I’m pleased to have been offered the opportunity to contribute to the debate on University and Business interaction by the NCUB. Many of the past blogs on this topic have highlighted some recent phenomena and while I hope to provide some new insights, I would like to remind readers that we are not beginning from a standing start.

The Institute for Small Business and Entrepreneurship (ISBE) is a network for people and organisations involved in small business and entrepreneurship research, policy, education, support and advice. With nearly 40 years of experience, it has built up a number of channels (Annual Conferences, regional workshops, Special Interest Groups and the widely read quarterly e-magazine, Enterprising Matters) through which to disseminate research to policy makers and business support organisations, where it can have genuine impact and inform change, in addition to sharing these resources with academics, researchers and educators.

“Those of us involved in University-Business collaborations need to invest, time and effort with local firms during their early trading years..”

One of my first duties since taking over as President in May this year, was to open the 37th Conference, a little over two weeks ago.  Nearly four hundred delegates passed through the doors of the Manchester Conference Centre in just two days, while some 230 papers were presented from colleagues in 36 different countries, ranging from Chile to Canada, Nigeria to New Zealand and South Africa to Scotland.

During the opening reception in the magnificent Manchester Town Hall, (designed, by the way, by Alfred Waterhouse, who was also responsible for the Natural History Museum in London), I was able to announce the two winners of Round 6 of the Research & Knowledge Exchange (RAKE) Fund. The 2014 recipients shared the £20,000 prize to enable them to investigate ideas around crowdfunding and asset based community approaches, which seek to uncover and use the strengths within communities as a means for sustainable development.

The ISBE RAKE Fund, which was launched in 2009, is sponsored by Barclays and the ESRC. It was created with the aim of assisting the exploration of issues, challenges and opportunities surrounding entrepreneurial activities and small firm performance and to encourage and promote cutting-edge research, which is relevant to both the development of policy and practice. I am delighted to say that we have already supported 49 practitioners, consultants and academics involving 33 Universities, Businesses, and third sector support organisations over that time.

Having academics from the university was a real benefit for all of the business attendees at the conference. It was yet another example of how universities and industry interact and a real-life example of knowledge exchange in action.

I was lucky enough to sit in on an absorbing session, led by two of the RAKE Round 5 winners, John Nicholson and Steve Johnson (University of Hull). The theme of last year’s call was small firm Internationalisation. The team was keen to understand the factors that constrain and enable processes of international opportunity identification and creation among small firms, operating in peripheral regions.

Their findings, from interviews with ninety internationalised and aspiring international small firms in Hull, were both fascinating and insightful.

For example, the team stated that much work on economic spaces has focused on the advantages of cognitive proximity – geographic closeness to other firms with similar knowledge bases – and this assumption lay at the heart of many ‘cluster’ based policies for Small Firm growth. Also, a feature of development increasingly advocated by the EU in peripheral regions is to focus on related diversity.

“Having academics from the university was a real benefit for all of the business attendees at the conference. It was yet another example of how universities and industry interact and a real-life example of knowledge exchange in action.”

However, small firms in their sample seemed to be benefiting little from cognitive proximity whereas some of small firms had created definite novelty by looking across co-located sectors at skills, customer, market and technological ‘relatedness.’ Initial interventions by the researchers suggest there were many unexplored and unexploited relatedness opportunities within the region and going forward these opportunities are to be explored with several SME support organizations. More importantly, the inital view from regional business support agents appears very encouraging, in so much that they understand the importance of context over current thinking.

I have no doubt that the learning is transferable to other peripheral regions around the UK, and beyond. More importantly, Steve and John have built up considerable networks with the entrepreneurial community in and around the UK’s City of Culture for 2017.

Meanwhile, over in the Business Growth track, Michael Anadike-Danes from Aston Business School outlined to his audience that of the 239,000 firms created in 1998, a mere 10% were trading fifteen years later. He also highlighted that of the one million jobs those firms created in 1998 that figure now stands at just 400,000. However, the chance of closure fell from around 25% at age two, to less than 10% at age fifteen.

It strikes me such insights demonstrate why those of us involved in University-Business collaborations need to invest, time and effort with local firms during their early trading years. It might be that only one in ten of the firms born in 1998 survived to 2013, but the number of jobs in those firms more than doubled over that period. 


How do those involved in collaboration reach these new firms with the right research and advice? One way is through networks such as ISBE, which can disseminate research within the small business communities and the entrepreneurs ready to make the successful small businesses of tomorrow.

Events like our 37th Conference show the real benefit of direct knowledge exchange that is taking place across the country. For colleagues interested in showcasing their work, next year we are in Glasgow for our 38th Conference on the 11th & 12th November.

Professor Nigel Culkin is President of the Institute for Small Business and Entrepreneurship (ISBE) and Director of the Group for Research on Innovation and Enterprise (GRIE) at the University of Hertfordshire. To learn more about ISBE’s work, please visit their website.

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Other posts that may interest you:

An SME’s perspective on Uni-business collaboration
Universities and SMEs – finding common ground
Why is it important for SMEs to engage with universities?