This year in 2016, we celebrate the 18th anniversary of Venturefest Oxford.
Venturefest originated in 1999 from a conversation between Professor Peter Johnson (University of Oxford) and Lord Sainsbury (former Science Minister).
The idea for Venturefest came about following a visit to the Moot Corp Fair in Austin, Texas by Prof Johnson’s students. The Fair included a business plan competition for the area’s high-tech businesses and provided a space for entrepreneurs and innovators to mingle with investors and service providers.
[accordion-item title="Starting out"]
Venturefest Oxford began life as an annual networking event and later, in 2014, expanded its remit to become a year-round gateway to business support for high-tech entrepreneurs.
The event has always provided a range of opportunities to learn, share and network with all the right people to help businesses grow.
The first event took place at the University of Oxford’s St Catherine’s College in 1999. Commenting on the wide spread of participants, Paul Bradstock (former Venturefest board member) described the event as “networking the networks”.
Sir Martin Wood gave the first opening Keynote Address.
“I have two jobs to do here today…first to explain why Oxfordshire has become such a fertile area for the development of new high technology companies. Secondly, as an entrepreneur myself, I’d like to transmit some of the excitement and satisfaction that I’ve felt over the years as a result of being part of the rise in the profile of the high-technology sector”(extract from inaugural keynote address).
[accordion-item title="Finding the way"]
For many, the word ‘Venturefest’ conjures up images of fast cars, Dragon-Den style pitches, wacky inventions and life-changing high-tech products.
Exhibitions and showcases have always been a key part of Venturefest events.
For example, the Technology Showcase demonstrated the latest gadgets and services, allowing delegates to interact with the new technology and meet the people behind the inventions. Formula Student racing cars were showcased at the 2008 event where Oxford Brookes University students were on hand to describe the challenges they overcame to build and race a car which successfully competed against over 60 international teams.
Venturefest is also about rewarding the trailblazers of innovation and entrepreneurism.
The first event awarded a £10,000 to a young start-up from a business school using Global Positioning System technology to monitor performance data essential to those training for sports.
There have been a variety of awards over the years. Such as the 2008 Public Choice Award for Innovation (won by WildKnowledge – producing apps for naturalists) and the 2011 Green Technology award (producing batteries for electrical cars).
The prestigious Martin and Audrey Wood Enterprise Awards, renowned for celebrating innovative and tech-based companies in Oxfordshire, featured at Venturefest for several years.
This year, the Enterprise awards will be available exclusively to those who have presented at Venturefest Oxford’s recent pitching events, including Pitchfest.
Venturefest has also recognised the very young innovators. Fans of the ‘hire and fire’ reality hit TV shows might remember the Apprentice-style challenges held at some Venturefests.
The Oxford Trust helped showcase budding scientists and entrepreneurs in 2004 when the Duke of York visited Venturefest Oxford.
Knowing the realities and challenges faced by new start-ups, Venturefest has provided platforms for entrepreneurs to get support.
Most recently, delegates have had access to free, tailored advice from the meet-the-expert sessions and an opportunity to meet leading business supporters at exhibition stands. For the 2016 event, we are developing a dedicated networking system, allowing delegates to book 1 to 1 meetings with experts, exhibitors and each other.
Other avenues of free advice have included the Young Persons' Business Plan Clinic, and ‘speed mentoring’. The clinic was a space where young persons could go to get help with a new business concept and stand the chance of winning a prize for the best young business talent. Speed mentoring involved short meetings with experienced entrepreneurs who offered informal advice.
Amidst the dynamic product displays and advice booths are the free and practical sessions that run throughout the day (historically built around the ‘tracks’ of funding, learning and innovation).
There have been many fantastic keynote speeches over the years.
To mention just a few: Dr Mike Grocott spoke about his research team’s expedition to conquer Mount Everest. Dr Malcolm McCulloch spoke about a spectacular zero-emissions car (the Morgan LIFECar); and Sir Digby Jones discussed the 21st century business culture.
Last year, Sir Mike Brady gave an inspirational talk about lessons learnt from starting and growing successful high-tech firms. He was quoted in the Oxford Mail media as saying that Venturefest is "an invaluable organisation because it brings together a community of people with ideas that will ultimately lead to job and wealth creation".
[accordion-item title="Nurturing sectoral connections"]
Connecting entrepreneurs and innovators with business support has always been at the heart of Venturefest.
We also aim to connect and increase engagement between universities and business. This was never more apparent than in 2000, when Oxford Brookes and the University of Oxford forged links to contribute to the running of Venturefest.
While the first two events were held on campuses (University of Oxford in 1999, then Oxford Brookes University in 2000), we also convened events at Science Parks (Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in 2002) and later in 2005, chose venues on land owned by Unipart.
In recent years, the location of the event returned to the University of Oxford – at the Saïd Business School. Now, we’re on the move again – to the King’s Centre in Osney Mead so that we can accommodate more networking, making the whole event bigger and better to celebrate our 18th anniversary.
Today, Venturefest Oxford benefits from the pooled expertise of our Executive Board members, including representatives from universities, business and government – making Venturefest Oxford a truly neutral forum in the innovation ecosystem.
And we continue to grow with the support of our partners. We are sponsored by Innovate UK, The Oxford Trust, Knowledge Transfer Network, the University of Oxford, Oxford Brookes University, OxLEP, Science & Technology Facilities Council, UK Trade & Investment and Nominet.
[accordion-item title="Spreading its wings"]
Home-grown in Oxford, evidence of Venturefest’s international appeal began in 2002 when a French company, BL Concept, came to Venturefest to find funding.
The company was setting up a range of hydrotherapy spas at 60 sites across Europe. Finance director Yves Robert said to Oxford Mail: "We are looking for investment and we know British companies are more dynamic when it comes to investment."
Nationally, Venturefest began growing in 2003, when a similar event was set up in Yorkshire.
Later, in 2014, Venturefest Oxford inspired the formation of a Venturefest Network whereby annual networking events are held across the UK. The Network has also been endorsed by the Prime Minister, David Cameron.
[accordion-item title="Growing up"]
In 2014, Venturefest Oxford began transitioning from being a one-day annual event to developing into a fully-fledged year-round forum of activities and opportunities, including the bi-annual Pitchfest.
To facilitate this change, The Oxford Trust provided in-kind sponsorship for Venturefest’s first full-time office space (in the Oxford Centre for Innovation) as well as marketing and accounting support.
Having just completed a long-standing career as Group Director of Communications at Oxford Instruments plc, Lynn Shepherd was appointed as the Executive Chair.
This was an apt appointment given that not only was Oxford Instruments plc the first commercial spin out from Oxford University, but it was established in 1959 – “the year in which high tech Oxfordshire came into being”. In addition, the founders of Oxford Instruments also founded The Oxford Trust who are a core sponsor of Venturefest.
Oxford Instruments was also formerly based at the 2016 location of our annual event – the King’s Centre. It was on this site that they developed “the first ever whole body superconducting MRI magnet”.
With Pitchfest underway and plans for an 18th anniversary Venturefest Oxford annual event on 29 June 2016, we look forward to meeting and connecting entrepreneurs and innovators with business support. Oxfordshire’s innovation ecosystem is set to flourish even further.
See you at the King’s Centre later this year!
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