Greater Manchester AI Foundry Showcase

Date: 19/10/2021
Author: Manchester Metropolitan University
Company: Manchester Metropolitan University

A cutting-edge scheme to deliver Artificial Intelligence expertise to Greater Manchester’s small and medium enterprises (SMEs) has celebrated a year of supporting more than 100 businesses.

The Greater Manchester AI Foundry is led by a group of North West universities 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 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 will come together on Tuesday (October 12) to mark one year since the GM AI Foundry launched, with keynote speeches from Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham and Lord Mandelson, Chancellor of Manchester Metropolitan University.

Mayor 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.

One such SME to be benefitting from GM AI Foundry support is Wildfire Ecommerce, based in MediaCityUK, Salford. The company is launching an online platform called Spread Like Wildfire for creatives that allows people to buy, rent, or finance video equipment.

Stephen Bergin, CEO of Wildfire Ecommerce, said: “I applied to the AI Foundry as we had an issue in that we have multiple suppliers of equipment, who all structure their stock list in a different way. Our challenge currently is that the only way to organise all of these products from multiple suppliers is to sort these products manually.

“Phase one of AI Foundry workshops has allowed me to see that there is the potential to create an AI-powered product sorting tool to automate the problems I have been having with product categorisation.

“Now, going into phase two, I am able to work with AI Foundry’s teams to develop a proof of concept - I will then have an automated way of sorting this equipment. We will internally develop the software more to also recognise relationships between separate products, these relationships will then show us the best products to recommend to people buying on the website.”

Keith Miller, Principal Investigator for the GM AI Foundry, from Manchester Metropolitan, 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.