Lancaster University: More than 100 Greater Manchester SMEs supported on Artificial Intelligence programme

A cutting-edge scheme to deliver Artificial Intelligence expertise to Greater Manchester’s small and medium enterprises (SMEs) is celebrating its first year, during which it has supported more than 100 businesses.

The Greater Manchester AI Foundry is led by a group of North West universities, including Lancaster, to help the region’s SMEs thrive in a new era of digital technology. The anniversary comes only weeks after the UK Government announced the National AI Strategy to boost productivity, innovation and growth.

The GM AI Foundry – led by Manchester Metropolitan University, the University of Manchester, the University of Salford and Lancaster University – means Greater Manchester is already equipping SMEs with the necessary research, expertise and business support to innovate.

Programmes available to GM SMEs through the Foundry allow them to undertake introductory business support training. So far, 101 SMEs have undertaken this phase one programme, which provides insight into the latest AI technologies, market opportunities and ideas to develop new products.

Businesses can then progress onto phase two, a technical support programme to help companies develop proof-of-concept for new products and services. Currently 20 SMEs have progressed to phase two with more due as the programme continues.

The universities, SMEs and partners have now marked one year since the GM AI Foundry launched, at an event with keynote speeches from Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham and Lord Mandelson, Chancellor of Manchester Metropolitan University.

Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham said: “For more than 250 years, Greater Manchester has been creating and shaping the future. This is the place where Rolls met Royce, of the first stored-program computer “Baby”, where Alan Turing studied. A place of innovation and doing thing differently. So, it’s appropriate that Greater Manchester is at the forefront of innovations in artificial intelligence.

“Initiatives such as the AI Foundry are a great example of how our universities and combined authority can work together to help deliver prosperity for our people. Multi-university collaboration of this kind is a vital platform for innovation. However, all involved must continue to work together to address the skills gap in AI and improve public understanding, to ensure digital, and the opportunities it can bring, is for all”

Lord Mandelson said: “It is wonderful that the national policy environment is now so supportive of what we want to achieve.

“However, we should not forget that this AI Foundry quietly started work months ago, and the history of this city and this region shows that we don’t wait for central government to level us up – we get on and do it for ourselves: new ideas, new business, new opportunities. Realising the potential of our people as much as that of the technology.

“Today, researchers in Greater Manchester and the wider North West continue to develop new ideas, as part of one of the largest centres for higher education in Europe. Businesses continue to develop innovative products and services. And AI is part of that.

“The city once called Cottonopolis could become a future Cyberopolis.”

The need for world-leading AI capability is already well recognised, as shown in the new national AI strategy. It is estimated that AI will contribute £232bn to the UK economy by 2030.

Locally, Greater Manchester has already been identified as a leading digital region within Europe – with the digital sector accounting for 700,000 jobs and £3.4bn in Gross Value Added (GVA), in 2018.

With that in mind, increasing application of AI, big-data, data science and data analytics into business in the region is predicted to have a huge impact on every sector within Greater Manchester’s economy.

Chris Lambert, Lancaster University Programme Manager for AI Foundry, said: “The AI Foundry is enabling Lancaster University to work alongside partners in Greater Manchester to extend the impact of our long-standing work with SMEs. We’ve already seen businesses benefit from the work of the AI Foundry through understanding the implications of AI technology on their own business, how it can help to achieve new products and open up new markets.

“As we progress full-steam ahead with the project, we’re really looking forward to more successes for those companies that engage with the AI Foundry and realise the benefits of taking part. We’re proud of this work and all that is being achieved by the wider team across all the partners and those based at Lancaster.”

Professor Allan Rennie, Lancaster University Lead Academic Investigator for AI Foundry, said: “The Greater Manchester AI Foundry Showcase Event has allowed the wider University partnership to finally come together as a group, to meet face-to-face with the various agencies in the City Region and crucially, to engage with the businesses that we aim to support, whilst celebrating what has been achieved so far.

“Lancaster takes great pride in its place within this collaborative venture, offering its own expertise in AI, in particular relating to applications in engineering and manufacturing and we are keen to ensure that our expertise and resources in these areas complement those of our partners based in Greater Manchester.”

Keith Miller, Principal Investigator for the GM AI Foundry, from Manchester Metropolitan University, added: “AI technology is the next big frontier for digital innovation and here in Greater Manchester we are at the cutting-edge of these technologies. We are strong in the ethical application of AI and aim to increase trust in AI solutions.

“AI will have far-reaching impact in everything from disease detection to autonomous vehicle development. By utilising the expertise and research within our universities, we can ensure that our SMEs are ready for the challenges and opportunities of the future.”

The project has received £3m from the European Regional Development Fund via the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, with partners delivering a further £3m in matched funding.

Lancaster University