One of our highlights of 2020 was being able to host the annual Leeds Digital Festival Awards, albeit under very different circumstances. Live streamed for the first time to adhere to the public health guidelines of the time, it was an honour to again shine a light on Leeds’ best and brightest in Tech – even if that was virtually, rather than in person!
With one of the strongest fields of nominees and winners we’ve ever had, the strength of the Tech scene in Leeds has been one rare positive throughout this pandemic. Named the Facilitator Of The Year (Company) on the night, we took some time to catch up with Dr Martin Stow - Chairman and Director of Nexus - to see how 2020 has been for the organisation, and what it was like becoming a Leeds Digital Festival Awards winner.
Martin, thank you for taking the time to speak to us. First things first - how was the experience of winning your Leeds Digital Festival Award?
It was certainly validating! It was really great to be recognised, especially when you look at the strength of our fellow nominees. The bread and butter of what we do is all about facilitating partnerships and collaborations, so to be recognised for that is really good to see and I was personally delighted with the award too.
For those who might not be away of who Nexus are or what you do, what is the top line overview of your organisation?
Nexus is really about two things: driving a community of entrepreneurs, start-ups, SMEs and academics, making that as dynamic as possible. We also seek to provide seamless to the breadth of what the university has to offer to businesses within the city and the region.
Receiving this award gives us a good indication that we are doing that, and are being seen to be doing that.
What type of business and goals is Nexus currently focussing on?
Our focus is on companies with high growth potential, who will benefit most from that working relationship with the University of Leeds. We seek to drive what MIT refer to as IDEs, or innovation driven enterprises.
We look for businesses with the potential to become a unicorn, and the next Facebook or Uber - and we’re thinking big here, but without that ambition, things don’t change. On top of that, Nexus is a great prism through which to showcase the university, and the region as well - I’ve heard us referred to as being a ‘City Square’, and I think that’s a really nice way of putting it.
Your own personal career actually begun in a completely different field, didn’t it? Can you give us a view at how you came to be the chairman and director at Nexus?
I started my career in a biotech start-up, and even though I was employed as an R&D scientist, I got involved with all aspects of the business, giving me some good commercial grounding.
After a management buyout I joined Johnson and Johnson, where I got more involved with strategy and management. I then wanted to get back involved in the start-up environment and did so in London, but what made so interested in my current role is that I’d done so much work with universities in past jobs, I was aware of the opportunities these institutions are able to offer - especially regionally.
Hopefully this is a question we’ll get to stop asking soon but, how has the Covid-19 pandemic impacted Nexus?
A lot of what we talk about is community based, and it’s easy to make the assumption that we mean a physical community by that - but actually a lot of what we do, infrastructure, service and support isn’t dependant on geography. And while we’re lucky to have such a wonderfully designed space at Nexus and an incredible communal building, it’s a space that is there to facilitate our aims, which we’re still able to work toward remotely.
While we do offer physical space to businesses, that isn’t all we offer. Before lockdown hit we actually introduced a community membership scheme, was has continued to grow alongside our physical membership, so our remote teams are doing everything within their power to keep things moving as best they can. As a whole, we’ve seen an awful lot of resilience, and some businesses even pivoting to see what they can contribute to working through the pandemic.
Nexus isn’t the only organisation that focusses on facilitating, so what exactly stands you apart from the other groups in the same field?
I think what sets us apart is the genuine interest we hold in the businesses we work with, and the trusted relationships we build. We take care to understand their work and the challenges they’ll face as closely as possible, and work to accelerate their growth and remove risk from the business.
We aren’t trying to sell anything, we just want to work with businesses who’ll benefit from our input and network to help make them the best possible version of themselves. Being a university, we can also help with grants, placements and internships especially, which we’ve found to be particularly beneficial at the PHD level. Building that kind of relationship helps breed an awful lot of loyalty, and that is what has helped Nexus be so successful.
You’re obviously part of the University of Leeds, but do all universities have their own Nexus alternatives?
Our model is pretty unique. Other universities have parts of what we do, but nothing as joined up or strategic. Our university takes its civic role really seriously, with a real want to drive the innovation ecosystem by working with businesses and organisations within the region.
We make significant investment to underline that commitment, because we look at what we do as being a key regional player and taking a leading role in that work because we feel it's so important.
What about Nexus do you think stood out so much to our judging panel and persuaded them to select you as our winners?
I think it’s the unique proposition of how we go about things, and our focus on businesses with the region as well as growing a community. I would hope that our desire to be a leader in those initiatives was another factor in being selected as well as our desire to help grow the regional economy, because it would be good to have that recognition for the university and Nexus thinking strategically and of a much larger picture.
Our communities team spend at least half of their time connecting businesses outside of the university, and it’s never the case that we turn companies away because if the university can’t be of some help, we’re not interested, so that support we provide outside of our immediate scope is something that I’d like to think was picked up on.
Finally, looking to the future, what are the plans and goals for Nexus in 2021?
In terms of the building, getting more people and the community back here, that’s something we’re already planning for. The space is already Covid secure, which is a great place to be starting from. We run a lot of events, and while we’ll continue to do so virtually, when we have the opportunity to do them physically or hybrid with streaming technology, we will do so, and I’m really excited about our events programme.
Growth is obviously still on our agenda, and we have a pretty healthy pipeline where that is concerned. We have lots of businesses in process and the number of enquiries has increased in 2021 already, which is great to see. We’re starting to get not only an incredibly strong national reputation, but we’re beginning to be known internationally too, with links across Israel and India being established. Businesses will get more for their money in Leeds than in major cities like London, so we have quite a strong proposition for these companies to come and work with us and within the region.
Thank you to Martin again for his time, and congratulations again to the team at Nexus on the Award win!
If you’re at an organisation who’re looking to grow and want help attracting the best tech talent possible to build your teams and scale your business, we can help – just get in touch to find out how.