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Business & Economy

Driving innovation in County Durham

As the business support service of Durham County Council, Business Durham has a proven track record of helping free-thinking companies grow, thrive and bring innovation to market.

With the rapidly changing world, it has never been more important to help businesses navigate the challenges they face, whether its Brexit, the pandemic or climate change.

And Business Durham is committed to supporting businesses throughout County Durham to succeed.

In 2021, it launched the Durham Future Innovation Building (DFIB) programme to support innovation in the construction, health and electech (electronics, electrical and embedded software) sectors across the county.

Since its inception, the programme has provided support to 20 companies, soon to be 25, to bring their innovative product, process or service for the future to market.

One of the businesses which has benefited from the DFIB programme is deep technology company SEEDS (Sustainable Energy Efficient Designed Structures) Capital Limited, based at the North East Technology Park (NETPark), in Sedgefield.

The company specialises in the research and development of advanced organic nano-materials to greatly improve the performance of battery and solar technologies.

It is committed to helping reduce everyone’s carbon and environmental footprint, and is designing materials which will lead towards net-zero.

Founded by chief executive Jason Chehal in 2012, SEEDS Capital has developed sustainable nano-materials to efficiently capture and store solar energy for 24-hour energy coverage for use in a wide range of applications, including Internet of Things devices, solar power for buildings and electric vehicles.

It has partnered with the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI), which is also based at NETPark, and they have worked together on projects to develop advanced nano-fibre technology from idea, through proof of concept, to materials development, identification of applications, production and process scale-up.

SEEDS Capital has also been able to tap into other support for innovation from the National Formulation Centre, the National Printable Electronics Centre, and the Graphene Applications Centre at CPI.

In 2021, SEEDS Capital started a project to formulate advanced solar and electrode inks using its unique nano- fibres to demonstrate their highly versatile solar and battery technology.

These are IP protected and can be fabricated into thin film PV or integrated directly into buildings and vehicles.

SEEDS Capital and CPI are working with research institutes to develop the technology to strengthen the IP portfolio, so it can then be licensed to manufacturers.

Jason says: “Initially, we had a virtual office at NETPark, but early last year we decided to open our research and development headquarters at the technology park to enable us to access regional support and networking opportunities.

“We applied to Business Durham’s DFIB programme to help us connect with companies who could benefit from our energy harvesting inks.

“As well as attending the workshops and masterclasses, we were awarded two grants, one to support research and development and the other to put towards a salary, which were both incredibly beneficial.

“We are currently looking at appointing a project chaser and are going through another round of investment to expand our existing projects.

“We are also developing two knowledge transfer programmes to fund a PhD student and an associate, who will work in the labs at CPI and be based at our NETPark office.

“The DFIB programme has laid the foundation for building a stronger relationship with Business Durham, helping us to create a local supply chain centred around the cutting-edge technology we are developing at NETPark to boost the attractiveness of County Durham as a region for advanced technology manufacturing.”

As part of the DFIB programme, each of the companies are given opportunities to collaborate and learn from industry experts.

The aim of the programme is to create a culture where innovation is accessible to all businesses across County Durham, regardless of their size.

Companies are supported to work up their ideas and connect to individuals and other businesses who can help in developing new innovations.

The programme works to help them adapt, discover new markets, become trendsetters, continuously assess their products and adjust quickly to market conditions.

Sarah Slaven, Business Durham’s managing director, says: “Business Durham has a proven track record of helping innovative companies grow and thrive, and bringing innovation to market.

“As part of our support for innovation and enterprise, we developed the DFIB programme to encourage businesses to innovate and develop new products.

“We’re delighted to have helped more than 20 companies, including SEEDS Capital.

“They are great examples of the innovative and ambitious small and medium-sized businesses located across our area, and we at Business Durham are very proud to have been able to support them as they expand and flourish.

“The DFIB programme is just one of the ways we are supporting companies during this rapidly-changing time. “By taking part, businesses will be able to build their competitiveness, develop new products, grow supply chains, and improve productivity, employment and wider economic prospects, which will enable them to thrive while creating and safeguarding more and better jobs.”

The DFIB programme is delivered through a series of events, masterclasses, workshops and practical sessions, designed to help businesses unlock their innovation potential and develop their knowledge and skills – even outside their initial area of expertise.

In addition to the masterclasses and workshops, companies are able to apply for funding to increase their expertise, either by taking on their own experts or bringing in external consultants and specialists. They can apply for two grants:

• The Innovation Research and Development grant is worth between £10,000 and £50,000, based on a 50 per cent match from the SME

• The Innovation Capacity grant, which can be used to contribute £6250 towards a salary for six months of innovation expertise

The DFIB programme is open to SMEs in County Durham that are looking to invest in research and development to help bring their innovative product, process or service to market.

Companies who are put forward must be able to demonstrate not only that the business is viable, but that there is potential for growth via innovation in the future and that the support provided is vital to its success.