The past year has been one to forget for the business world in Birmingham and the wider West Midlands.
The usually thriving city’s Colmore Business District has resembled a movie ghost town since lockdown initially started in March while the buzz of Christmas shopping followed by drinks at the Frankfurt Market have been sadly missing.
But from all of this has emerged tales of genuine innovation and entrepreneurialism as companies continue to find new ways of working and targeting customers and generating alternative revenue streams.
To kick off this new year, BusinessLive asked some of the many experts based in the city region who we should be looking out for across the West Midlands in 2021.
With a ban on new petrol and diesel cars coming in just nine years’ time, the UK urgently needs to build batteries at scale if it is to see electric vehicles (EVs) made in the UK.
Britishvolt is a startup with big ambitions to do just that as an investor in advanced battery technologies.
It has announced plans to site its global HQ in the West Midlands in the heartland of the UK automotive industry where it will spearhead the development of battery technologies for future EVs.
The new 53,820 sq ft site, set to be fully operational by 2022, will be at the MIRA Technology Park Campus near Coventry, already renowned as a global innovation hub.
Further developments are being considered which could see Britishvolt expand that plant, with plans to make green batteries for 500,000 cars a year by 2027.
David Bailey, professor of business economics at Birmingham Business School
Birmingham-based CHH Conex is one of the West Midlands’ untold manufacturing success stories, delivering rack and cabinet integrations and cable design, manufacture and assembly services to clients such as Vodafone, City Fibre Holdings and Bybox Field Support Services.
The company, which celebrated 30 years in business recently, has taken its electronics assembly expertise and formed a commercial partnership with Pathogen Solutions to help it produce the innovative Medixair product.
This new technology has been tested and proven to eliminate airborne viruses and bacteria as part of effective infection control regimes and promises to reduce the airborne spread of coronavirus.
It is this level of innovation and collaboration that will help the business emerge from the challenges of 2020 in a stronger position and with ambitious plans to grow.
Sharn Haywood-Higgs, manufacturing growth manager for the Manufacturing Growth Programme
Work by the Birmingham office of global design business Gensler in Europe, the Middle East and UK has set them up for success in 2021.
The business has now outgrown its Custard Factory offices and will be moving to new premises in St Philip’s Place in the spring.
Gensler also has big plans to expand its local portfolio and work on mixed-use, workplace and interior design projects not just in Birmingham but across the West Midlands.
2021 will be a year for the city, and the region, to rebuild. Gensler will almost certainly be involved in a new era for the city and its recovery.
Paul Faulkner, chief executive of Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce
Independent retailer Loki Wine is a prime example of how passion and customer service combine to create a truly memorable experience, with customers encouraged to sample and discover a range of wines, spirits and craft beer.
Having built a loyal customer base since opening his first site in Birmingham in 2012, followed by a second store and deli in Edgbaston in 2018, founder Phil Innes has embraced innovation in the face of coronavirus-enforced closures.
By introducing virtual tasting events and expanding Loki’s delivery services, he has kept true to the essence of the brand’s personal, experienced approach and stayed close to his loyal customer base in the process.
With a third site in Knowle opening in January, Loki has defeated the odds this year and, with a focus on delivering the very best in both products and experience, I believe the best is yet to come.
David Pardoe, head of marketing, retail and tenant engagement at the Mailbox, Birmingham
Microland’s presence in the region is a major endorsement of our growing digital economy.
In February, the Indian cloud and data company made its second investment in the region in two years, marking an exciting period of innovation and development for the global outlook of the business.
The West Midlands’ pivotal role in its future plans will create more opportunities for us to attract like-minded, tech-focused firms to establish here – especially from the Indian market.
We are ramping up our activity there through initiatives like the West Midlands India Partnership to foster more success stories for mutual economic benefit between the region and India.
Neil Rami, chief executive of the West Midlands Growth Company
Oval Real Estate
Oval Real Estate is fast becoming a major player in Birmingham’s residential and commercial property sector.
The property investment and development company, which has offices in Birmingham and London, has invested heavily in the city, acquiring 16 acres of land in Digbeth, where it is building up to 2,000 homes and more than two million square feet of commercial space.
It has submitted planning applications across a further 42 acres. Last year, Oval also acquired 1 Colmore Square, its first major trophy office asset acquisition in Birmingham.
Nick Woodward, senior director in Birmingham capital markets team, CBRE
Round Midnight is a creative arts company that uses virtual reality (VR) to explore challenging issues and deliver bespoke creative arts education to young people in Birmingham.
The business’ interactive ‘Technology for Good’ programme recently featured on Channel 4’s VR vs Gangs documentary which examines the decision making processes linked to gang culture and risk-taking behaviour.
Its products have also been used by West Midlands Police and probation services.
Following successful funding rounds last year, 2021 will see the company introduce a new VR experience which will use a ‘choose your own path’ format to explore more social issues that impact young people on a daily basis.
2021 will also see the launch of a new digital learning platform called LINK_UP, developed using funding from Innovate UK, which has been created for teachers and will engage pupils in challenging subject matters through the use of interactive films, voting systems and live discussions.
David Hardman, managing director of Bruntwood SciTech Birmingham
Single-use plastic is a massive global concern and one that we must all take action on to try to eradicate.
SauceStream is a new start-up run by serial Birmingham entrepreneurs Peter Neath and Ian Worton who have devised a new rubber squeezer for improving how sauces are poured from glass bottles.
They hope to replace the 650 million plastic ones made every year.
The product has taken two years to develop and is now fully patented and trademarked in the UK, with the engineers awaiting news on global approvals.
A social media campaign has seen the concept go viral, reaching more than 2 million people in a matter of days and generating opportunities with retailer Dunelm, Genting Arena hotels and customers in Austria and the US.
There is a worldwide appetite to end single-use plastic so I expect SauceStream to be one of the innovations that starts to make a huge difference.
Andrew Jones, partner at Haines Watts in Birmingham