Getting down to business

Here we focus on the positive work the University is doing to support local businesses and the rationale behind the plans for the new iconic Derby Business School.

In September, the University launched the Derbyshire Festival of Business in partnership with Derbyshire County Council, Derby City Council and the East Midlands Chamber.

With the aim of helping local companies recover from the uncertainty they have endured during the pandemic and lockdown, the festival marks the latest in a long line of business-focused activity which the University has been integral to.

Earlier in the summer, it launched the Ascend programme with the City Council, focusing on firms with high growth potential to ‘scale-up’. That programme was preceded by the government’s Help to Grow: Management scheme and the Green Entrepreneurs Fund initiative with the County authority once again.

Add to those collaborations with the East Midlands Chamber, including the Generation Next programme for young professionals across the region, and the Chamber’s Derby city centre office moving into the University’s Enterprise Centre.

And that’s before we get into the knowledge transfer partnershipsInvest to Grow funding - creating or safeguarding over 2,000 local jobs - the Innovation Hothouse, incubation hubs and the space Banks Mill has provided for creative arts enterprises to flourish over the past 20 years.

Not surprising then that a very considerable feather in the University’s business cap was being placed among the top ten per cent of UK universities for its work with business, and on local growth and regeneration, in the first Knowledge Exchange Framework, a key national measure of how higher education contributes to society.

The business of business has become a key element of the University’s development plans too.

An iconic new Business School

The Derby Business School, accredited by the Small Business Charter, is due to relocate from the University’s Kedleston Road site to the city centre. Described as ‘iconic’, the new sustainably designed and constructed building is expected to open its doors in 2024, and within six years be educating 6,000 students per year.

“It’s all about building our brand, growing our provision and quality education for our students, and making the environment a very attractive one for staff and potential students,” explains Professor Kamil Omoteso, the Pro Vice-Chancellor and Dean of the College of Business, Law and Social Science.

Artist's impression of new Derby Business School building
Stride Treglown - for illustration purposes only

“It fits perfectly into the overall growth strategy, and for us to actualise our dream as a university we need a building of that nature.

“If we are able to make that a reality, we will make a significant contribution to Derby, Derbyshire and the region as a whole. We will be contributing to the economic, social and environmental prosperity of our region, and its place in our civic agenda as an institution.

“Having that iconic presence in the city centre will attract businesses, entrepreneurs, and start-ups to Derby. It’s a kind of symbiotic relationship. We will benefit from their expertise, and they will be able to impact positively on our students. We will be able to offer them services too, so it is going to be a win-win situation for us.”

Budding entrepreneurs 

A business education is not just limited to those who sign-up for courses with ‘business’ in the title at Derby, however.

There are a range of initiatives for students on all courses to demonstrate their entrepreneurial verve.

The University’s Student Enterprise Manager Oliver Stonier has just launched ‘Pitch Perfect’ across the University, a new project linked to the award-winning ‘Be The Boss’ programme, opening it up to the whole student population for the first time, with £1,000 at stake for the winning business idea.

And with the winners selected by a judging panel which includes representatives of the D2N2 Local Enterprise Partnership, the East Midlands Chamber, and Barclays Eagle Labs amongst others, there is the added kudos of endorsement from the region’s leading business institutions.

But there is a trepidation around ‘going it alone’ in real life.

“Much of our work is about persuading young people to explore the idea of enterprise,” explains Oliver, noting that only around five per cent of people across the Midlands consider setting up their own business.

“The skills the students learn through initiatives like this are not just useful to setting up on your own. An understanding of business and the skills you learn through participation in programmes like Pitch Perfect are important in an employed job role too.

“And for those who do want to set up their own business, we also show them that they are not alone. There is a whole small business world out there and many networking opportunities. We can link them into initiatives like Generation Next, for example.

“When they come up with an idea, we are there to help to mentor them too. My real passion is to find what I call a ‘Unicorn company’ within the University – a company which rapidly expands – and I can already see it emerging from areas which haven’t really been targeted yet, such as healthcare and science.”

Professor Kamil Omoteso

We will be contributing to the economic, social and environmental prosperity of our region, and its place in our civic agenda as an institution.

Professor Kamil Omoteso
Pro Vice-Chancellor and Dean of the College of Business, Law and Social Science

Becoming entrepreneurial is something we may all have to do in future, he adds.

“There is a trend across the UK to not just have one job anymore, although it hasn’t taken off in Derbyshire and the Midlands yet, as it has in other areas” says Oliver. “To have a ‘side hustle’, creating a business about something you are passionate about, is totally the norm. It also can bring you a real sense of joy and satisfaction, and it is one of the common ways in which people who study creative arts explore ways of generating income.”

Generating income other than from student fees has been an objective of universities for some time, with research and development having long cemented the relationship between higher education and business. But it’s not all about profit.

Not-for-profit Spin-Outs

Take the Social Higher Education Depot (S.H.E.D): artistic research into civic placemaking led by Dr Rhiannon Jones. The interest in this very novel concept led to the creation of a Community Interest Company (CIC) named Designing Dialogue - the University of Derby’s first such ‘spin-out’.

Over the summer, two bespoke S.H.E.D installations were created with support from funders and partners; ‘Derby Voice,’ outside Derby Cathedral, and ‘Protest S.H.E.D’, at the National Justice Museum, Nottingham; both incorporating the work of local artists and performers, and hosting workshops and activities for members of the local community.

Dr Victoria Barker, co-director of Designing Dialogue, explains: “The approach was generating interest from a range of external partners, and we wanted to find a way that new business activity could be driven by practice-led research, as well as make connections and have conversations with communities and future partners."

It became a Community Interest Company, rather than a limited or other more traditional form of enterprise model, because the project wanted to retain its standing as a social, civically engaged and not-for-profit initiative. It also gives the project more flexibility and agility to move quickly on new ideas, led by three directors who each bring particular expertise.

The status presented another advantage too in terms of access to funding opportunities for social enterprises, aided by the University’s status as a charity and research organisation, which fitted more comfortably with the values of S.H.E.D as a research project in its own right.

Dr Barker adds: “In terms of profit-making, and not profiting from activity that is supposed to be doing social good, the CIC structure allows us to reinvest in the company when we get to that point. At the moment, we cover our costs and where we have any surplus we are able to put it towards touring and creating commissions for wider benefit.

“In terms of ethics, we are very conscious about the diversity of voices we present, and that we are not seen to be exploitative of people’s content as well. Our financial director, Sarah Webb, makes sure we pay artists fairly and on time, and we also work hard to provide mentoring and advice to artists and creatives who work with us”.

This approach to partnership working has grown a community around the CIC focused on learning, research and resilience.

bespoke S.H.E.D Installation created with support from funders and partners; ‘Derby Voice,’ outside Derby Cathedral, and ‘Protest S.H.E.D’, at the National Justice Museum, Nottingham; both incorporating the work of local artists and performers, and hosting workshops and activities for members of the local community.

Post-Covid recovery

Business is also an area to be researched, and the pandemic and lockdown has provided academics with an unprecedented opportunity to assess how companies could survive and recover from the impact of “the largest contraction the economy had experienced in over 300 years,” as Professor Marc Cowling, Head of Research and Innovation in the College of Business, Law and Social Sciences at Derby, describes it.

Working with colleagues from institutions across the UK, Professor Cowling’s insight generated huge media interest from Kent to Scotland during 2020, with his ability to localise the likely impact upon individual communities.

“A shock of this size, that hit so many firms, could not be managed by the banking sector diversifying individual risks within its loan portfolio,” he explains.

“Unfortunately, without support (from government), this shock had the potential to lead to large numbers of firm failures, job losses and a severe economic contraction. To manage this risk, a package of emergency support measures was rapidly introduced, successfully supporting 94% of all lending to SMEs over the pandemic and supporting 1.5m firms.

“To put the scale of this intervention in context, the total guaranteed lending in the UK is roughly 64.5% of the inflation-adjusted Marshall Plan funds that were issued to Western European countries for economic reconstruction after the Second World War.”

The objective of the research carried out by Professor Cowling and his colleagues is helping inform the government department which looks after business, BEIS (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), about how best to manage the legacy of these interventions, encourage a recovery that ‘builds back better’, and how the UK should prepare for any future shocks.

To address those questions, his research maps out the key features of the landscape for small firm funding in the UK, showing how it has changed since the global financial crisis of 2008. It models and forecast the impacts, potential costs and benefits of the various support schemes.

“This analysis can then shed light on how the government can effectively manage its portfolio of loans to promote a rapid recovery and better align the economy with the government’s key policy objectives,” explains Professor Cowling.

So, from student start-ups and side hustles to advising government on its economic recovery plans, the University of Derby can perhaps rightly claim to be in ‘the business of business.’

Written by Rob James