how Future Factory helps develop ideas
THE man who wanted to become a self-employed caterer was in need of advice about his banana plant leaves. And that sustainable sofa? Its maker wanted advice about the best materials to stuff it with. In both cases, the entrepreneurs concerned went to a specialist green consultancy service called Future Factory to help them develop their ideas and get them to market.
The service is run by Nottingham Trent University and there's a good chance that you may already have heard of it since it has run more than 60 events since starting in April 2009.
If not, a showcase event held tomorrow at NTU's Newton and Arkwright buildings will give an opportunity to see some of the 100 or so green products and businesses that Future Factory has helped over the past three years.
Future Factory manager Debra Easter has a good handle on the numbers since the project is part-funded with a £769,000 ERDF grant and is consequently highly output-driven.
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The other 60 per cent of the money has come from NTU. The public subsidy means that SMEs have only had to contribute 10 pef cent of their project costs to Future Factory. However, as Easter admits, that contribution will rise to 30 per cent if Future Factory continues in the future. Easter and her colleagues will know more the day after the showcase when they hear if their latest ERDF application has been successful or not.
Although Future Factory's basic mission has been to help SMEs find more sustainable ways of doing business, the principles of "sustainability" have been applied in a surprisingly wide range of businesses.
In general, though, the service hooks up university experts with small businesses to help them deliver greener services and products.
And whether you believe the word sustainability deserves to be run out of the English language or not, there are some interesting case studies here.
One of the biggest clients has been Alkane Energy, the Edwinstowe-based company which specialises in the extraction of methane from redundant coal mines.
Alkane was seeking to develop a "new viable revenue stream" using ground source heat pumps and turned to Future Factory for help with cost analysis, design advice and academic research.
According to Easter, Alkane wants to use the pump at Markham Vale and needed to find out whether it would work in the presence of contaminated mine water.
At the other end of the scale there's Alain Job, who wanted to set up his own Cameronian curry business in Nottingham.
Branding advice persuaded him to accept the business title Nkono – translating as "peasant food" – while microbial analysis led him to find safe methods of using banana plant leaves as food packaging. Job now sells his "Cameronian Curry in a Cone" in the Victoria Centre market – and the cone is a banana leaf.
And remember the "sustainable sofa"? Roger Paulson, of Trent Upholsteries, had the idea and sought out Future Factory to help him develop a settee filled with natural raw-waste products and using reduced packaging.
The finished product uses fillings such as, "horsehair, coir fibre, latex rubber, layered flock and wool" and is designed to be both longer-lasting and easily recyclable. In all cases, Future Factory seeks to involve students to give them real-life experience of working in business environments. Thus, at East Bridgford, architectural technology students are currently helping a boutique hotel called East Bridgford Hill set up a "glamping" area.
Being part-funded by ERDF, student involvement in real businesses via Future Factory is an "output" and so far the project has arranged placements for 110 students. More than 40 of these have been paid placements where Future Factory pays an employer 25 per cent of a student's gross salary for up to 12 months. However, this is set to drop to 20 per cent if the project goes ahead on new funding.
Debra Easter herself has worked in the environmental and energy sector for ten years, latterly at private consultancy Hestia and before that at Groundwork in Wales. She has seen the sector change over that time and says that the kind of businesses which are "green" has changed. Companies today may be seeking to reduce their costs by saving energy or cutting down on packaging. Or they may be seeking to develop specifically greener products because there is a market for them. It all adds up gaining greener credentials in markets where green is seen to be positive. That isn't to say that Easter and Future Factory accept all businesses which approach them for help. They receive their share of outré business approaches which they feel are not suitable for the project. "We do get some eccentric ideas – but I am getting better at identifying them," says Easter.
The Future Factory showcase is held 4.30-6.30pm tomorrow. The event is free but a place needs to be booked by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 0115 848 8675