Venturefest North West 2018 kicks off today with more than 1,000 attendees expected to flock to Manchester Central.

Promising inspirational speakers and interactive workshops, the event is in its fifth year - having previously been known as Venturefest Manchester - and 2018 is set to be the biggest yet with an expanded regional focus.

One of the centrepieces is the Innovation Showcase Competition, which will see 12 businesses pitch to an audience of investors for the chance to win a support package.

The contest was open to small and medium-sized businesses from across the North West and attracted a record 173 entrants competing for four awards: Product Innovation, Service Innovation, Digital Innovation and Innovative Established Business.

There’s also an overall winner and audience winner, which will be chosen by attendees after the finalists make their pitches at the Manchester Central event.

Each award comes with thousands of pounds worth of business support for the winner, provided by organisers GC Business Growth Hub and its partners.

Attendees will also have the opportunity to see a unique mix of inspirational speakers, absorbing breakouts – including mindset and pitching sessions run by NatWest Entrepreneur Accelerator – alongside exhibitors and networking opportunities.

With 650 attendees last year, more than 1,000 attendees are expected at Venturefest 2018, where they will have access to business leaders and entrepreneurs, potential new partners, collaboration opportunities and a wide range of support.

A full programme includes keynote speeches from Jenny Tooth OBE, CEO of the UK Business Angels Association and Richard Noble OBE, project director of the Bloodhound Super Sonic Car project, which will attempt to break the land speed record next year.

Priya Lakhani OBE, the founder of national food brand Masala Masala, will take over the mantle of host of this year’s event and NatWest is the main sponsor.

“President Kennedy said of the Apollo moon programme, ‘We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills’,” said Noble.

“Like the US in the 1960s we need technical successes for the UK and our 2019 Bloodhound record challenge will be a big one.

“Nothing about the Bloodhound project is easy and it never will be, but success here will bring great rewards in terms of education and confidence.

“I’m looking forward to sharing some of my learnings and experiences, as innovation is something that should apply to all businesses, large or small, in the North West and across the country.”

Heather Waters, national enterprise manager at headline sponsor NatWest, said: “We know that entrepreneurs and small business owners are looking for more than a provider of financial services.

“They want a bank that helps them to concentrate on what’s important to them - establishing and growing their business.

“That’s why we’re delighted to support Venturefest North West 2018 and be part of an event which gives businesses in the region the opportunity to innovate, grow and access the knowledge, finance and expertise they need to progress to the next stage of their business journey.”