FREE courses to help you expand your business as well as clearer identification of which businesses can and should be allowed to borrow money are just two of the innovations Bournemouth's NatWest bank are introducing to help boost Dorset's SMEs.

During a round table discussion about the barriers faced by SMEs, held in conjunction with the Bournemouth Echo, Chris Preston, chair of NatWest’s South West regional board, which covers Dorset, outlined the innovations his bank was preparing to break them down.

"We are developing pre-assessment for funding for SME owners," he said. "In the past it was either the 'computer says yes or no' and quite unsophisticated. But now, with the development of technology and artificial intelligence, we know a lot more about our customers."

This information included how business customers behave and work with their bank account coupled with information pulled from external sources such as credit agencies, he said. "It means we can go to our customers proactively and say we believe your business can afford to borrow this or that amount of money and what would you like to spend it on," he explained.

The initiative came out of NatWest's desire to help grow SMEs in the south west region.

"As a bank we are really committed to supporting SMEs and we have a big team in Dorset supporting over 3,000 businesses across the county," he said. "In the last year we’ve probably put £300 million of funding into that SME marketplace and it's a market we want to grow and become even more successful."

Another plank of the bank's strategy to do this is its Accelerator Programme, which, said Chris, was open to all SMEs in Dorset, not just those banking with NatWest.

This initiative in Bristol and Cardiff involves a physical hub, making use of empty NatWest office space but in Dorset it will evolve as a digital programme, he said. "Our Accelerator Programme will enable 100 entrepreneurs to have access to the support material we've otherwise provided in our physical hubs," he said. The support could include brand building, ways to access and leverage social media or how to digitise your business.

Following on from the success of its £3 billion national Growth Fund, NatWest has recently announced a further £3 billion to directly assist SMEs, he revealed. "The reason we want to publicise this is because we discovered a number of SMEs felt uneasy about approaching their bank for funding."

The bank is also conscious, through the Rose Report, compiled by the deputy CEO of NatWest Holdings, Alison Rose, of the specific barriers and opportunities facing women in business. Chris said he wanted to make it easier to encourage women to seek funding.