The business-led, Open North Foundation, has signed a strategic partnership with Northumbria University, Newcastle, that will allow pandemic-hit businesses access to tens of thousands of pounds of support.

Under the agreement, Open North Foundation has received a £10,000 cash donation from Northumbria, which it will use to fund grants for small businesses. These businesses will also be offered access to a range of resources, expertise and free consultancy services from the University.

It is the largest support package the not-for-profit, Open North Foundation, has received since it launched in July 2020, as a direct response to the devastating impact COVID-19 was having on small to medium sized businesses in the North East, many of whom do not qualify for direct government grants.

To date, significant funds have been raised by the business community together with offers of in-kind support such as marketing, HR, legal and accountancy. Support packages are now being received by successful applicants, the earliest recipients being businesses in health and fitness and creative branding and marketing.

The partnership with Northumbria provides a comprehensive offer to businesses including the Open North Foundation grant and a range of SME support from the University.

Northumbria’s Newcastle Business School, the only North East business school accredited by the Small Business Charter, will also offer places to those qualifying grant applicants on the Small Business Leadership Programme (SBLP) – a free 10-week strategic training programme for senior leaders in SMEs (those employing between 5-249 employees). Funded by The Dept. for Business Energy Industrial Strategy, the programme covers a range of practical topics and is hosted online by SME experts, including entrepreneurs, business leaders and academics from Newcastle Business School.

Richard Swart, chair, Open North Foundation, said: “Northumbria University has an enviable reputation as a national and international provider of business support. However, when the pandemic struck, it was acutely aware of the impact this would have on local businesses and like so many organisations in our great region, wanted to help. It has done so in the most generous of ways, with the single largest support package we have received.

“We are entering a wider strategic partnership with the University, driven by the fact we both respect and embrace each other’s visions, roles, achievements and ambitions to help strengthen the North East business community, particularly in these challenging times.

“We both identify the need to support, in particular, the small to medium sized businesses, including sole proprietors, in their recovery from Covid-19 impact.

“The North East has, for decades, had the highest rate of SME start-up failure rates in the country and we share the objective to help address this, particularly through evidence-based interventions of advice and mentoring, building management and entrepreneurial capacity and knowledge transfer.”

Professor John Wilson, Pro Vice-Chancellor for the Faculty of Business and Law at Northumbria, said: “The SBLP is helping small businesses develop their strategic leadership skills in these incredibly testing times and is a crucial part of the wider regional recovery. Our partnership with Open North Foundation means we can help drive this recovery faster and further.”

Dr Hannah Hesselgreaves, who is co-leading the SBLP alongside Dr Matthew Sutherland at Newcastle Business School, added: “The programme is attended by business leaders from a really diverse mix of sectors, from manufacturing, engineering and bio science to events, IT and dentistry. However, they all have a shared interest in improving the sustainability and resilience of their organisations so they can respond effectively to the challenges of Covid-19. There is a real desire to listen and learn from each other and to share experiences and challenges along the way. We would encourage anyone managing a small business during this difficult period to sign up.”