Think UK and think London. But many regional economies are strategically connected to London’s economy and they are far less over-heated, have their own specialisms and are setting out their stalls to the international investor as distinct and advantageous locations. One such region stretches south-west from the edges of London Heathrow towards the coast, along the M3 motorway and across the counties of Surrey and Hampshire. It is represented by Enterprise M3 Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) and has its own story to tell. Jo Murray speaks to Kathy Slack, Executive Director of Enterprise M3.

Picking out sectors makes perfect sense when determining a location’s value proposition to foreign direct investors. Often these sectors are derived from a location’s heritage, geography and politics; and sometimes they are the bright shiny new sectors that generate headlines and promise a hopeful future.

For Enterprise M3 and its brand-new enterprise zone, EZ3- The London & South Innovation Valley, the real value of its location is in what lies at the intersection of its sectors, namely innovations like 5G, cyber security, gaming, artificial intelligence (AI) and med tech, to name but a few. These technologies animate and reinforce Enterprise M3’s value proposition vis à vis its traditional sectors – the digital economy, aerospace and defence, life sciences and professional services, space and advanced automotive.

But let’s be clear, the region represented by Enterprise M3 has already proved itself to be a honeypot for both FDI and indigenous anchor companies. In fact, it has the highest number of foreign owned companies of any LEP outside London. Its companies are responsible for a very high level of exports: £14.6bn in 2015, or £19,600 of goods exported per job. A total of 60% of goods exported are to non-EU countries, which bodes well for companies planning for Brexit.

From the tech point of view, Siemens, Ericsson, IBM, Electronic Arts, Sony and Ubisoft are already in residence. Guildford and surrounding areas are the heart of the UK’s video games industry with 8,500 digital businesses located here, employing some 50,000 people and accounting for 7.4% of all Enterprise M3 employment. The aerospace and defence sector is also a major strength, with BAE Systems, QinetiQ, Honeywell, Meggitt UK, Surface Technology International, Lockheed Martin, Airbus Group, Weston Aerospace, Vector Aerospace and Sodexo Defence Services all located here. In fact, Kathy points out, all this aerospace and defence activity makes the location a perfect twin to Fairfax, Washington, which hosts a similarly well-honed sector.

Beyond tech and aerospace, Enterprise M3 is also home to major life sciences and other service sector companies. Major employers in the life sciences sectors include: Procter & Gamble, Eli Lilly and Estee Lauder. 

Infrastructure is vital to this location. “London Heathrow Airport is really important to us,” says Kathy. “People travel the whole of the M3 corridor for work at the airport, quite apart from coming to and from the airport for flying. Also, Farnborough Airport is bang in the middle of our location.” And let’s not forget London Gatwick Airport is a short stretch around the M25; and the Solent ports lie at the end of the M3 corridor.

Amongst all this corporate activity and infrastructure is a host of R&D activity which serves to ramp up the location’s attractiveness of the world stage. Kathy points out that there is a 5G Innovation Centre (5GIC) at The University of Surrey. This is a leading international test-bed for pioneering communications technologies. “Enterprise M3 has invested £5m in this facility to make sure we’re ready for new technology when it comes,” says Kathy, adding that higher speeds and much lower latency with capacity to significantly increase the number of devices when compared to current 4G networks. Furthermore, 5G will enable machines to communicate without human intervention in an Internet of Things capable of driving a near-endless array of services. .

“Ultimately, companies want to be where it’s at,” says Kathy. “Foreign direct investors are interested in both the 5G potential of our area and the community of other companies they can work alongside.”

Beyond 5G, three of the LEP’s partner universities have been designated by the UK Government as Centres of Academic Excellence for the purposes of cyber security R&D. Both 5G and cyber security are at the centre of the LEPS’s Industrial Strategy; and so too are big data analytics, gaming (and its application to industry) and AI.

Perhaps the jewel in the Enterprise M3 crown is its enterprise zone, of which it is extremely proud. Tagged EZ3, this is a multi-site, diverse enterprise zone which is connected through all the technologies already mentioned.

The first of the three sites is Basing View which is Basingstoke’s town central business district. Already the location for a wide variety of organisations from start-ups to global corporates, this 65-acre business district is undergoing major redevelopment and transformation, creating a commercial community within the town centre.

Longcross Park resides on the M3-M25 axis, closer to Heathrow than any other Enterprise Zone. The site already has an established reputation for FDI and sits alongside a thriving garden village.  Then there is TechForest which is all about embracing sustainability. The site boasts new and existing housing stock; a major incentive to inward investors and relocating businesses.

“We are staggered at the level of interest in the Enterprise Zone,” says Kathy. “The incentives to come here revolve around technology, international links, skills support and, of course, 5G.”

Kathy and her team are not taking any of the advantages of the M3 area for granted. The LEP knows that many locations around the world are supporting the growth and development of the same sectors and innovations in their own areas, so competition is strong. But she is convinced that 5G is a distinguishing factor in Enterprise M3’s case as it supports almost all other innovation.

Then there is Brexit and the uncertainty that it brings – even to a location that is heavily export oriented beyond the EU. Kathy has a very clear response to the Brexit question: “We know we will be resilient to Brexit because of the diversity of our economy,” she says. This location, nestled between London and the coast, boasts companies of all types, both home-grown and multi-national, which are used to stretching their hands across the sea, finding new markets, commercialising ideas, nurturing talent and exporting the results. It is hoped these companies will take Brexit in their stride.