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  • Writer's pictureDeb Hetherington

Innovation Services - Understanding University Links

Updated: Mar 9, 2020

Deb Hetherington is the new SME Engagement Manager for Leeds Beckett University. The role Deb undertakes links businesses to the university and helps SMEs with business support, which includes funded projects, subsidised projects, and internal programs. The Chamber marketing team interviewed Deb to find out more about how she felt about taking on this new role, how the link between businesses and the university works and how she develops her relationships.

How are you feeling about your new role?

“When this role came along, I was really excited; I was already working at Leeds Beckett on an ERDF funded project that offered support to digital startups. Being embedded in the Research & Enterprise team gave me the time to appreciate the plethora of business support available to SMEs within the region. I was taken aback at the variety of options available actually. So, when the chance came up to spread the word about what partnering with a university like Leeds Beckett can offer organisations, and seek out partnerships within the SME market, I jumped at the chance. Many individuals still think that universities exclusively benefit students, but within my new role, I aim to display the full range of enterprising opportunities available to companies who want to innovate and grow."

Is this opportunity to work with the university open to all sectors?

"It is open to most sectors, however some programmes are sector specific. Underneath the umbrella of ‘SME Engagement’ sit a range of options.

A good example of this is our new intensive business support programme that we have recently launched, Accelerate. Successful startups will be put on a 6-month intensive programme, account managed by myself, and gain support from the university. This may include masterclasses, online learning, student placements, funding, corporate assistance, hot desking and more. The eligibility criteria for this programme is that companies work in the business to business space, are based in the Leeds City Region, and be under 3 years. Companies that aren’t necessarily right for a specific program can tap into the other services, including consultancy, graduate placements, research projects and knowledge transfer partnerships to name a few. This is the beauty of the SME umbrella. Generally speaking, there will be some support available for any SME that wants to grow."

What challenges do you have to overcome?

“One of the biggest challenges I have is trying to explain that we have the resources and knowledge to help businesses grow, and that there isn’t necessarily a large bill at the end of it. In my previous life I worked in business development for law firms, and unfortunately, no matter how great a relationship you build with a company, there is a hefty bill at the end of it. At Leeds Beckett, a lot of the programmes we run and services we offer are free, or heavily subsidised.

How do you engage with the larger university teams?

I quickly realised the sheer size and geographic reach of staff here at the University. It is really important for me to have an internal relationship with both industry facing teams and academics. I meet regularly with the employer engagement team, the business development managers and enterprise & research staff across the university. If the University’s aim of positively impacting the fast growth of Leeds and the wider region is the be met, I need to understand our aims as an institution. The SME Manager role is two pronged, inward facing and outward facing, each very much as important as the other.

Tell us more about the six-month acceleration programme for startup and scale up companies.

We’re really excited about this one. The team have been designing the programme for the past few months and area just ready to launch. We are looking for companies that are at least a year old and generally have a proof of concept. We want to work with companies who have exciting and innovative ideas and support that innovation and growth. Those signed up to the programme can use our business centers in Leeds, Halifax and Wakefield we have access to grants and funding through the ERDF funded Ad:Venture programme, academic expertise, research projects and graduate placements.”

What are KTPs?

“Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTPs) are deemed the best kept secret of universities. It’s not a difficult one to explain, it is effectively a triangle made up of a business that wants to innovate, a knowledge base institution (a university) and what we call an associate. The associate is a recent graduate, who is hired by the University and embedded in the business to transfer new knowledge and expertise. The business will also gain the expertise of an academic half a day per week to oversee and guide the associate and ensure project delivery. Projects generally involve multiple academics from the university and allow the business to tap into some real cutting-edge research and resource. It’s an opportunity for universities to engage with industry and vice versa. Both are able to become more innovative, tap into new markets and approach new technologies. KTPs are government funded through Innovate UK and SMEs can receive funding of up to 67% of the costs of a project. Knowledge Transfer Partnerships allow companies to tap into an incredible source of information and academia through the university.”

How do you grow your network of businesses?

“Half of my battle is getting businesses to know the university is there to offer help. I’m a prolific networker and ensure I attend 2 or 3 relevant events per week. In this role, it’s incredibly important to network because, and it’s the biggest cliché in the world, but people do business with people. I also have a strong online presence via LinkedIn and Twitter, and either reach out to individuals that would benefit from the university’s services, or, because of the articles I release or events I share, I get contacted directly by companies who are looking to collaborate.

Do you have any LinkedIn advice?

“I would say be present, be active and make sure you’re following the right people, so the algorithms work behind the scenes. This will make your news feed a representative of your industry and sector. You need to like things, comment and engage with others. Make sure your profile picture is professional, use short informative paragraphs and start following people within your industry. Try and look on LinkedIn for 10 minutes a day, start small and watch your network grow.”

What is your aim over the next year?

To get out to the SME market and display the wide range of business support options we can offer as an institution. I have a fully loaded presentation, love a coffee, and am happy to talk to any growing SME who wants to work with us. Whilst working in the private sector, it was often commented that the hardest part of approaching a University was knowing where to start. I’m very happy to be the first point of contact for organizations looking to touch base. Whether it be myself to continue that relationship, or a referral to the right team here at Leeds Beckett, I’d love to hear from you.

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