25 October, 2011 - 11:37 By Tony Quested

Enterprise warriors or Dad’s Army?

From Roman philosopher Cicero to oil magnate John D.Rockefeller, thrift has always found ready champions. Their wise words on the importance of frugality are in most quotation halls of fame.

Edison summed it up best: “Waste is worse than loss. The time is coming when every person who lays claim to ability will keep the question of waste before him constantly. The scope of thrift is limitless.”

The Technology Strategy Board – the UK’s innovation agency – has clearly done its homework. It is applying a range of innovative solutions to the problem of optimising a tight budget in the face of unprecedented demand for funding from startups and the SME community.

With UK unemployment running at a record high and youngsters struggling to afford university places, entrepreneurialism is filling the void. Entrepreneurs – often more than cash – need their own champions to spur their spirit and keep the flame burning.

NESTA’s decision to move its funding away from IT hardware and medical device ventures towards software and digital media sucks even more cash out of the system for technology entrepreneurs.

A buzz has been going round the Cambridge entrepreneur community that the TSB was ‘running out of money for SMEs.’ The actual situation is this.

The TSB assumed responsibility for administering the Grants for Research & Development scheme on April 4. The grants were formerly administered by Regional Development Agencies within their own boundaries with differing degrees of success.

Under the TSB, this became a national scheme with a budget of around £20 million. But it meant that companies in the nine English regions run by the RDAs plus those governed by the ‘devolved’ territories – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – could dip into the pot.

Unsurprisingly given the macro-economic backdrop, demand has outstripped supply by some considerable margin and it will be April 2012 before the new scheme comes into force – with no guarantees on the exact budget. The scheme is assured until 2015 – again the exact format and budget may be tweaked over time.

Because the TSB has marketed the scheme more effectively, more startups and entrepreneurs – many of them striking out on their own to beat the jobs blues – are aware of the funding and making applications. The TSB can only spread the current, dwindling cash pile so far.

Assuming – correctly – that Whitehall mandarins are hardly likely to bless them with a surprise windfall, the TSB is looking at ways that it can do more with the money at its disposal. And that applies to a lot of the schemes it administers.

For example, the £100k launchpad scheme that made its bow in Tech City could be extended and tweaked intelligently, allowing companies to use the credibility of a £100k TSB cheque in its pocket to leverage further funding from investors; the theory being that if a startup has convinced TSB’s sage judges of its proposition it is more likely to gain match funding from other sources.

Similarly Knowledge Transfer Partnerships have traditionally been geared towards consortia, for example academia joining forces with business partners to secure European funding for a particular project. Future applications could be invited from single SMEs to address particular technology areas.

I understand the TSB is looking at a scheme similar to KTP in the form of a grant for R & D for single companies addressing what are considered special areas of technological need – low carbon vehicles or some such.

Single SMEs with a very specific technology focus could therefore apply for KTP-style funding without having to take cash out of the hard-pressed SMEs R & D pot.

These are straitened times and the TSB’s inventiveness is to be applauded. We are all staring at the same glass here – filled halfway with the liquid of your choice. Whether you phone the TSB or the Samaritans will depend on whether you’re seeing it half full or half empty.

From where I’m sitting, it is half full and another bottle is on its way! The spirit concerned is the spirit of enterprise and it is wandering abroad.

Thanks to the spirit of entrepreneurialism the UK may yet be delivered like a latter-day Scrooge from hubris and humbug to a bright new world of joie de vivre and ‘can do.’

When the Coalition tires of printing more money and someone persuades Mervyn King that his ‘We’re doomed’ impressions of Frazer from Dad’s Army are doing nothing for a nation’s morale – or the investment world’s view of the UK – they will realise that innovation has always carried the best of British companies through recession.

Innovation and enterprise point the way forward, the beacon through the gloom: It is fabulous that so many people of all ages are becoming more entrepreneurial.

They must be encouraged and supported to the hilt. Where we lack cash, let’s compensate with kind. If you don’t have a shekel lend a shoulder. Tweet your support, network your socks off; lobby politicians at every opportunity; become evangelists for entrepreneurs. SMEs don’t have to go it alone - partner rather than perish; collaborate rather than collapse.

Money is only part of the problem in economic crisis: If the country unites under a flag of enterprise and parades that capability to the world, then those whose livelihoods depend on innovative technology – wherever they are based in the world – will want to engage with the UK. That way lies salvation.


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