The view from here – Helen Oldham

Head and shoulders image of Helen Oldham, smiling to camera

In this series we ask key figures in the region and from our core sectors to share their insights.

We spoke to Helen Oldham, Founding Board Director, NorthInvest, about what she sees as the major opportunities and challenges for our region. 


How would you describe the current economic outlook for Leeds and the wider region?

There’s always been a strong sense of collaboration here, particularly in the innovation and digitisation sectors and I can only see that growing at pace.

You can’t underplay the current issues facing the economy, of course, but there’s a great deal of positivity in those sectors, which is helping to drive the wider economy.

In terms of funding for early-stage businesses, we’ve never seen as many funds active in Leeds and that is fuelling those innovation-intense businesses which are the future pipeline for our region.

There’s no shortage of dynamic young businesses looking for funding or of individual Angel investors or funds which concentrate on early-stage businesses.


What needs to happen to accelerate continued growth and success?

There are some incredible medtech and biotech businesses coming out of the University of Leeds and NHS Digital pathways, together with innovators in green energy and clean tech.

Promoting the success of these start-ups is essential to attract more businesses to scale and grow in our region. We need to use the momentum, which is building across the funding landscape, to attract more and larger funds.

Leeds Innovation Arc – the city’s strategic plan for inclusive and economic growth – is going to attract even greater investor interest both nationally and globally. It’ll give us a place-based environment, a connected ecosystem for entrepreneurs to land in and feel part of a supported network.

It’s all about how stakeholders are coming together to make this an exciting proposition, attracting high quality start-ups and supporting a wide and diverse range of founders.


Describe the role NorthInvest plays in driving regional growth and attracting investment?

We’re a fast-growing Angel investor network, born and headquartered in Leeds, but active across the North of England. Through our networks and events programme, we’re constantly onboarding more Angel investors – at least one new investor a week is currently asking to join us.

Many are people who have never thought about Angel investing before and we’re able to demonstrate how strong the tax incentives are in the UK for making those business investments and how good the returns can be. You can invest as little as £5K in a start-up and when you aggregate a number of people doing the same thing, it can add up to a considerable amount of money. At the same time you’re also providing the skills and connections to help that business’s growth strategy.


You spoke about the importance of inclusive growth – how are you helping to drive that?

There’s been no historic pathway to encourage women to become Angel investors so NorthInvest has had a major focus here, running a number of workshops and events to attract more women. Our Women Angels of the North investor syndicate now has 42 women who are specifically backing female founders.

We’ve also established Fund Her North, which now has some 520 female founders and investors, all benefiting from peer-to-peer support and gaining vital investment readiness, confidence, advice and connections. Of the 27 deals we completed last year by NorthInvest, 44% were for female business owners.

There’s still lots more to do, of course, but the supply is there with at least one female founder a day contacting us asking for support.


How can start-up businesses increase their funding opportunities?

Planning ahead is essential. Even if you’re thinking it could be a year before you’re going to start seeking funding, do the groundwork now.

Define your proposition and ask what is the problem your product or service is aiming to fix. Angels are typically from a broad range of backgrounds, so make sure you explain your business model in a way that someone outside your sector can understand.

Have a clear business plan, which outlines how you will commercialise and scale, with clear data about your target market.

And people buy people, so the confidence, capability and skills of the business founder are of course vital, but investors recognise that you also need a strong team behind you.

You should also find out what funding partnerships are available which are appropriate for your business, seek out the main players and make those connections sooner rather than later.


What part do communities such as Nexus play?

The fast-growth, IP-rich businesses in the Nexus community, which are helping to solve some major societal issues, are particularly attractive to an Angel investor.

We work with the Nexus team on a number of projects designed to support business founders to be investment-ready and to outline the advice, support and expertise they can access through the University of Leeds and its wide network of alumni and connections.

They share our commitment to ensuring that the growth we’re targeting for our region is inclusive.

Nexus are key stakeholders in our region and help to ensure that Leeds is a very exciting proposition for entrepreneurs and investors.


Are there any events or initiatives you are particularly looking forward to this year?

Anyone who is thinking about becoming an Angel investor and wants to find out more should definitely put March 1 into their diary for our Angel Investment Summit at Nexus. Speakers from NorthInvest, UK Business Angels, the British Business Bank and Nexus, will give practical tools and tips and share inspirational success stories from the region’s business and investor communities.

We’re also holding an Accelerating Funding for Women Masterclass at NatWest Bank in Leeds on 26 April. The all-day event will outline the investment landscape and give practical help and guidance on getting ready for pitches to would-be funders.

Explore more insights from our ‘the view from here’ series: