Welsh ICE is breathing fire into the nation’s entrepreneurial spirit, having incubated 250 start-ups since it opened in July 2012. Its founder and director, Gareth Jones – an IoD 99 member – describes his mission to help Wales punch above its weight in the UK-wide battle to attract and nurture new business
In 2011, having stumbled upon a job advert that simply read: “Social entrepreneur wanted, salary £1. Call Mike,” Gareth Jones made the most important phone call of his life. “Mike turned out to be the property developer for [commercial property investors] WCR Group,” he recalls.“They had a property available, which they were looking to use as a centre for eco-tech businesses. I said: ‘It’s a nice idea, but I have a better one.’ Luckily, they got on board with that.”
Jones’s idea was to use the property as a hub where entrepreneurs and small teams could work, create and grow. His proposed Welsh Innovation Centre for Enterprise (ICE) in Caerphilly would provide co-working and serviced office space as well as access to funding, guidance and state-of-the-art facilities for entrepreneurs, freelance workers and start-ups. Fast-forward to 2017 and, as the centre celebrates its fifth anniversary this July, Jones is running the largest start-up incubator in Wales. It has contributed over £13.8m to the economy and created more than 375 jobs in that time.
“We have the right conditions here to make a significant impact on the economy. One way to do that is through entrepreneurship and getting people to join the entrepreneurs based here,” he says.
The idea for ICE came from Jones’s desire to set up a business in his native Wales. He found that networking with fellow Welsh entrepreneurs and small business leaders gave him the confidence and inspiration to innovate.
“Over the past couple of years at ICE I’ve realised there are two types of people: ‘yes, and…’ people and ‘yes, but…’ people,” Jones says. “When we start talking about a business idea – something that we really want to commit energy to – the first conversation we have can be quite decisive in how much effort we’ll then make. Spending time with more ‘yes, and…’ people pushed me further than I ever thought I could go. That’s where the idea for ICE arose. If I could be surrounded by these people on a regular basis, I’d feel like I had superpowers.”
Having secured backing from WCR Group and sponsorship from local accountancy and law firms keen to get on board, he approached the Welsh government for further funding. Jones thought that their shared agenda of boosting innovation and industry in Wales would ease the process, but “the problem we found was that they didn’t necessarily understand what we were proposing. We’d spend an hour explaining ICE to someone, but what they distilled back to their colleagues in 30 seconds didn’t quite sum it up,” he says. “It felt as though we were never speaking to the right person.”
Breaking the ice
In January 2012 David Rosser, a former director at the CBI, became the Welsh government’s director of innovation. It was a crucial appointment from ICE’s point of view.
“He completely understood the concept, but what ultimately gave them the confidence to invest was our backing from the Fairwood Trust [a local charity committed to investing in south Wales initiatives], which had agreed to sponsor ICE’s first 10 members,” Jones explains. “When they realised there were other people getting behind us and that it was a bigger project than just us around a table, it was easier for them to get involved. Four years ago in June, we raised £350,000 from the government and about £300,000 in private finance.”
Jones admits to some naivety when it came to seeking government funding. “Public investment at first felt like a natural strategic option, but it puts your head above the parapet a bit – we left ourselves open to all kinds of attacks,” he says. “And a lot of bureaucracy came with it. It was a real challenge.”
He also offers some words of advice to business leaders seeking an investment partner: “Think about ways to raise money way before you need it, so that you can be selective about whom you approach. Bringing in the wrong investors can be far worse than bringing in none at all. That’s certainly been the case for me.”
ICE has supported more than 250 businesses since its inception and is on track to deliver a further £36.3m in gross value added to the economy over the next two years. Jones attributes much of the centre’s formative success to his network of advisers and mentors. They had faith in the business from the start and were willing to wait patiently for the inevitable return on investment.
“It was hard to get through certain doors, but as soon as you have Anthony and William Record [the father and son team who lead WCR Group] copied in, life gets a lot easier,” he says. “Being able to gain their insight and expertise, not to mention their confidence, was crucial for us. For the first couple of years we didn’t have much competition for space [at the former offices of environmental risk consultancy National Britannia in Caerphilly Business Park, owned by WCR] and grew slowly, as we needed. When the market improved after the recession, we were a far riskier option than bringing in an established company that could pay their bills, but they were committed to what we were doing and allowed us to grow.”
The company’s biggest test so far? “Many of the challenges aren’t ones we thought we would face. For instance, if our broadband service goes down, we may as well have the building on fire. It’s amazing how desperate people get without internet access,” Jones says. “Another is that we’re a small business but we work on an enterprise level. When it came to putting in our IT infrastructure we were procuring at an enterprise grade as a small business. A lot of providers weren’t taking us seriously as a result. We were trying to play in both fields and it was all a huge learning curve for us.”
In 2016 WCR Group provided £1m in funding to purchase additional office space at Caerphilly Business Park, increasing ICE’s total floor area to about 27,500sq ft spread across three buildings. With 170 businesses and more than 300 people on site at present, Jones hopes to increase the ICE community to 430 companies and 1,000-plus people by 2021. He envisions pushing those numbers up to 1,100 and 2,500 respectively by 2026.
“When it comes to recruiting members, the main criterion we’re looking for is realism. We’re not snobbish – it’s not that we want only high-growth, high-scale or hi-tech enterprises here,” Jones stresses. “It’s much more about finding people who know what they’re getting into and are going to be able to hack it.”
ICE’s campus set-up plays a key role in facilitating relationships between firms working in similar sectors, he adds, arguing that it’s also well placed to compete with other British hubs for talent.
“From the campus you can easily access bike and running trails through the mountains. There’s a train service nearby that zips past every couple of minutes, so you can get into Cardiff quickly if you need to. You can be in London in three hours,” Jones says. “And, because of the amount of space available here, we can have facilities such as a creche and a huge restaurant on site.”
A report by Tech City in 2015 named south Wales as one of the UK’s fastest-growing “digital clusters” alongside Bournemouth, Brighton and Hove, Liverpool and inner London. While ICE is clearly a success and has a bright future, Jones admits that it still faces a considerable challenge in attracting firms away from the UK’s big cities.
“We’ve had to work so hard to build our brand because there are players entering the market that have far more significant backing than us and are in more ‘desirable’ locations,” he says. “They get a lot more attention than a hub in Caerphilly.”
To ensure that a tight-knit community spirit remains as the centre attracts talent from far and wide, ICE runs frequent informal networking sessions that encourage “honest relationships”. Every Friday lunchtime a member gives a talk on something they’re passionate about. Their presentation is broadcast live on Facebook.
“It might sound fluffy, but the idea is that, once you see what someone cares about (work-related or not), you can be much more open with them and vice versa,” Jones says. “We’re trying to build relationships based on mutual understanding and respect – whether it’s through the Friday talks, five-a-side football, a quiz night or the running club, we want people here to strike up relationships they wouldn’t otherwise form.”
While ICE’s main goal is to nurture the ventures of others, how has Jones himself found the extra support he needs to develop the centre itself as a business? In this respect, he says, his IoD 99 membership has been invaluable.
“The IoD 99 networking events have been great and the institute’s research service has been huge for us,” Jones says. “It was a great way for us to obtain insights really quickly when we were putting together some proposals last year. Using the research service is a great way to inform our content-driven marketing strategy.”
With a talent pipeline from nearby academic institutions also playing its part, Jones observes that ICE is well placed to help develop skills and support economic growth in the region.
“Nearby Cardiff Metropolitan University has a great reputation for developing tech talent, so we’ve also got a lot of burgeoning CGI companies, which ties in nicely with the businesses we have working in video gaming, virtual reality and augmented reality,” he says. “We can facilitate introductions to the university and we’ve always got people on work experience placements here. Having that clear communication between academia, business and government is absolutely crucial to developing a skilled workforce.”
Last year four of ICE’s tech start-ups secured a combined £671,000 in funding. Among them is market intelligence firm ProfitSourcery. The firm raised £71,000 from four private investors.
“We met most of our investors through being situated at ICE,” says ProfitSourcery’s founder, Ed Brooks. “The network here is pretty extensive and I can only see that growing as more businesses join the community.”
In an effort to support entrepreneurialism more widely across Wales, Jones is leading the expansion of ICE’s offering. The Welsh government’s secretary for economy and infrastructure, Ken Skates, announced in February that it was providing £1m to fund a new ICE business hub in Wrexham, north Wales. The centre, which opened in July, has been delivered through the Business Wales initiative in association with Wrexham Glyndwr University and Coleg Cambria. It aims to support 100 new enterprises and 260 jobs over the next two years.
Jones, who also sees scope to expand the campus at Caerphilly Business Park, plans to develop ICE’s sister company, Boma Camp – a web-based community for founders unable to access the campus – to widen the organisation’s reach.
“The conditions [for start-ups] are pretty good at the moment,” he says. “When you look at the opportunities in the wider world – blockchain, the ageing population, automation – these are exciting game-changers. If we can support entrepreneurialism and create jobs, that’s advantageous to everyone here. Because if, or when, the grants dry up, it’s not disappearing; it’s embedded into the culture.”
Reflecting on how far ICE has come and looking to the future of the business, Jones says: “We feel strongly that what we’re doing here is important: to highlight that you can have a great life in areas such as Caerphilly. From that perspective, entrepreneurship is the answer.”
Welsh ICE: Vital info
Company Welsh Innovation Centre for Enterprise (ICE)
Founder Gareth Jones
HQ Caerphilly Business Park
Member businesses 170, including Blackwood Embedded Solutions, Bomper Studios, DW Studio, ProfitSourcery, Service Tracker, Signum Health and WR Investigations
Initiatives In 2015 ICE secured £250,000 in funding from the Fairwood Trust, the Welsh government, Lloyds Bank and WCR Group to launch ICE 50, a programme that gives 50 firms a full-time desk; tailored mentoring; workshops; and phone and web access for 12 months. To apply to join the next intake visit welshice.org/apply-ice-50
To watch Gareth Jones discuss Welsh ICE and to see inside the Caerphilly campus visit director.co.uk/welshice