Developing an accessible community support platform for SMEs

Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) account for over 99% of the United Kingdom’s business population, and yet there is only limited access to business guidance or mental health and wellbeing support. Business Doctors is working with the University of Liverpool and using advanced AI to create a vital community platform.


Business Doctors is an organisation with multiple franchises that aims to provide the owners of SMEs with affordable business support and guidance, in particular coaching business owners to achieve their goals. In 2021, they began a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) with academics from the Department of Computer Science at the University of Liverpool. Their original intention was to develop an intelligent Autonomous Business Advisor (ABA) that could translate their traditional, face-to-face model of business support into a digital, personalised and affordable offering that could be scaled up to meet the demand of SMEs and provide a small level of empathetic response.

As the Covid-19 pandemic continued, it quickly became apparent that repeated lockdowns and uncertainty was having an extreme impact on SMEs across the world, including a large negative impact on the mental health of small business owners. There were limited spaces away from family, employees and business associates for business owners to voice their personal concerns and vulnerabilities and find answers to important challenges facing their businesses. The generative AI system the team were initially planning was not found to be able to provide enough empathetic support, or provide a safe environment for potentially vulnerable users. As of 2022, there were 5.5 million small businesses in the UK alone compared to only 7,000 large corporate businesses, indicating there is a high need for business support for SMEs that can also support mental wellbeing.


In order to address the guidance gap for small business owners, whilst supporting their mental health and wellbeing, the team have developed a community platform called ‘Thrive Hive’. The platform is designed to provide a safe space where business owners can come together to discuss challenges and share experiences and services. A chatbot provides an empathetic digital companion to advise when an individual comes forward with a problem, including directing the user to human or more advanced digital support services if needed. This is being developed using Facebook LLaMA, an open source large language model that is capable of measuring emotion and becoming an empathetic companion.

The system also includes a reward mechanism to encourage users to share experiences and useful advice. By supporting others, a user will earn rewards, building on the idea of ’pay it forward’. The core motivation of the platform reflects Business Doctors key aim: creating an emotional connection with businesses rather than just a technical connection. Their KTP with the University of Liverpool has provided them with research and insight into the right mechanism, generative model and architecture that Thrive Hive will need.


The platform will have significant social impacts for the SME community, helping to build resilience and confidence amongst the business-owning community. The project has also highlighted the differences in need between SMEs and larger businesses. Whilst SMEs are still professional businesses, they think more like a consumer rather than large corporate businesses, and so understanding their thought processes and support needs became a large part of the project.

The partnership between the University of Liverpool is continuing through a follow-on proposal in partnership with Teeside University for an Innovate UK Smart grant, a grant intended to support SMEs and their partners develop game-changing R&D projects. In addition, Innovate UK will be providing access to the platform for KTP Associates as a trial for the platform.

Prof Frans Coenen, Department of Computer Science, University of Liverpool said: “This KTP has provided the "Knowledge Base” supervisors, at the University, with the opportunity to put into practice their research in the context of an application domain, Thrive Hive, that has far reaching potential with respect to the small business community both in the UK and internationally”.

Richard Tidswell, Regional Director (South West), Business Doctors said: “The KTP has been a huge unlock for us, not only providing the research and skilled people needed to develop our technology, but the agility to respond to the needs of our audiences. Together we’re creating accessible and inclusive opportunities and support, giving voice to business owners that will ultimately improve people's lives.

You can find information about KTPs on our website here.

Information for University of Liverpool staff

The KTP Office offers a full range of services to support Academics and companies from initial enquiries through to the end of the partnership. If you are working with industry and would like to know more about KTPs please contact Inma Gonzalez, KTP Impact and Business Development Manager at Research, Partnerships and Innovation




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