Three years ago I joined the Sussex Innovation team to lead the Catalyst Programme.
Sussex Innovation Centre had just been given funding from HEFCE, with support from the University of Sussex, to deliver a three-year pilot to test a theory – that there was a gap between traditional student/graduate employability schemes and the more flexible needs of a growing business.
This theory was based on 18 years of experience working with growing businesses, seeing strategies left on the shelf while work needed to be done and interns left working alone while the founder was away winning new clients.
Our first job was to find twelve placement year and graduate students for our inaugural team, to be given a one year contract with the Innovation Centre to allow me to centrally manage them as a resource for our members and local growing companies.
On my first day I interviewed three placement year students from the School of Business, Management and Economics here at Sussex, two of which became founder members of the first team. The first team were buying into a concept - I had some ideas of how this programme would be delivered but on a day to day basis at this point we had no facts to share. One of the team came in two weeks before his start date to discuss his first projects - I hadn’t found any for him yet.
The first Catalyst team
This created a unique atmosphere in the first year; we were all creating Catalyst together. Our combined experiences, challenges and successes have helped form the way we still work today. Charlie Gorton built us a very sarcastic timesheet, guidelines of how to approach projects were created as we delivered them, and when three team members had to be removed for different reasons those left all worked even tighter as a team.
Building a client base took time, part of the problem with offering something new is having to explain that we are unique, flexible and risk free – which all sounds far too good to be true. I had to speak to all our members, and local growing businesses, and plant the idea – a talented placement or graduate student to help you get your to do list done for as little or as long as you need.
I remember explaining our team to Sam Knowles, sat on the wall opposite the Brighton Dome during a break at TedX that October. Sam was considering an intern but it didn’t fit with his business model. He was often travelling or working from home, so he left short of options but needed the help. I explained that he could work with our team as he needed to, that they could be based in the office with me for management and the amount of work could ebb and flow as his projects required. His only cost was the hourly rate, my time was also included in that rate along with laptop provision, holidays, sick pay etc. His key question – “what’s the catch?”
Today we are half way through the third year, Catalyst has evolved from a theory to a proven model providing tangible value to our clients and our team members. Catalyst has become a programme graduates seek to join – we get a lot of referrals, and also a reason to become a part of the Sussex Innovation community. No one else has a team like ours.
The HEFCE reporting numbers show the impact of our support to the companies we work with and the stories of the team. Companies have worked with our team to validate ideas, discover new markets, spread their stories, share the workload and we become part of the team; a trusted, managed pool of resources for so many types of task.
Some of our team have gone on to be hired by companies they worked with, most have used the year to make fundamental life decisions. Whether that’s to go cycling down America or join a London based start-up, the Catalyst year has a profound effect on the individual as the most intense and diverse year of experience I am aware of.
Three years have gone so quickly - working with growing companies and graduates can be frustrating, rewarding and challenging, but rarely dull. We have refined our model, made better recruitment decisions and I now have a deputy – Liam Ward from that first team – to help me with the day to day management of the 40+ projects we have on-going at any one time.
The Catalyst Team, year 3
After such an amazing welcome to the Croydon community I can’t wait to see what new projects Brighton will bring as we look forward to opening there in the summer. I’m very proud of what we have achieved as a team so far and look forward to the next three years. I wonder how our team will evolve in that period, and can’t wait to meet all the new clients we’ll support.