As Lincoln is named in the top ten cities for business startups, Andrew Stevenson is proud of the work he and his team have achieved whilst he has been Director of Research and Enterprise at the University of Lincoln.
In the last four years he has helped to nurture new businesses around the city through incubation centres, helped to combat a skills shortage and set up new communication channels to bring Lincolnshire organisations together.
After four years of hard work, everything seems to be coming together for both his career and for the pride he feels in helping graduates and startup businesses succeed, even if he did take a very unusual path to get to where he is today.
Whilst completing his degree in Geology in Liverpool, Andrew had been working at the American Adventure theme park in the catering department and realised that this was more in line with what he wanted to do.
Andrew leapt from the rocks and into running his own restaurant, a Pierre Victoire franchise in Sheffield. He gained valuable experience of what it is like to set up a new business, and when an opportunity opened at the University of Lincoln for someone to set up an incubation centre for startups, he took it.
“I had done a part time MBA while I had been running the restaurant, so I guess the university thought that I had a combination of the practical and the academic skills as well.”
Through setting up partnerships with companies like Siemens, he was able to tackle the skills shortage in the region and loved the feeling of helping both businesses and graduates find the right positions.
“It’s the right match in circumstance. It’s about connecting the right people in those organisations at the right time, understanding what the drivers are on both sides and trying to match those drivers up.”
Andrew is a man with many titles, including Director and Chair of the East Midlands Incubation Network, Director of Investors in Lincoln and Director of Metnano Ltd – all programmes and schemes that the University of Lincoln supports.
“I think my favourite part is the variety. I’m hugely excited by the fact that I get involved with everything from the Science and Innovation Park and doing startup work on that for the university, through to careers and employability work that we do around getting graduates into the careers they want. It is fantastically rewarding. I also get to help our academics secure research grant income through to investor network projects.
“The variety and the opportunities my work give me, to meet with different people and to do different things, is what gets me up in the morning and keeps me going.”
Growing new business
With all of his business knowledge, Andrew has put together a great team to help support and grow new companies in Lincoln through the use of incubation schemes. “We’ve now got a fantastic progression from having Sparkhouse to work with any new businesses, and the Think Tank for larger businesses, as well as the Science and Innovation Park, so we can offer pretty much any business the right degree of accommodation support and network while we’re there.”
However, there are still many issues surrounding business growth in Lincoln that Andrew is trying to address, with company mentality being one of them.
“What I certainly noticed within the last year or two, you can really see businesses now switching from moving through the recession and battening down the hatches to actually thinking about growth and expansion. The particular challenge is how you switch from the mindset of ‘how do we maintain the position that we’ve got?’ to ‘how do we now grow and take advantage of the improving conditions?’
“I think that there is so much more that businesses in Lincolnshire can achieve, but collectively we’ve got to decide and put our minds to that. Then I think some of the barriers to that become ‘how do we sort out access to resources like investment?’ There are lots of things that we are doing about that at the moment.”
Andrew believes that ‘where there is a will there is a way’ — as long as it is a good idea, it will find the funding it needs to start marketing, with him and his team there to help.
“The big bit is the support and the networking, and how a new startup plugs into that. The strongest new startups come from the sharing of ideas and peer-to-peer learning. That’s not just about how it fits into Sparkhouse or the work that we’re doing, it’s that wider environment of how we get businesses across Lincolnshire networked and plugged in together so that they can trade with each other and spark off each other, so that they can share ideas.
“Something that might be very standard in one industry sector is completely novel in a different one and it’s how you get those people talking together to spot those opportunities to do something different.”
Andrew has helped many businesses gain funding to unlock their potential. “One of the things that we have been working on is the role that the university takes in helping businesses secure investment and funding. One is the Grow on Growth fund which provided/brought in £1 million worth of grant investment into Lincoln businesses.
“We are just in the process of launching something called the University of Lincoln Investor Group. It will bring together local investors in a club that gives them the opportunity to see and hear presentations from businesses looking for investment, and for those investors to jointly invest together to come up with the package and support that a business needs.”
A healthy relationship
Working to create a wider and deeper relationship with different types of organisations across the county, Andrew has worked with companies large and small to provide them with the skillset they require. He works closely with Lincolnshire Co-operative, Siemens, and E2V, as well as many smaller companies, so that they can have an input in the courses that are specific to their industry.
“We don’t want to just do individual projects with people, we want to work with people like Siemens where they’re supporting students doing their degrees. We have members of their staff who are doing everything from bitesize CPD with us, right through to PHD.
“By having that rich and deep relationship with those organisations, we can really partner with each other for the long term and get maximum value out of what each of us are doing. As a university, I always like to say that we like to start from a point of view where we ask a business or an organisation what the challenges are that they’re facing and how we can work with them to support and deliver.”
Currently Andrew is in the process of finding new ways to support innovation in business. He is helping to set up a new innovation council for Greater Lincolnshire and obtaining additional funding through the Greater Lincolnshire Local Enterprise Partnership (GLLEP) in order to up-skill existing staff. The team is also working on an internship programme which can help to inject graduates into local businesses and provide the businesses that accept this opportunity with new incentives.
Despite Lincoln’s failed bid for a government Enterprise Zone, Andrew is determined to find another way to be able to deliver something very similar with the help of the City of Lincoln Council.
“The initial feedback that we have had on the enterprise zone was that we were very close to it and very close to securing it.
“There are opportunities to work with the city council. It’s within their power to put in place many of the advantages that would come along with a government Enterprise Zone. It may well be that we can put together a package with them that will look very much like an Enterprise Zone.
“I think an Enterprise Zone for Lincoln will be hugely powerful. My experience is when there is a good idea around — for something like that you usually find a way to achieve it, even if it doesn’t quite look the same as what you hoped it would look like.”
This feature interview was first published in issue 64 of the Lincolnshire Business weekly magazine.