Cultivating innovation

Operated and initially funded by Bedford Borough Council and East of England Development Agency, Bedford i-lab is a serviced office space-cum-melting pot of entrepreneurs.

“It’s a really interesting and vibrant community,” says Armstrong who has been the manager of Bedford i-lab since it launched in May 2005.

With their opportunistic nature and hunger for new ideas, it’s no surprise that Armstrong says a lot of entrepreneurs swap notes and compare business plans. “These businesses are in a unique position of being able to create some synergy and we’ve seen a fair amount of collaboration take place between IT-focused businesses and finance companies.”

In order to nurture a competitive business environment, Armstrong says that businesses that apply for office space are heavily vetted. “We turn people away if we don’t think that they’ll bring value to the other businesses – it’s important that we don’t ‘poison the water hole so to speak’. All the SMEs have said that their businesses have accelerated since being here because it such a productive environment.”

Unsurprisingly, the environment is naturally very conducive to networking but Armstrong says that Bedford i-lab also works hard to formally encourage it. “We organise talks every month or so on a range of topics that the tenants have requested advice on, such as raising finance and copyright laws. And is a great opportunity for networking either side of these events.”

The tenants of Bedford i-lab also benefit from the fact that both Business Link and the UK Trade and Investment have offices in the building and also host talks. For example, Business Link held a talk on software that can help businesses with their cash flow forecasting as well as on how to do a quick analysis of their financial status. Meanwhile, the UK T&I have held talks advising companies who are looking to start exporting abroad.

“Of course both these bodies have a great wealth of business knowledge but they also have invaluable contacts, for example, the UK T&I can put you in touch with embassies, trade fairs and delegations. All these things really help to break down the mystique on many business issues. 

“We also have links to the Universities of Cranfield and Bedfordshire and benefit from working with their R&D teams and other joint ventures that are supportive to entrepreneurs.” 

Bedford i-lab has also just employed a Business Development Manager who is working closely with the SMEs to help them advance their businesses and tailor more focused extra networking events. 

Armstrong works hard to make it a cohesive society by distributing news on any successes the businesses have had through the “i-lab info” email system. 

“While we’re here to help these small businesses, it’s important that they have some momentum so we can help them grow and then see them move on, because we now operate as a commercial entity.”  Having said that, the rent rates are still very reasonable. An office space of 157 sq feet inclusive of heating, lighting, water, phones, internet, parking, and all other key office building facilities, for two people will set you back £386 a month. Meanwhile, a 321 sq foot office space for five people will cost you £788 a month.

“Our office spaces can accommodate up to 20 people, but typically, they are for three to five people, though we do have a few SMEs renting office space from us at the moment  for around nine or sixteen people.”

For more info on office rent rates and the full range of facilities and services included, click here

To see the business directory of the tenants, click here

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