How Britain can build Europe’s most dynamic enterprise economy

SME Publications/ SME XPO 2024

By Andrew Roughan, below, CEO of the innovation company Plexal

The UK Government has stepped up its commitment to supporting the innovation agenda in recent months, with the Chancellor underlining the importance of SMEs to the economy and repeatedly restating an ambition for Britain to become “Europe’s most dynamic enterprise economy.” This echoes comments from us hosting him at Plexal Stratford, where he mentioned the “incredible opportunity for us as a country” through our innovation industries.

Encouragingly, these words have quickly been backed up with action. We’ve seen the launch of the new Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, the decision to reverse proposed cuts to R&D tax credits and the introduction of funding for high-growth tech sectors such as AI and quantum computing in the Spring Budget.

The vision for the nation has been set, with policy focused on stimulating growth opportunities for tech and digital businesses and ushering in a new wave of startups with the potential to scale. The message to budding founders is clear: “Go for it.”

Admittedly, times are tough. For the past year, the UK’s economy has been stagnant, with inflation the highest in western Europe and households still enduring a pervasive cost-of-living crisis.

But for all the current economic uncertainty, past experiences have shown that entrepreneurship is borne out of tough times and crises – when human ingenuity comes to the forefront and new ideas spring up to help make lives easier, more efficient or simply tackle long-lasting problems.

Look no further than the financial crash of the mid-2000s, which at the time left the banking world in crisis, but today is credited as being the pivotal moment for the emergence of tech-enabled transformation. Increased consumer demand for greater choice, transparency and innovation paved the way for new companies to step in and respond to the needs of individuals and businesses. Today, the UK’s fintech sector is second only to the US globally in terms of investment and scale.

The parallels to where we find ourselves in 2023 are worth dwelling on and it’s with this in mind it could be said that there’s never been a better time to be a UK startup founder. The current climate provides the perfect setting for startups to grow and thrive. There’s a clear appetite for collaboration and an obvious ambition to ensure promising young companies have the access to talent and investment alongside opportunities to grow, scale and ultimately benefit the nation’s overall economic output.

The differences between 2023 and 2008, however, are also worth considering. At the heart of the Government’s recent shift in strategy is a renewed appreciation that technology is the most effective way to drive growth and tackle challenges in our society and economy.

While there can be no doubting the prospects that come from commercialising emerging technologies, the greatest opportunities will present themselves to the firms that find and scale more innovative and effective solutions to the world’s most enduring problems.

Our work with Barclays Eagle Labs and UK Government is focused on helping budding entrepreneurs go from idea to product build, with guidance on how to develop, test, validate and evolve a digital offering. There’s also an ambition to help fast-growth scaleups navigate their journey while maintaining their mission. This isn’t just about monetising a concept for the sake of it, we should champion the ethical value in harnessing technology and working towards a common goal that can overcome society’s challenges.

Whether it’s climate change, healthcare staffing or cyber security, these are challenges to which either no answer has been found or where incumbent solutions are nowhere near as effective as they could be.

It’s in meeting problems like these with new thinking that UK startups and scaleups have the potential to thrive. And while innovation is being developed across the board, we need to start deploying it much more quickly and working with organisations that can make a difference.

This is at the core of the work we do at Plexal, where we look to foster collaboration between the public and private sectors. Take the UK’s health and social-care services, which are under considerable pressure and still rebuilding following the pandemic. Through working with Amazon Web Services’ Healthcare Accelerator, we’ve provided training and support to startups developing innovative solutions to alleviate the strains on the NHS and create a positive impact on our healthcare system.

We see many startups through this partnership alone, each applying tech-enabled solutions to reduce the pressure on public services. For example, Babblevoice relieves surgery demand with automated appointment bookings to support capacity which thereby prevents patients from becoming angry and scared. Then there’s IoT Solutions Group, which monitors activity patterns and receives alerts to routine changes of vulnerable people, while DocAbode was founded by a clinician to specifically deliver workforce management scheduling software.

Many areas in public services are ripe for technological disruption through the application of innovative solutions developed by our entrepreneurial economy.

Any founder will tell you that government funding and support gives you an advantage, but what follows is even more crucial – embracing tech solutions and startups as part of the public sector operations. We have a 360-degree view at Plexal through our effort in closing the gap between startups, government and industry, so truly understand the benefits of bringing these parties together and the potential that can be unlocked through innovating together.

This is the real takeaway from the renewed support for UK innovation: the Government realises that our technology and innovation capabilities are the ace in our hand – now it’s time we put them to work.

SME Publications/ SME XPO 2024