It’s stating the obvious to say that the last 18 months have been sink or swim for industry. The pandemic, Brexit, supply chains, skills and labour shortages have combined to create a tsunami of challenges, particularly for SMEs. But while rumblings continue about a long hard winter ahead, there is still much to celebrate about our region’s resilience.
Many companies have taken the bull by the horns and literally reinvented themselves overnight. This drive and resilience has helped them ride out the wave, and made them more confident about surviving future economic aftershocks.
Cashless spending for instance is now mainstream, with Norwich company Thyngs one of its technology pioneers. Founder Neil Garner had already developed a digital platform for payments and charity donations without using an app or cash, but Covid stalled its plans. However, funding has supported upgrades and R&D to help it capitalise on ever-evolving payment trends.
The £25,000 Growth Through Innovation Fund grant came from New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership and proved invaluable in ensuring infrastructure was fit for purpose.
“We are running thousands of charities off the back of it and we need to make it more scalable,” Neil explained. “We have also been working on an option to pay by existing bank apps, which allows you to pay quickly, securely and cost effectively. It didn’t go live because Covid meant there was no good time to launch it, but now it’s gone bigger because we’re partnered up with a large global financial player to launch it at scale.”
In 2010, Neil was responsible for the first re-loadable contactless payment phone used in a Norwich branch of Subway. Ten years later, he’s working with hospitality clients adapting to Covid rules, and charities like Macmillan Cancer Support, seeking an easy alternative to cash donations. NFC (Near Field Communication) tags and QR codes were added to Macmillan’s card collection boxes, converting them into a cashless donation point at its coffee mornings.
“We now have a global deal with a large international faith group to introduce this technology in all its places of worship,” says Neil. “Instead of a collection plate, you have stickers and signs that you can tap with your smartphone and make a payment. This has potential to rollout from the first three to 160 countries around the world, and we are already working with the Church of England in the UK.”
Then there’s Fat Teds ‘street’ food take-away in Sheringham, also supported by a Growth Through Innovation grant. Its calendar was wiped clean by lockdown, but once restrictions relaxed, its focus shifted ‘alfresco’ …and a whole new set of challenges. Firstly, there’s no guarantee how much food will sell at outdoor events. Then there are the issues of queues and social distancing.
Fat Teds team decided on a Click & Collect service, which meant recalibrating their menu and website, and upgrading their two mobile units They secured a £3,000 grant, and now successfully trade via Click & Collect and at pop-up venues. As owner Sarah Oruc explains: “There has been a definite change in customers’ attitudes and preferences for more independent caterers and street food markets, so we are really looking forward to being part of this movement.”
Meanwhile music production company, Just Another Label, is establishing a library music business for worldwide audio visual products and services. The Diss-based company won a grant to develop a unique search engine and database of music for media, audio mastering, promotional and music videos.
Owner Femi Olasehinde said: “Developing this new system will improve our efficiency and make it much easier for our clients. They can see their account details, catalogues and statements in real-time – that wasn’t previously available to them at all.
“It gives us access to a huge amount of data which is really valuable to us as a business and it gives us power over our competitors. Automating those processes has also free time for us to focus on other parts of the business.”
Chris Starkie, of New Anglia LEP, said: “This has been an incredibly challenging 18 months for businesses, but we’ve been really excited to also see lots of innovation, great ideas and companies embracing new opportunities.
“We launched our Business Resilience and Recovery Scheme grants (now closed) in early summer 2020 in response to the pandemic, offering grants to support diversifications to help firms ride out the impact of the pandemic. We’ve seen some fantastic projects come forward through that, from restaurants investing in outdoor dining spaces and mobile catering units to manufacturing businesses investing in new equipment to allow them to bring parts of their supply chain in house and offer new products to their clients.
“The coming months will undoubtedly be very difficult for many and we will continue to work with partners to ensure that businesses have access to the support they need.”
The Growth Through Innovation Fund offered by New Anglia LEP is still open. Contact the New Anglia Growth Hub for advice on support and funding, and signposting to other available resources at 0300 333 653.