Watch out San Francisco – the South is coming for your innovation crown
Could the South of England be on the verge of challenging San Francisco’s dominance in the tech innovation arena?
That was the question posed as the region’s biggest thinkers convened for Venturefest South (#VFS23) at the Ageas Bowl in Southampton. This year’s event, the largest to date, showcased exciting new innovators and industry leaders, who united to highlight the South’s increasing significance in the global innovation landscape.
From start-ups to big-name brands, the one-day extravaganza welcomed brilliant minds from every stage of their business journey, making it the most accessible and dynamic not-for-profit event in the calendar. Despite the rain outside, the atmosphere inside the event was electric, with more than 1,200 visitors, exhibitors, sponsors, and partners joining forces to echo the vibrant spirit of the world’s most innovative cities.
Notable names included Southampton City Council, Portsmouth City Council, University of Southampton, University of Portsmouth, University of Winchester, South Hampshire College Group, award-winning, integrated creative comms agency Carswell Gould, and SWJ Events.
British Business Bank, South Coast CPS, A3M Designs, TrouDigital, LSEG, Dell Technologies, Creative Network South, Southpoint Films, Zoe Hanson “The Podcast Lady” were sponsors while leading regional organisations including The National Oceanography Centre, Maritime UK Solent, University of Southampton Formula Student Team (SUFST) attended as exhibitors.
Solent Partners, formally known as the Solent Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) was also present, as was Innovate UK KTN and the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL).
Bruce McLelland, Knowledge Transfer Manager for Innovate UK KTN, said: “Innovate UK is a regular guest to Venturefest South, and this year we came with a collective of colleagues from various parts of the organisation to showcase the full wraparound support as well as funding that we can provide. We also made the important decision to arrive with companies that we have supported in the past to let them share their story and how they found a way in to the Innovate UK support offer.
He added: “A personal highlight for us his year has been witnessing the increasing number of young engineers participating. More and more individuals arrive with just a business idea in hand, choosing the event as their starting point to develop a business around it.
“There’s also a significant rise in postgraduates keen on advancing their degrees into the realm of commercialisation and we are particularly encouraged by the growing number of young female innovators. Plus, we’re seeing a more diverse and international crowd, many of whom are opting to stay in the UK to establish their businesses which is hugely exciting.”
On the day, #VSF23 kicked off with a rousing speech from the event’s curator and Creative Director of Carswell Gould, Ed Gould. Following his introduction were welcome talks from Aimee Dobson from Brand Conscience, Ian Wilcock from the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL), Bruce McLelland from Innovate UK, and Rachael Randall from Solent Partners.
Following the opening speeches, visitors started their day in the #VFS23 Collaboration Zone – the main hub for the festival and home to the ‘Innovation Talks’ stage. Speakers took to the stage to debate and share ideas around some of the biggest themes affecting and driving innovation, entrepreneurship, and business growth.
Next door, in the Innovation Zone, guests met with some of the region’s most exciting start-ups, disruptors, and businesses, creating ample opportunity for networking and potential investment opportunities.
They were also accompanied by up-and-coming talent in the new Entrepreneurs Zone, which serves as a platform for new inventions, innovations, and budding business concepts.
There were also engaging talks on sustainability, funding opportunities, and marketing – including an eagerly anticipated talk from Jim Cregan – Founder of Dorset-based business Jimmy’s Iced Coffee – the fastest-growing ready-to-drink iced coffee brand in the UK.
Other highlights included the festival’s newly introduced Space zone. Giving NASA a run for its money, local organisations included Ettera Space Systems Limited, KISPE Space, GlobalTrust LTD, and Woodrow Scientific.
Attending #VFS23 for the first time was Dr Kathryn Graham, a Senior System Engineer at KISPE, a programme engineering, systems engineering, design and integration and training company, which builds on over 25 years of experience in the space, telecommunications, and electronics sectors.
She said: “We were given the opportunity to have a free slot to exhibit. As a small company, we thought it was a fantastic opportunity that we couldn’t miss.
“The day itself was hugely interesting and quite different from a lot of events we go to. We usually end up seeing the same people, who are all in the same sector as us, time and time again. However, at #VFS23, we’ve encountered people from a variety of industries, which was a refreshing change. Most importantly, we’ve discovered that there are overlaps between our fields, leading to more opportunities and conversations that we hadn’t anticipated having before.”
As well as its new Space zone, #VFS23 introduced its brand-new MedTech zone, which welcomed some of the most innovative minds in healthcare, such as Axial 3D and regional cardiac charity Heartbeat, which showcased their joint venture, 3D printed hearts. The new technology allows the cardiac team at University Hospital Southampton to use the scans of a baby’s heart to create a perfect individual 3D model, making problems easier to diagnose in the first place, so that surgeons can operate more easily.
Other medical innovators included Birthglide, creators of a low-cost device designed to reduce the occurrence of delayed second stage of labour and reduce the associated complications. Airway Medical was also in attendance, showcasing their novel Suction & Oxygen Therapy equipment for clearing blocked airways in emergency and chronic conditions.
Back by popular demand, VSF23 invited the South’s innovators and entrepreneurs to step up, pitch big, and impress in an Open Mic session. The interactive, informal, and fun pitching competition was open to all, regardless of experience, investment readiness, or stage of development.
Competitors had just three minutes to pitch their latest and greatest ideas to a panel of expert judges and an enthusiastic audience of innovators, investors, and entrepreneurs.
The winners were celebrated across several categories. Earswitch, who are empowering new ways to control and connect with the world through in-ear biometric switch and sensor technology, was crowned as the Innovator of the Year, demonstrating remarkable innovation and industry impact.
Early Stage Innovator was awarded to Birth Glide, recognising their promising potential in the early stages of their journey. Watercress Research, a phytochemical research company specifically focussing on the Watercress plant, claimed the title of Sustainable Innovation Leader, showcasing their commitment to sustainability in their innovative practices.
Finally, Scannetix – who aim to modernise the construction industry with its revolutionary excavation system – triumphed as the Open Mic Champion, impressing the judges and audience with their captivating pitch.
Reflecting on the success of #VFS23, Ed Gould said: “#VFS23 has once again surpassed expectations, proving that the South is not just a contender but a major force in the global innovation scene. This event has shown that our region’s vibrant mix of creativity, technology, and entrepreneurial spirit can rival that of San Francisco’s renowned tech landscape.
“Bringing together large-scale businesses, academia, and budding startups has created an ecosystem that mirrors the dynamism and innovation synonymous with Silicon Valley. We’ve seen some incredible talent and groundbreaking ideas this year. It’s a hugely exciting time for the South’s growing influence and its capabilities in the tech and innovation sectors.
“The energy and enthusiasm displayed here are a testament to the region’s ambition and potential. We are confident that our guests left feeling not only inspired but also more connected to a community that’s driving forward with innovation at its heart. The South is indeed carving out its own identity as a hub of technological advancements and entrepreneurial excellence, and we can’t wait to see the festival continue to grow for years to come.