In any business, budgets can be tight but whoever you are, there will be things that money just cannot buy – expertise and contacts. Given the obvious value in such assets, the question is: where can you find these?
Richard Howarth from Research, Enterprise and Innovation – part of London South Bank University – says that academia needs to step up and offer one solution.
“We have always been a civic university,” he says, “and we have taken our academic knowledge and facilities and opened them up to entrepreneurs across London, creating an infrastructure where businesses can prosper and create beneficial links for the university and its students.”
One of the major issues Mr Howarth hopes to tackle with such collaborations is the skills gap that he says has the potential to threaten the UK economy seriously. “As a university we deal in ideas,” he says, “and many of the best ideas are coming from new businesses. The UK is a world leader in innovation and cultural output but in order to realise their ambitions, too many businesses are looking overseas for their workforce.
“If we carry on as we are, the UK workforce will not be at the required skill level to compete on the world stage,” he says. Ensuring that workers in the UK are both at the level needed to compete on a global stage, and visible enough actually to be hired, will be critical to the national economy, says Mr Howarth. “If people here are not at the required level, a company can simply move business somewhere that is. And when businesses move out like that, it doesn’t just affect their own workers, it can have a damaging effect on the whole business ecosystem.”
PCP research has estimated the cost of the skills gap in the UK at £2.2billion, and London South Bank University says that nurturing talent at home has huge potential to rescue many SMEs from stagnation or collapse. In particular, the university is keen to support in London’s fast-developing sectors that rely heavily on research: health tech, green tech and food tech, for instance, where global challenges have been identified and the UK could take a leading role.
“If you look at the businesses we are supporting, they really are part of making the world better,” says Mr Howarth. “How do we tackle climate change? How do we live healthier lives? How do we feed a growing population? Our SMEs and entrepreneurs are part of the answer.”
Mr Howarth says that a healthy business environment for small and medium-sized businesses is a nationwide necessity: “In this country, 89pc of people work for an SME. These are great businesses, tied in with their local communities, with a close relationship between the bosses and the workers. We want to make sure that they are as equipped as possible to continue, to grow, and to employ, because when they succeed, everyone feels the benefit.”
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