Pitchfest 2016: Aston Business School’s commitment to supporting enterprise

23rd June 2016, and the Centre for Growth team from Aston Business School headed en masse to the NEC to enjoy a day of pitching, networking, interesting conversations and show-stopping keynotes (not least from SBC Chair Stuart Miller!) in the company of over 550 entrepreneurs, innovators and investors at Venturefest West Midlands.

Aston’s involvement in Venturefest demonstrates some key characteristics of a Small Business Charter holding business school; strategic collaborations, research impact, business engagement, support for entrepreneurs, enterprise opportunities for students and the commitment of senior leadership.  Along with many others (notably Birmingham Science City, Innovation Birmingham, Innovate UK and universities from the West Midlands) Aston University was involved in the planning of the event and in delivering sessions and stands, however, our team’s biggest focus on the day was Pitchfest West Midlands.

Pitchfest is all about access to finance for entrepreneurs.  It takes place within Venturefest around its other sessions, keynotes and networking, but unlike the other activity is the culmination of six months of engagement with businesses and partners.  Aston Centre for Growth, BizzInn at the University of Birmingham and Minerva Business Angels at the University of Warwick, have co-designed and developed Pitchfest over the last two years, combining our resources and creativity to realise a shared vision, underpinned by a strong collaborative spirit and a supportive network of investors.

Pitchfest starts with an application process for businesses seeking funding.  In a series of workshops, the university partners support entrepreneurs in developing their pitching skills, and put them forward to pitch to selection panels of investors.  The investor panels provide feedback and choose finalists who on the day compete against each other for investor awards and an audience award.  While the audience votes, more entrepreneurs take the stage for 60 second pop-up pitches.  Delegates browse the business stands in the Pitchfest exhibition throughout the day (conveniently close to the refreshment tables!) and the all-important networking takes place.

It’s not Dragons’ Den, but there are elements of drama, and the whole process brings entrepreneurs into contact with investors and provides free business support. For the 30 or so businesses that get through the process to pitch or have a stand on the day it provides excellent profile for their business in front of a large audience of delegates.  Longer term, we know from the independent evaluation of Venturefest West Midlands in 2015 by the Enterprise Research Centre, that as a result of the event, it is estimated there are over 1,400 new connections or potential relationships made between delegates, and a self-reported financial benefit per delegate of nearly £3,000, aside from any potential investment in participating businesses subsequent to the event.

Why would a business school organise a pitching competition?  For Aston, it is a chance to engage with businesses around growth and access to funding, extend our networks, and develop valuable collaborations with key partners.  Venturefest and Pitchfest provide a very visible demonstration of the ecosystem we are a part of, and the reach of a university committed to supporting enterprise.  Walking around Venturefest, I watched people signing up for mentoring with BSEEN, our student and graduate start-up programme, businesses learning about research and development opportunities through our Aston University stand, and an audience hearing about the latest Global Entrepreneurship Monitor research on growth ambition from the national Enterprise Research Centre.

It takes strong relationships with our partners and a massive team effort across schools and departments within Aston to fully engage in the opportunities presented by Venturefest.  As it turned out, 23rd June 2016 will go down in history for another reason, but whatever the future holds, we are looking forward to building on Pitchfest 2016 and its innovative collaborations.


This blog was written by Paula Whitehouse who is the Director for Aston Centre for Growth and Alumni Director for Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses. Paula will be speaking on the Growth Programme at the upcoming SBC workshop on 6 September.