Lenders learn to be flexible

WHEN it comes to innovation, banks are often cast as villains. In the view of many entrepreneurs, they are obsessed with lending against fixed assets and thus unable to assess the viability of ideas that so often underpin the success stories of the current business world.

Matters are improving, though. According to David Gill, head of the innovation and growth unit set up by Midland Bank early last year, there has been something of a transformation in the attitudes of banks over the past two or three years. He puts this down to a "combination of government exhortation and the private sector seeing there's money to be made".

Although he thinks the plethora of initiatives from Whitehall are creating some confusion, he says tax changes are likely to have some effect. In the meantime, Midland, part of HSBC, is apparently making efforts to help prime the pump.

It has funded the Centre for UK Business Incubation Policy at Birmingham's Aston Science Park since its inception last year, and it recently set up the chair of innovation at Brunel University. The idea is that this expertise will provide the bank with "an informed appraisal" of business proposals submitted by technology-based small firms.

The first holder of the post is Professor Clive Butler, an engineer who has spent most of his career working in optics and metrology. As well as carrying out free initial assessments to establish that the technology involved is sound, and offering guidance on patents, he and his colleagues are aiming in their first year to run 10 courses for more than 120 of Midland's senior managers on the issues facing hi-tech start-up businesses.

The two-day courses will focus on equity finance, technical assessment, business incubation, government support, patents and intellectual property rights.

A particular benefit, suggests Mr Gill, is that the training will reduce the "empathy gap" between providers of finance and start-up firms.

Prof Butler is also optimistic that the programme will help change attitudes. He is trying to get bank managers "to think in terms of people who have good ideas that can be commercial ideas", he says.

With "invented in Britain, made elsewhere" an increasingly common pattern, Prof Butler is keen to play a role in reviving the reputation the nation enjoyed during the 19th century for being one of the world's most dynamic economies.

Midland, which has forged links with other universities, is also setting up enterprise funds to provide finance for smaller companies. Since 1992, these funds have made equity investments totalling more than pounds 13m in 150 businesses around the country. The bank has also reached an agreement under which the European Investment Bank is investing pounds 20m in these enterprise funds and establishing a new innovation fund.