A challenge that called on North East businesses to generate innovative solutions to the Covid-19 crisis has reached a milestone moment.
The North East Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) asked the regional business community for answers to Coronavirus-related problems through Challenge North East, a new open innovation programme.
The programme saw the LEP offer funding and development support to SMEs whose ideas could help the North East adapt to the challenges of COVID-19 in two specific areas – delivering safe and engaging in-person events; and safely adapting in-home services.
Launched last year, Challenge North East was co-designed in consultation with business partners across the region to identify the key challenges posed by Covid-19 that North East SMEs could potentially develop innovative solutions to.
Over 60 businesses entered their ideas to the programme. A cohort of 16 SMEs received up to £5,000 of full funding and support to develop their solutions through Challenge North East’s co-design programme, working with business partners to quickly develop a prototype and test their solutions.
The finalists will pitch their ideas to an independent panel at the end of March to win up to £40,000 in further funding. All 16 SMEs will be given support and guidance to further their ideas.
Challenge North East is delivered by the Innovation SuperNetwork, Digital Catapult North East Tees Valley and Sunderland Software City.
Sarah Cox, Programme Director of Challenge North East, said: “It’s been fantastic to see the strength of the ideas that have come through from such a diverse group of businesses. There are some really innovative solutions that have the potential for multiple applications. Particularly impressive is the way many of the solutions offer economic and also social benefits, helping some of our most vulnerable communities.
“We have also been heartened by level of engagement from large regional organisations and our challenge supporters who helped us understand the problems they are facing and and their willingness to support SMEs as they develop and test solutions with real-world applications.”
Alison Freer, Innovation Manager at Innovation SuperNetwork, said: “Challenge North East is very much a collaborative effort with our delivery partners and challenge supporters, pooling respective strengths and experience to champion the creativity and hard work of SMEs.
“The level of innovation demonstrated by the businesses involved has been inspiring. We are delighted to play our part in helping participants to develop their solutions in response to Covid disruption and find new market opportunities in doing so.”
Alan Welby, Director of Innovation at the North East LEP, said: “Covid-19 has been incredibly disruptive and had forced us to entirely change the way we live our lives.
“Challenge North East champions innovative solutions to this by drawing on the vast amount of talent and expertise in our region. By tapping into the potential of our people and organisations, we will find the solutions we need to rise to the challenges of these trying times.”
Some of the SMEs involved pivoted to adapt existing products and services to address Covid-19-related challenges, while others built entirely novel solutions based on their areas of capability and expertise.
This design-led innovation saw a wide range of imaginative solutions generated, ranging from process innovation, to digital platforms and physical products, all designed to help society adapt to Covid-19.
Organisations supporting Challenge North East include The Baltic, Beamish Museum, The Sage Gateshead and Sodexo along with Northern Gas Networks, ESH Group, Karbon Homes, Beyond Housing.
Challenge North East has received funding from the government’s Local Growth Fund. The Local Growth Fund is supporting capital investments to promote innovation, economic and skills infrastructure and sustainable transport as part of the North East Growth Deal.