New product venture inspires unemployed

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The Independent Online
AN EMPLOYMENT scheme is helping business and professional people who have been out of work for a long time to set up job-creating ventures by developing new products.

Backed by pounds 600,000 from the Department of Employment, the Innovation Partnership is run by would-be entrepreneurs with business and technical skills and Huddersfield University, which supplies expertise.

It began last September. Of about 15 ventures proposed so far, four should start trading this month, moving from the project's base at Dean Clough in Halifax to their own premises. Another is almost ready, and a further five will be operating by the time the scheme ends in July.

Peter Bissell, co-author of A Better Mousetrap, is the project manager. He is a mechanical engineer, who ran one of the first innovation centres and now manages the university's commercial arm, Business Connection. 'Setting up a business with a new product is notoriously risky,' he says. 'But two-thirds should be able to trade and operate effectively, with products for which they have identified a market.'

The first plan was to develop products from a source such as British Technology Group or the Design Council, but some required too much research or capital investment.

A number of products are the entrepreneurs' own ideas. For example, Brian Taylor and Chris Rawson have formed a limited company, Prospro, around the Boot Buddy. Invented by Mr Taylor, this device prevents shopping and takeaway meals from spilling in cars.

To bring it to the marketing stage, they commissioned technical drawings, a toolmaker to produce the mould, a plastic injection moulder, a photographer and a packaging designer. All were paid for through the partnership. Advice on patenting and trademark registration was also free.

Mr Taylor and Mr Rawson were previously self-employed in the computer industry, but were then jobless for a year and 18 months respectively.

'Now we're in business,' says Mr Taylor. 'We've just got the first thousand products off the line, and I'll be on the road selling to supermarkets and takeaways.' At first, they will control cash flow by invoice factoring.

The partnership comprises 32 men and one woman - only eight of more than 400 applicants were female. The average age is 46. Fifty were selected, but 13 landed jobs and another four joined post-graduate courses.

Funding is divided between training benefits and allowances; resourcing the programme; and roughly pounds 15,000 worth of services for each team to help them produce a marketable product.

'We make it clear that this is only a base,' explains Peter Willis, centre manager and a training consultant seconded to the partnership. 'They must look elsewhere for funding. The challenge is quite daunting. Here are long-term unemployed - many have always been on a payroll. We ask them to come together as a group, form teams, take on a new product, build a company around it and be trading within 10 months.'

First to trade will be MST Development Company. Derrick Spencer and George Taylor, both mechanical engineers, have invented an anti-theft device ('PC Cuff'), that secures computers by clamping the central processing unit to a desk and protects the memory and disk drive. A later unit will protect the printer. Target markets include hospitals, local authorities, universities and schools.

Project members believe the exercise should be repeated in other parts of the country. Mr Taylor says: 'It's a brilliant project. No one else would have funded us. You don't get ideas sitting at home, living on pounds 44 a week. But this place inspires you to get started: it's a breeding ground for ideas.'