A decade ago, Norfolk was widely perceived as an isolated, rural county defined by farming, tourism and retirement, with a relatively low skilled, low wage economy and little enterprise culture. However, it was also home to many successful small businesses, a major university and several world-class research institutes – though with little connection to the business community or understanding of the enterprise and innovation agenda.
Norfolk economic development teams wanted to overturn outdated perceptions with evidence of more diverse and future-focused ambitions: to be acknowledged as “the birthplace of ambition”. Businesses were looking for practical support, connection to like-minded peers, promotion and inspiration to help them grow. Nascent entrepreneurs needed to learn from and be mentored by established businesses.
YTKO Group created the business-led strategy to achieve these goals, securing seed funding from public sector partners to launch The Norfolk Network in 2003. The aim was to catalyse and promote enterprise and IP commercialisation, not only on the Research Park, but across the county; to raise levels of innovation, inspiration and collaboration in Norfolk business, become a proactive, supportive and dynamic hub for the county’s existing businesses, and stimulate the development of knowledge economy entrepreneurs.
‘Distinguished Speaker’ events, growth workshops and masterclasses, national innovation conferences, and a wide range of member activities, harnessed by a dynamic attitude to connecting, promoting and supporting its members, put Norfolk Network on track for becoming a community of real value to Norfolk’s economic development.
“There could be no better testament to the success of Norfolk Network – as a vision fulfilled and as a member community that has succeeded in all its aims – than that members themselves now want to take it forward into its next decade.” Bev Hurley, CEO, YTKO Group
By listening to its growing and increasingly diverse membership, Network activities have extended to engage SME support right across Norfolk’s knowledge economy, as well as in the university, college and schools.
Members from the digital, new media and creative industries, biosicence, food science, environmental, financial, engineering and cleantech sectors come together each month, forging new connections and collaborations between academia, SMEs, new entrepreneurs and students. Together, this inclusive, cross-sectoral community has become the East of England’s premiere innovation and enterprise hub, highly valued by its members.
Between 2006-2008, as well as animating and growing the community, Norfolk Network received a small amount of public sector funding, and in its first five years helped more than 500 businesses improve their performance, and 350 founders with leadership skills development.
Further evidence of success and value came when Norfolk Network became self-financing by member subscriptions, project income and sponsorship, and in 2008 was spun out of YTKO Group as a not-for-profit organisation.
As proactive ambassadors of enterprise in schools and colleges, the Network founded the Young Entrepreneurs Society in 2009, and continues to foster close links and deliver very successful enterprise activities between business and education at all levels.
Nominated by University of East Anglia for its collaborative work to provide mentoring and networking opportunities for students and graduates; to co-deliver events and training, and champion the importance and value of higher-level skills to the SME business community, Norfolk Network won the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services (AGCAS) Award for Excellence in Careers Service Engagement in 2012.
At the same time, Norfolk Network members began laying the groundwork to become a fully self-sustaining and independent organisation that will continue to grow and serve its members – under their stewardship.