When Sussex Innovation expanded across the South East, the organisation transformed into a business incubation network.
This October marked the third anniversary of the launch of Sussex Innovation Croydon. The hub was formally opened by Anna Soubry MP, the then Small Business Secretary, in 2015 - becoming Sussex Innovation’s first site away from the University of Sussex campus, and marking the point at which the organisation went from a single innovation centre to a business incubation network.
Sussex Innovation had already become an integral part of new business development in Sussex for almost 20 years when plans to expand its model to other hubs across the South East began to gather pace. From that moment, Croydon was the inevitable place to start.
Brighton and Croydon occupy opposite ends of the Coast to Capital LEP region, with direct transport links between them. A new site in Croydon would help Sussex Innovation expand its support network into London. For Croydon’s business community, it would also provide access to a world-class research institute, in a town that had no university of its own.
Historically, South London is home to many Sussex students. The university began validating degrees at Croydon College in 1993, and its management were keen to find a way to make more of a long-term investment in the area. But the timing had to be right.
“Ambition is key to everything we do,” explains Executive Director Mike Herd. “If the appetite to scale a business isn’t there, there’s a limit to what our interventions can achieve. One of the main reasons we decided to come to Croydon when we did was the ambition we were seeing. We spoke to many entrepreneurs who were tremendously motivated, not just to build successful businesses for themselves, but to give back to their community and create economic growth and jobs.”
Following a tough period culminating in the 2011 riots, investment and political support had begun to flow into the borough. Volunteer-led grassroots organisations such as Croydon Tech City and the Croydon Citizen had sprung up with the intention of restoring local pride, developing skills and promoting homegrown culture. Croydon was ready to undergo an explosion of entrepreneurialism.
Three Years On
Three years on from Sussex Innovation’s arrival, Croydon is quite a different place. Both Tech City and the Citizen ceased operations earlier this year, having inspired a sense of civic purpose that remains in Croydon’s ‘Good Employer Charter’. Organisations including Sussex Innovation pay the London Living Wage and make efforts to hire and buy local.
The council has worked tirelessly to improve the wider perception of Croydon, with massive regeneration of the business and retail quarter, and a packed calendar of cultural events. Local people are now able to hold their heads high when talking about their home town.
Sussex Innovation’s offices in One Croydon, the local landmark ‘50p building’, are now regularly at capacity. Aside from 25 full-time tenants, the open plan coworking space buzzes with the activity of network members. In all, 115 companies have joined, with many more benefiting from community business support schemes, such as the monthly clinics delivered in partnership with Croydon Council and ‘Finance Thursday’ events that gather advisors under one roof.
Tenants have also moved on - often after outgrowing the space. Global higher education marketplace INTCAS moved into its own premises earlier this year, after raising investment of £2m and creating more than a dozen new jobs for local people.
In fact, 1 in 6 of businesses that have been based at the hub have received significant investment or grants, totalling more than £22.1m. The last four winners of the Tech Innovation of the Year at the Croydon Business Excellence Awards have also been Sussex Innovation members.
The Catalyst graduate placement programme has proved extremely popular with local businesses – so much so that this year’s team has a permanent presence in Croydon. The scheme gives local start-ups a flexible staffing resource, while offering graduates the opportunity to move into London with financial stability and valuable work experience on the table.
Sussex Innovation is acting as an outsourced innovation lab for corporate partners based nearby, who know they need to innovate but have no established process to bring in fresh ideas. Superdrug are one of the first companies to participate in the ‘BRAIN’ open innovation network, and other large businesses are invited to connect with the Croydon start-up community.