KEEN for success

You don’t need to tell people out there that the UK is gripped by a recession and times are tough. The economic downturn is gradually becoming a landslide hitting people and businesses hard in the pocket.

Just the right time to launch a new scheme by universities in the West Midlands aimed at improving the profitability of small to medium enterprises (SMEs). The University of Wolverhampton is leading the Knowledge Exchange and Enterprise Network (KEEN) which is being part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) until July 2015.

KEEN helps SMEs to realise their potential through working with a recent graduate, known as an Affiliate, who is recruited to work full-time on a commercial growth project, developed in association with the University.

The programme can run between six months and two years, giving the Affiliate the opportunity to make an impact and embed the positive outcomes of their project within the company. They are mentored throughout the process by a University expert and are able to access the University’s resources and expertise.

Win-win situation

As KEEN regional manager, Marc Fleetham, explains it’s a win-win situation.

He said: “KEEN is very much aimed at SMEs that want to advance and innovate but haven’t looked at how they can do that. “The idea is that a graduate will go into a company and manage a project. That could be to streamline a process, reduce waste, create efficiency savings or redefine a product portfolio through marketing.

“The benefit to the company is that it’s low risk, and can help increase profitability and create growth.

“For the University it gives our academics the opportunity to apply their knowledge and research in a practical environment and in turn help develop the curriculum to provide skills which are employer-led for our students.

“And for the graduate plainly it gives them an opportunity to showcase their knowledge and skills. The hope is that at the end of the process the company will take the graduate on full-time so this acts almost like one long job interview and gives vital work-based experience, while being supported by a university expert.”

The scheme was launched at an event staged at RAF Cosford in July to give business leaders an insight into what it could offer. Since then there have been more than 20 applications and the first few have just recently been approved to go ahead. Marc continued: “There is the demand out there for such a product in the current marketplace.

“Universities are backing it and it is a great option for businesses which are looking to test out plans they may have for future expansion.

“There are plenty of companies out there that want to expand and innovate but they simply don’t have the time, resources or expertise to do it as they’re too busy dealing with the dayto- day.

“What KEEN provides is fresh, young talent, supported by the University, to come in and make things happen. It really is commercially invaluable.”

Academic support

Among the first companies to sign up to the West Midlands scheme is MoFlash Signalling, working with Coventry University.

Marc Bailey, commercial director at the manufacturing company, said: “KEEN allows us to move much quicker and get involved in projects we need to in our industry. Being able to lean on academia is also a big plus for us.

“There are certain specialist areas we don’t normally get involved with that we can draw upon. That really is a big deal for us.

“The other important factor is the part-funding from ERDF which has helped us get a graduate on board.”

The universities taking part in the scheme have a strong track record in Knowledge Transfer and have worked in partnership over the past two years on the highly successful West Midlands Knowledge Transfer Partnership programme, part-funded by the ERDF, Advantage West Midlands and the Technology Strategy Board.

Turnaround from application to approval is typically three weeks on KEEN, meaning that Affiliate recruitment periods are minimised and projects can start quickly, helping businesses to move forward and remain competitive. Average company cost is £18,673 per annum.

Many different disciplines can be accessed such as business process, design and technology and marketing, which are areas that SMEs often find challenging.

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