as a hub and included ‘Business Hub’ and ‘IT Hub’), I made my way over to the stands to have a quick look around before the first speaker began. The colourful displays were clearly designed with the imaginative (but admittedly fleeting) attention of young people in mind. Some offered their visitors complimentary sweets and literature and one of the stands added the personal touch to their area with a vase of purple flowers. These subtle marketing ploys however did succeed in attracting viewers. When sugar levels dropped around mid morning, the stands bearing lollies and toffees saw a surge in visitors, and just after lunch, the Business Link for London stand situated nearest the tuck shop that sported a large handcrafted suspended aircraft provided a talking point for lunching guests. After lunch, the second leg of the competition, “Pitch your Business” for the prize money of £1000 began. Watching the afternoon heat, it was clear that competitors at every stage of inspiration or invention were welcome to compete. These included a housework enthusiast whose invention was at such a crucial stage in development that she could only allude to the product she was envisaging. All she could say was it was a form of packaging. Of some sort. For something. It would have been useful to know more. There was also a mature final year sports student and tennis buff who had solved the problem of explaining the difficult match point in mini-tennis but not the more pressing problem of who would buy the proposed demo DVD. And finally, there was a male partnership from North London who had invented a software package for marketing purposes that would allow businesses to interact - in real time - with potential customers viewing their website. A varied bunch both in subject and development. The North London duo won and scooped the £1000 prize but the other contestants were certainly not overlooked. As I stayed in the room when the competition was over, I noticed that, after the winners had been congratulated, each of the three judges broke away and began to talk to the runners up offering them help and solutions. The three contestants each represented a different stage in invention and it was interesting to see how the competition had helped. The secretive housework enthusiast who was nurturing an idea and the sports scientist who had developed a solution but not a market hadn’t entered the competition to win the money as much as they had entered to ‘test the water’ and pitch their idea to see what the initial reaction was. Listening in to some of the conversations it was clear that each contestant left the day with more than a few new ideas and business cards from interested parties. Perhaps this was the real aim of the day, a chance to meet and speak not only to people who have had years of experience within business but also to those who are keen to share their ideas but quite simply, don’t know how. Speaking to two undergraduates who I had spotted talking with representatives in the Networking Zone, I asked if the day had been helpful. They nodded in earnest and then fell silent. Pressing for further details of their proposed invention, the two exchanged worried glances and informed me that it was very much ‘under wraps at the moment’ which, during the course of the day, I realised translated to ‘we could tell you but then we’d have to kill you’. My persistent nosiness, however, had revealed one of the very intentions of the day had been successful. These two had met and talked with potential investors, pitched their idea and then been offered some sound business advice. OK, so the advice presumably precluded telling strange young women anything about their invention just yet, but I could have been anyone. The road to success is long and ruthless; any timely help that can be offered along the way should always be welcomed. EDITOR’S NOTE: For more details about the above story, please contact Amanda Williams at Appleyard Media Ltd on 01296 738121 or Jo Moulds on 07968 801467 or email Amanda@appleyardmedia.co.uk or firstname.lastname@example.org. WestFocus is the consortium of universities based in south and west London and in the Thames Valley that works in partnership with businesses and community groups. The WestFocus Innovations Day was planned to provide free help and advice to organisations and individuals looking for new ideas, sources of finance, networks of contacts and examples of best practice. www.westfocus.org.uk/innovationsday ENDS.