The entrepreneur evangelist whose part of a movement that’s aiming to transform the Welsh economy

Ashley-Cooper

One of Wales’ most successful entrepreneurs has told how he hopes to help spark a new wave of entrepreneurialism in the country.

Speaking at a meeting of Cardiff Breakfast Club Ashley Cooper, co-founder of Catalyst Growth Partners, described himself as an “innovation entrepreneur evangelist.”

Be The Spark is the name of a new initiative co-launched by Mr Cooper and other partners from the worlds of business, academia and government, intended to “embed a national imperative for entrepreneurship and innovation across Wales”.

Mr Cooper said Wales suffered from a low start-up rate, a low level of investment by angel investors and venture capitalists, and a low level of growth among SMEs.

With his partners he hopes to help address these problems by encouraging both investment and support from other businesses and agencies for innovative start-ups.

Be The Spark is a five to 10 year initiative. It aims to encourage entrepreneurialism among young people, provide a more supportive infrastructure for start-ups and promote an active and diverse angel investor community.

“We cannot be beholden to single entity, which we have been historically, run by the government,” he said.

“Be under no illusion that a small group of dedicated people can make a difference and change the world.”

Mr Cooper, whose background is in engineering, told the audience how he had turned to his new role of helping entrepreneurs after two decades of working in the engineering industry, both for other corporations and for his own business, TES Aviation.

“I knew absolutely nothing about running a business when I set up my own in 1995. It’s very important to put yourself in that learning environment,” he said.

After 10 years TES Aviation was turning over £100m. Mr Cooper exited the business in 2012 and worked for a short while for the new owners. He turned to being a non-executive director for other companies but found the role too passive.

“I wanted to be out there making a difference and aligned with the interests of business owners,” he said.

He moved into smart capital, providing expertise and equity funding to help grow new enterprises.

His most important criteria for selecting businesses to work with is the people. “The people are fundamental to growing any business with any sort of success,” he said.

Other criteria are having the right product, potential to scale and whether the business is something he can add value to.

Catalyst currently has investments in 16 technically enabled businesses with no particular sector focus.

Catalyst works in partnership with two other investment organisations, Pragmatica and Smart Anchor Ventures.

“We’re looking to create 20 new millionaires, 500 new high value jobs and we want to deploy and create £50m of additional Welsh economic benefit,” he said.

Two years ago then Economy Minister Edwina Hart aligned Wales with an international programme run by MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) focused on developing regional entrepreneurship around the world.

“We’ve been fortunate to work for two years with an international cohort all focused on driving innovation and economic benefit, from Beijing, Tokyo, Bangkok, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Chile, Norway and Wales.

“It’s interesting to see where Wales sat in that international ecosystem. We had all the key constituents in place.

“In Tokyo if you’re an entrepreneur you’re a pariah, you need to be in a corporate,” he said.

Cardiff Breakfast Club is sponsored by Stills Branding, Blake Morgan, Lloyds Banking Group and the Western Mail.