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North East Universities make an impact to the region’s economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic

23rd August 2021

Student and graduate entrepreneurs from Durham, Newcastle, Northumbria and Sunderland universities are making a significant impact to the region’s social, cultural and economic recovery from the covid-19 pandemic through the success of their business start-ups, SMEs and social enterprises.

The recent publication of results from the Higher Education Business and Community Interaction (HE-BCI) Survey by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) demonstrates the entrepreneurial output from each institution with aggregated data from 2019-20 revealing, amongst other statistics, the collective turnover, external investment and job creation of their business founders.

The four universities have produced over 450 active start-ups, including close to 100 new businesses across 2019 and 2020, that have generated £188.7 million in turnover, almost £36 million in external investment and 1,935 full-time equivalent jobs. Whilst many are trading globally, 79% remain based in the North East to the benefit of the local economy.

The data collection exercise also brought to light countless inspiring stories of resilience and adaptability against the barriers to small business over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as the impact and contributions the start-ups are making to local communities and society overall.

Durham University graduates Peter Kirby and William Smith founded Tred late in 2020 with strong results. Tred is the UK’s first and only green debit card that helps users spend more sustainably by tracking your carbon footprint, helping you to reduce your impact and giving you a simple way to offset the rest. Every time you spend, you will help Tred plant trees as their profits are funding reforestation projects. In April 2021, Peter and Will ran a crowdfunding campaign to launch their green debit card to the public and raised over £1,000,000, far surpassing their initial target of £400,000.

Newcastle University graduate Dan Ellis founded the Jam Jar Cinema in 2012, converting a derelict job centre in Whitley Bay into a thriving venture that now welcomes over 80,000 visitors a year and aids the town’s regeneration through its social enterprise status. At the outset of Covid-19, Dan launched a crowdfunder, raising over £7,500 for local heroes and key workers, and when pandemic restrictions continued, he pivoted to launch the North East’s first independent streaming service, Jam Jar Player. Underpinned by a value matrix to remain local, affordable, diverse, inclusive and well-liked, Jam Jar was recognised in 2020 as the UK's Small Business of the Year at the UK Small Awards, also winning the Heart of the Community award at the North East Business Awards.

Northumbria University graduate Greg Miles founded digital marketing agency Bumbl in 2015, to help businesses in the region use social media to build audiences and gain customers. Bumbl has grown as businesses have started to take social media more seriously as a marketing tool. It is now a team of six and expects to add two new members this year. While its client base expands to London and beyond, North-East businesses still make up the lion’s share - from local independents like Jesmond Dene House to global brands such as Mayborn Group. Greg and the team are confident that Bumbl can make a positive impact on the regional economy by helping their clients win business and grow.

The University of Sunderland graduate Fern Snailham was listed in 2020 as one of Business Leader’s 32 UK female entrepreneurs to watch, after being named a Duke of York Young Entrepreneur of the Year in 2018. Within four years of launching her promotional staffing agency UNEEK Staffing, Fern has grown her staff and client base to over 4,000 and launched a second business during lockdown. Having been given her start by the Enterprise Place, the University’s business support facility, UNEEK Staffing has flourished, boasting clients across the UK from football clubs to festivals, and with Fern’s second business UNEEK Entertainment, she is on track for a combined projected turnover of almost £500k this year.

As well as joining forces via the North East Covid-19 Economic Response Group, established by the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (NELEP) at the start of the pandemic, each university continues to equip their students and graduates to develop sustainable, growth-orientated businesses.

Antony Long, Acting Vice-Chancellor and Warden of Durham University, said “We are continually growing our work with entrepreneurial students and graduates like Peter and Will. Our new Hazan Venture Lab provides a space for students to experiment with business ideas, working closely with our Careers and Enterprise team, and local business partners. It is important for us to create ways in which our students can use their learning and develop skills with real-world applications. Our Careers & Enterprise Centre bespoke support at all stages of business ideas, supporting to the world-changing entrepreneurial ventures of our alumni in the North East and all over the world. We find it easy to be proud of the extraordinary people we have at Durham. We offer the inspiration; they achieve the outstanding.”

Professor Chris Day, Vice-Chancellor and President of Newcastle University, said: “We are incredibly proud of the entrepreneurial Newcastle University students and graduates who are driving change and making a difference to the economy regionally, nationally and across the globe when it is most needed. Our START UP team continue to coach and further a diverse portfolio of business founders, social entrepreneurs and independent professionals who are launching growth and scale ventures and creating skilled jobs for themselves and others. It’s our role to encourage them to strive for impact, creativity and excellence within their sectors and fields, despite the challenging landscape for business, as well as to celebrate their resilience, adaptability and success.”

Professor Andrew Wathey CBE, Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive of Northumbria University, said: “Northumbria has built a strong record in student and graduate enterprise over many years, driven both by our entrepreneurial and business support services, and now increasingly through greater capacity in world-leading research that has impact on key regional growth sectors such as the digital economy, engineering, renewable energy, design, social enterprise and culture. These areas are all providing exciting start-up opportunities and we will continue to invest in our enterprising graduates and in research to ensure the North-East economy has a strong and sustainable future."

Professor Jon Timmis, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Commercial) at the University of Sunderland, said: “It is fantastic to see our students developing new businesses that create such impact and contribute so much to our region. Supporting our students to be entrepreneurial is of great importance to us as a University and is integral to our civic role within the city of Sunderland and wider region. Now more than ever, we need new businesses to drive innovation, create jobs and support the growth of the region and we are proud to play our part in supporting our students to do exactly that.”

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