The first few tenuous steps of a fledgeling entrepreneur can often be marred by swamps of information, checklists and ticking target pressures. Breaking into business or new territories however, need not be a lone mission, especially with the University of Lincoln’s business incubation and support programme’s ever widening outreach.
At its lead, Vicky Addison has an unwavering passion to nurture and drive innovation, and she’s tenacious in her vision for a sustainable network of professionals in and beyond the city.
From the offset, Vicky, 35, has a talent for friendly, earnest conversation and her drive is infectious. Her role as head of business incubation and growth sees her not only aiding the beginnings of new enterprise ideas at Sparkhouse on the university campus but also helping existing firms excel, innovate and grow through the high-tech Think Tank office space facility.
‘Sparking’ the university’s business incubation programme in 2003, the Sparkhouse facility on the Brayford campus has helped hundreds of tenants find their feet. Vicky joined the mission in 2010 after a £3.2 million extension with a remit of managing the space and making the facility self-sustainable within five years.
“When I came, typically the occupancy sat at about 60%,” she said. “Now not only is the facility a self-sustainable business, but we also operate at more than 90% occupancy most of the time. We are never at 100% because of the way businesses move but in terms of stimulating and supporting interest we have definitely seen a big increase.
“We now also support in the region of 45 virtual tenants who can use facilities, events and expertise here. At any one time we have around 100 businesses that we are working with and that consists of young entrepreneurs looking to start out, through to companies that are interested in innovation and growth who we support through Think Tank.”
In just five years, Vicky has greatly amplified her role after the university took on the management of the £7.1 million Lincoln Think Tank Innovation Centre, and supported the creation of new Lincoln Science & Innovation Park (LSIP) – a fashion true to her way of work. “I’m one of those people who like to push the boundaries,” she added. “I don’t just do my job description, I try to do other things to move forward. It’s been that way throughout my whole career.”
Vicky has always been a Lincoln resident. She grew up in the city with her mum, dad and sister and together, she adds, they are a very practical set. “My dad’s a farmer, so we have always been brought up to be very hands on and practical. I think that’s also made me a very big people person which is really what this role needs.”
Vicky attended Ingham Primary School, Huntcliffe Comprehensive and William Farr before entering into the world of work straight away. “First of all I did an apprenticeship at William H Brown but it didn’t last long because I was making tea so I was quite bored.
“I then applied for a job at a charity called Children’s Links and I stayed with them for seven years. That was my foundation for being successful because I had a fantastic boss there and she supported me. I started there as an apprentice admin assistant and then I went from accounts to being a PA and then office manager. After that, I went on to manage a European project, but at that point, I started to think I needed something different.
“In 2005 I went to work for Lincolnshire County Council as an office manager in their technical services department. From there I migrated into a role supporting businesses which I loved. I managed workspace projects on their behalf as a business officer and started to develop new services within a few of the centres and push the boundaries of what we were doing, trying also to add value. It was at that point when the job at Sparkhouse became available.”
The ability to be ever forward-thinking and “pushing the boundaries” is something that Vicky naturally applies to the ethos of the business: “Not only are we now a sustainable business of our own but we are always thinking innovatively about how we can invest more into the services we provide, in that sense we are practicing what we preach.”
Escalator of support
The business of helping businesses at the University of Lincoln is a multi-pronged project which aims to offer help, advice and unique opportunities to businesses at all stages of the success spectrum. “The idea now is that we have an escalator of support across the university,” explains Vicky.
“We go from Sparkhouse which is pre and early stage businesses up to around the age of five, then we have Think Tank which is around innovation and growth and then we have the science park which is around innovative-led businesses. I was really excited about the Science and Innovation Park because it provides lots of opportunities for the university, for Sparkhouse and for businesses locally.
“In May we are set to start building the Boole Technology Centre, which is the first business hub that’s going on at the science park that will provide lots of opportunities for the businesses I’m working with to progress and grow.
“The science park will be an extension of Think Tank, which shares the site off Green Lane. It’s currently there for small businesses that are looking to implement innovation and growth within their plan and they get a business mentor as well as training and development workshops.
“It’s a very supportive environment where businesses help each other. It’s a community of like-minded businesses that come together and support each other. There are also benefits to having links with the academic side of the university, so they could potentially engage in research.”
Altogether, the project has seen a total of around £5 million invested in staffing and infrastructure and over 300 jobs have been created so far.
Vicky’s role now also sees her working to secure additional funding: “We are, within around a month, waiting for the announcement of the Regional Growth Fund six (RGF) which is a continuation of that funding for private companies and universities seeking £1 million or more.
“We’ve just launched the RGF five which is supporting businesses out of incubation and into their own environment. That’s a really big success for us and it’s being carried out in seven LEP areas across the country.
“Any profit that we make goes straight back into improving our services, we are not a profit-making business. We’re not interested in making money — it’s more about, if we do make money, what can we do for businesses?”
“Looking for exciting new opportunities is something else I spend a lot of time doing,” said Vicky. “It’s really important for us not to sit still and to review what we are doing. We are continuously looking into new projects or trying new things.
“My focus for this year is around developing our support to young entrepreneurs. In the current job market, it’s important that they know all of their options and self-employment is one of them. That includes things like running a new student entrepreneurs network, which will have professionals there for them to talk to and gain ideas from. There will also be inspiring work trips to places like Google and doing some enterprise competitions.”
In her time with the university, Vicky says there have been many standout ideas: “We’re working with a particularly good business at the moment called Visual Print. They came to us just over two years ago and started out in Sparkhouse. They quite quickly outgrew Sparkhouse and went to Enterprise and then Think Tank and now they are purchasing their own building. It’s a fantastic story for us in terms of how we can help business.
“It’s always nice to see something different. We’ve had a new tenant moving in recently which is a 3D printing company. The interesting thing about them is their business model is around 3D models for medical purposes. It’s that kind of thing that we love to see because that business will compliment so many others within the centre.
“We’re always working on new things and the future for us is looking fantastic. Just over the next year, we’ll start work on the Boole technology, we’re also hosting our first innovation summit in April, which is a one-day event aimed at stimulation and growth in small businesses.
“My advice to a new entrepreneur would be to make sure they had good market research, as it’s very important to work out who your competitors are and what they are offering, and how you can be different and set yourself apart from them.
“It’s not always about being better, it’s about doing something differently and that comes from understanding your market and who’s in it.”
This feature interview was first published in issue 15 of the Lincolnshire Business weekly magazine.