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In conversation about the opportunities electrification offers the North East

In conversation with Paul Butler, Chief Executive of the North East Automotive Alliance (NEAA); and Ryan Maughan, founder and MD of AVID Technology, about the opportunities electrification offers the North East.

What is electrification, and why is this change in energy production and usage important for the North East?

Paul Butler:

“Electrification is a key part of the government’s plan to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050.

“Prime Minister Boris Johnson today (18 November) announced a ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans from 2030, and hybrid vehicles from 2035, signalling the government’s commitment to its Net Zero 2050 strategy.

“Today, the North East is leading the UK’s electrification agenda and is best placed to capitalise on the global electrification mega trend driven by regulatory compliance for CO2 reduction and the UK’s Net Zero 2050 strategy. This is thanks to Nissan’s foresight to invest in the Nissan LEAF and Battery Plant production at its Sunderland Plant back in 2010, with production starting in 2013; and innovative SMEs such as AVID Technology and Hyperdrive Innovation driving the early electrification activity.”

Ryan Maughan:

“Electrification – in simple terms – is the transition of vehicle powertrains from petrol and diesel, to powertrains that use electricity.

“It represents a huge opportunity for the North East because of the established sectors we have in automotive and energy, as well as the skills and expertise we have around the tech involved in electric vehicle powertrains.”

Paul, you are the Chief Executive of the North East Automotive Alliance (NEAA) and Ryan, you are the founder of AVID Technology, which manufactures components for electric vehicles. Is the region well placed to capitalise on electrification? Why?

Paul Butler:

“Quite simply it’s our inherent capabilities. We are home to Europe’s most successful EV, the Nissan LEAF; to Europe’s first giga battery manufacturing facility, one of three EV battery manufacturing facilities in the North East; and we have the full power electronics, motors and drives (PEMD) capability here in the region – no other region in the UK can lay claim to that. In addition, the former Regional Development Agency, ONE NorthEast, invested in charging infrastructure and this investment has continued as Sunderland is home to the UK’s first superfast charging station, which opened in April 2019. In addition, 17 of the 21 automotive R&D sites across the region are focussed on electrification.

“We’re the only region in the country with these kinds of credentials. From this solid base we must continue to develop and build our capability and drive forward the electric agenda in the UK.”

Ryan Maughan:

“As a region we have real strengths in vehicle manufacturing, and a lot of talent and expertise in areas like motor controls, electric controls etc.

“The automotive industry is undergoing a huge transition because of electrification and we need to look at how we build capacity across the sector.

“The North East is well placed to respond because we already have one of the most established manufacturing sectors around electric vehicles in the world.

“There’s work to do to make sure we make the most of the transition to electrification and the opportunities it provides, but we already have a significant head start.”

How does electrification form part of the North East LEP’s wider decarbonisation and sustainability agenda?

Paul Butler:

“Vehicle omissions are one of the biggest contributors to CO2, so the electrification of the sector would have a huge impact. We see the automotive sector being an early adopter, with other sectors like construction, manufacturing, and rail following.

“Electrification is a huge opportunity to address decarbonisation and the climate emergency.”

Ryan Maughan:

“A big part of the North East Strategic Economic Plan is focussed on advanced manufacturing, and electrification has a major role to play in that, particularly in sectors like automotive, transport and aerospace.

“The North East used to be based around heavy industry, where as now the new industries we’re growing are focussed around renewable energy, the production of machinery for renewable power, and clean transportation. The North East is a trailblazer in that way.”

What are your plans for North East electrification and what kind of timescales are we looking at?

Paul Butler:

“It’s happening now, programmes like EV North and Driving the Electric Revolution are driving the agenda for our vibrant North East electrification community. Through EV North, our members have set out their strategy and vision for our future.

“However, electrification and the technology going into future vehicles open up the market for non-automotive companies. We need to raise awareness of these opportunities and support companies to enter the market to grow our regional capability and help businesses diversify and become more resilient.”

Ryan Maughan:

“My company, AVID Technology, has been involved in vehicle electrification for the past 15 years. Electrification has reached a tipping point in that demand from the market has really grown in recent years. It’s important that, as a company, we’re in the right place to ride that wave and meet the market demand.

“Looking wider, along with Paul and the North East LEP, I’m really passionate about growing the ecosystem in the North East for the benefit of all the businesses working in relevant sectors. I want to help build the talent pool, grow the cluster, and see our region at the forefront of the sector.

“The new legislation banning the sale of new petrol, diesel and hybrid cars from 2035 and the climate change crisis have had a combined impact. Things have to change and we must address air quality and CO2 emissions. The answer is electrification.

“The legislation has actually made it easier for manufacturers to invest in electrification. Before, many weren’t willing to take the risk and only a handful were focussing on R&D. What the legislation has done is level the playing field, it has de-risked electrification for OEMs (original equipment manufacturer) and there is now a lot of investment in electric powertrain development.”

How will this help with the region’s recovery post COVID-19?

Paul Butler:

“Electrification is a huge market opportunity for the North East. Forecasts just for the PEMD market suggest growth of around £5bn by 2025, largely driven by the automotive sector, but expanding to more than £80bn by 2050 as electrification becomes commonplace in other sectors.

“We do need to consider the impact of our exit from the EU, particularly around rules of origin which drives requirements for UK content. There is, however, a lot strategic focus across the UK on supply chain development from UK Government, the Automotive Council, SMMT, the North East LEP, the NEAA and others.”

Ryan Maughan:

“We need to build a robust regional economy that’s based on creating things – high value-added products that have a long-term sustainable future.

“We need to be encouraging school children to have an interest in STEM subjects and bringing the right inward investments into the region. We also need to create the right environment for start-ups, and do all of this with a long-term view.

“We have to work to the coherent, long-term vision set out in the North East Strategic Economic Plan and help transform the region to high value-added, high tech jobs in engineering and design, low carbon technologies, renewable energy and electrification.”

How can people get involved and find out more?

Paul Butler:

“If anyone would like a conversation about the electrification agenda, please contact the team at the North East Automotive Alliance (NEAA). We really want to support companies to enter the market and contribute to its growth in the North East, and we have support programmes funded through ERDF to support SMEs on this too.”

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Universities support North East’s economic recovery: Innovation Northumbria: Incubator

Universities have a vital role to play in helping the North East economy recover from the coronavirus pandemic.

The work being delivered by North East universities is supporting new and existing businesses to innovate and grow, and shaping and supporting a more sustainable and inclusive economy.

Durham University, Newcastle University, Northumbria University, University of Sunderland and Teesside University are all members of the North East COVID-19 Economic Response Group, which was established by the North East Local Enterprise Partnership at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic to provide business resilience and ensure a collective response to the economic impact of COVID-19 on the North East economy.

Below is a case study from Northumbria University about it’s new Innovation Northumbria: Incubator, which supports its flourishing community of student and graduate start-ups, and provides opportunities for business partners to offer mentoring and financial backing.

Opened in October 2019 next to the University’s main campus, the state-of the-art facility provides high-quality support for student and graduate entrepreneurs, giving them the best possible opportunity to establish and grow thriving businesses.

The initiative has already received financial support from Santander Universities UK, Sir James Knott Trust, North East Times Magazine, Space Group and the North East LEP.

Northumbria is looking for additional support to set up an Enterprise Club, where members can offer pro-bono advice and expertise, and an Enterprise Fund through which they can pledge financial support to help fledgling start-ups develop proof-of-concept and feasibility business plans.

The initiative reinforces Northumbria’s reputation as a university that champions enterprise and innovation through its teaching, and the support it offers start-ups through the Student and Graduate Enterprise Service. Pioneering courses such as Entrepreneurial Business Management – where students run their own businesses – and the student-led consultancy service delivered on the Business Clinic programme, have also established Northumbria as a leader in entrepreneurial education.

The University has been ranked in the top three for graduate start-ups in the UK – based on estimated turnover – since 2011, including five years in first place. Businesses developed by Northumbria graduates had an estimated turnover on £84 million in 2018/19.

Since 2009, Northumbria has supported the development of nearly 300 new businesses which have led to the creation of more than 1,000 jobs, the vast majority of which are in the North East.

To find out more about the Innovation Northumbria: Incubator visit www.northumbria.ac.uk/incubatorlaunch.

Click here to read more about how universities in the region are playing a central role in supporting the region to recover from the coronavirus pandemic.

Click here to read more about the North East COVID-19 Economic Response Group.

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North East Local Enterprise Partnership 2020 AGM 

Businesses will be given an update on plans to build a stronger North East post-pandemic economy at the North East Local Enterprise Partnership’s (LEP) 2020 Annual General Meeting.

Taking place online on Tuesday 24 November, the event will include a welcome from the recently-appointed Chair of the North East LEP, Lucy Winskell.

Lucy Winskell said: “As 2020 began, we were making good progress towards our goal of creating 100,000 more and better jobs here in the North East by 2024.

“However, we know that COVID-19 has hit businesses and communities in our region hard. That’s why we acted quickly to create the North East COVID-19 Economic Response Group with the CBI and the North of Tyne and North East combined authorities, which has recently published its proposal for counteracting this damage and creating a thriving post-pandemic economy.”

The AGM will also include updates on business growth, innovation, skills, transport connectivity, investment and infrastructure in the region, and how businesses are preparing for next year’s EU Exit.

Speakers at the event include Lucy Winskell, Chair of the North East LEP; Helen Golightly, Chief Executive of the North East LEP; and Paul Woods, Chief Finance Officer at the North East LEP.

Lucy Winskell added: “It’s been a tough year but there is still positive news to share as we look to the future of our region and the opportunities we have in sectors including digital, low carbon, life sciences and pharma.”

The 2020 North East LEP AGM will take place on Tuesday 24 November from 9.30am to 10.45am. Book your place here.

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World’s first multi-site £9m Integrated Smart Energy Lab launched by North East Energy Catalyst

A unique multi-site £9m smart energy testbed, the Integrated Smart Energy Lab (ISE Lab), has been launched in the region by the North East Energy Catalyst partnership, uniting the region’s smart energy capabilities to become the world’s first multi-site energy laboratory.

The Integrated Smart Energy Lab (ISE Lab) is a combination of complementary research and testing capabilities in the North East – home to where the national grid was first pioneered. It will enable new smart energy research, demonstration and industry engagement, and includes digital and physical assets across multiple locations in the region, interconnected using high performance virtual platforms.

ISE Lab will combine Newcastle University’s Smart Grid Laboratory and Urban Science Building Energy Storage Test Bed, the Durham University Smart Grid Laboratory for demand-centric testing, decentralised testing and digitalised and data-centric testing, and the Offshore Renewable Energy (ORE) Catapult’s 3MW and 15MW powertrain test, demonstration and research assets, including its 18MVA Grid Emulation system (eGrid).

Targeting all grid levels and supply-demand scenarios across the whole energy system, from national transmission grid level, to local consumer, building, and micro-grid level, the ISE Lab will also combine modelling with live ‘real-world’ asset and network data from sources such as EV charging, battery storage, hydrogen electrolysis, and energy generation.

The ISE Lab will offer new unique capabilities for those seeking to innovate, de-risk and commercialise smart energy solutions, such as energy companies, SMEs, academia and the regional supply chain.

Integrated smart energy systems and services are essential in decarbonising the energy system and optimising the use of low carbon energy sources, highlighted by recent dramatic changes in supply and demand patterns during the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, ISE Lab will boost the North East’s green economic growth plans, as well as helping showcase solutions to global energy challenges, and contributing to the UK’s Net Zero carbon emission targets.

Andrew Clark, Energy Lead at the North East Local Enterprise Partnership which facilitates the North East Energy Catalyst, said: “The national grid was first pioneered in the North East so it is fitting that we are now the region bringing forward a new and unique lab facility that will help us better explore and exploit the benefits of integrated energy systems. This speaks to the strength of collaboration within our region.”

Tony Quinn, Test Facilities Director at ORE Catapult, said: “ISE Lab will bring together a combination of the best intellectual and physical assets that the region has to offer. It gives us a great opportunity to address and make a significant contribution to the technological changes required to achieve Net Zero.”

Dr Sara Walker, Director of the Centre for Energy, Newcastle University, said: “We are investigating the potential for our energy systems to be more integrated, for new technologies, for decentralisation of systems, and for greater digitalisation. Test beds are a valuable tool in that research. The ISE lab brings key strengths in our region together, and we are delighted to be a partner in this exciting initiative.”

Dr Hongjian Sun, Reader in Smart Grid at the Department of Engineering at Durham University, said: “Integrating energy systems has great potential to decarbonise all energy sectors including transport and heat; but it also brings new challenges such as multi-system modeling and coordination, real-time data collection and learning, and demand response. We are very glad to offer expertise and testing facilities through ISE lab initiative, and work with both industries and research organisations to tackle these challenges together.”

A portfolio of projects with industry, academic and public sector partners is now under development for the ISE Lab, facilitated by the North East Energy Catalyst partnership. For enquiries about utilising the ISE Lab please contact [email protected].

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Open innovation programme launched to help tackle COVID-19 issues and fast track solutions.

Businesses invited to detail what issues they are facing due to COVID-19 disruption.

A new programme has been launched by the North East Local Enterprise Partnership, (North East LEP), that will seek to understand the common issues facing our region’s businesses due to COVID-19 and help to provide solutions to minimise the ongoing disruption.

Alan Welby, Innovation Director at the North East LEP, said: “Challenge North East is an open innovation programme to help solve some of our region’s most pressing practical problems when faced with COVID-19. And that’s what we’re good at in this region – coming together to solve problems – to resolve our challenges – and make things happen.

“We want to identify areas of shared concern, to invite solutions from the region’s innovators and then help fund the development of these problem-solving ideas.

“Right now, we are asking organisations to tell us what their issues are so we can see where there is common ground across sectors. We are keen to explore solutions to the challenges caused by our current inability to work and socialise in close proximity, disruptions caused in supply chains, new needs that have emerged, such as how we address the risk of digital services leaving behind those of us without digital skills. We want to hear from local industry about what their areas of focus are and then work together to quickly develop solutions that work.”

Challenge North East will be delivered by the Innovation SuperNetwork and the Digital Catapult North East Tees Valley.

Estelle Blanks, Executive Director of the Innovation SuperNetwork, said: “COVID-19 has disrupted so many aspects of our work and home lives and we need to work together as a region to support each other as we rebuild.  Our goal through this programme is to work with local industry and communities to identify where innovative solutions will have the biggest impact and to provide the framework and funding to make these solutions happen.

“The Innovation SuperNetwork team who are delivering this programme are passionate about delivering real value for the region and we are excited to work with businesses and communities to ensure we are focusing our attention in the right areas.”

Challenge North East will be rolled out over three phases, starting by bringing together large organisations and representatives of communities that have been impacted by COVID-19.

Through discovering the common themes faced by organisations and their stakeholders, the programme team can then launch a series of challenges for which solutions can be found that will work across multiple sectors and environments.

In the coming weeks, Virtual Round Tables will be held with participants to identify key challenges that need support over the next six to twelve months.

David Dunn of the Digital Catapult North East Tees Valley, said: “To get this programme off the ground, we will be hosting a series of Round Tables with representatives of industry and communities to identify the most common shared challenges and to agree how to tackle finding solutions for them.”

The first Round Table event, was held on 22 October and looked at the impact of COVID-19 on in-person events – for example theatre shows, play groups, and concerts along with public transport.

Organisations from other sectors facing ongoing Covid-related challenges are invited to share details with the Challenge North East team by emailing [email protected] and giving an outline of the challenge they are facing. Organisations that do so will be invited to participate in future Round Tables in early November.

Once the cross-cutting challenges have been identified, the programme will launch a call to the region’s innovators to develop solutions in collaboration with local leaders from industry, government, the third sector and research.

Alan Welby said: “At this stage, we are appealing to those organisations who are really hurting – tell us what the challenges are that you are facing. We’re not calling for the solutions just yet. To get this right, we need to understand the common issues businesses are dealing with and then we will look to see which ones we believe can be resolved through a fast-paced process of open innovation.

“We hope that by December we will be starting to work with companies who can help create solutions to develop and validate their ideas with potential clients.”

Successful solution providers will be awarded development funding to implement the solution and have it rolled out with challenge partners.

To find out more about Challenge North East, visit www.challengenortheast.co.uk

Challenge North East has received funding from the government’s Local Growth Fund. The Local Growth Fund is supporting capital investments to promote innovation, economic and skills infrastructure and sustainable transport as part of the North East Growth Deal.

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Universities support North East’s economic recovery: Network-H2

Universities have a vital role to play in helping the North East economy recover from the coronavirus pandemic.

The work being delivered by North East universities is supporting new and existing businesses to innovate and grow, and shaping and supporting a more sustainable and inclusive economy.

Durham University, Newcastle University, Northumbria University, University of Sunderland and Teesside University are all members of the North East COVID-19 Economic Response Group, which was established by the North East Local Enterprise Partnership at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic to provide business resilience and ensure a collective response to the economic impact of COVID-19 on the North East economy.

Below is a case study about Durham University’s leading role in a national research project – Network-H2 – to decarbonise transport through hydrogen-fuelled vehicles and technology.

Road, rail, air and marine transport accounts for almost a quarter of Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions making it a significant contributor to climate change. Hydrogen offers a clean and renewable alternative to fossil fuels and can bring significant environmental benefits to transport, society and the wider energy system.

Durham University is leading a national research project to decarbonise transport through hydrogen-fuelled vehicles and technology. Network-H2 brings together international experts from the energy, road, rail, air and marine transport sectors to support the decarbonisation of the whole transport network.

The project is looking at the technological, social, political and economic factors necessary to increase the use of hydrogen as fuel, and knowledge exchange between researchers and industry.

The energy sector has been identified as an area of strategic importance in North East Strategic Economic Plan. It provides huge opportunities to drive and enable regional economic growth, and North East organisations are creating wealth, skills, and jobs in the region by responding to national energy challenges and opportunities.

To find out more about Network-H2, visit www.net-zero-research.co.uk.

Read more about how universities in the region are playing a central role in supporting the region to recover from the coronavirus pandemic.

Read more about the North East COVID-19 Economic Response Group.

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Sowing the seeds of growth in the North East tech sector

Last week saw the launch of the London Tech Week and UK Tech Cluster Group’s 12 Clusters of Tech series. Running monthly for the next year the reports each shine a light on a different region and showcase some of the UK’s most exciting and innovative tech businesses – and brilliantly, the series opened with a look at the North East and Tees Valley.

The need to enable, support and facilitate tech businesses is a central priority of the North East digital strategy. We have a vibrant digital ecosystem in the region with multiple networks engaged in promoting it. It’s absolutely critical that we nurture the types of businesses that the report celebrates. How do we ensure that next year’s report features as many, or more, success stories? Who are our emerging companies that might be next in line for high growth? Do we have the right conditions in place to increase the birth and survival rate of tech startups?

These are all important questions because tech startups – early stage, innovation-led businesses with high growth potential that are creating proprietary technologies – have distinct needs that are different to the more generic support required by established scaling businesses. They are creating new products, services and solutions; sometimes solving problems we don’t even know we have yet. And with that they have the potential to create new supply chains, new workforces, open up new markets, give the region distinct competitive advantage and play a major role in our economic and cultural identity.

And this is where as a region we have some challenges and some opportunities. In order to see those high growth businesses born and flourish we need a pipeline of pre-seed companies developing their MVPs, their IP and their investment rounds. As a region we don’t perform as well as others in feeding that pipeline – this is reflected in our national profile with private investors and the number of new tech startups thriving in the North East. Whilst we are home to some fantastic tech businesses, as shown in the report, there is more to be done to improve the trajectory.

This is why the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), via the digital strategy, is working with founders to explore what those distinct needs are; to better understand how we can boost the sustainability of emerging startups and to establish exactly what needs to be in place to improve the picture. By asking the tech startup community what it needs, we can better facilitate and champion the right support and see an uplift in early stage tech business creation and survival. We are working with founders to create a blueprint for regional tech startup support which we will be announcing more about in the coming weeks and months.

So what’s needed? One of the privileges of my role is that I get to speak with so many inspiring tech entrepreneurs on a day to day basis. Some key observations that should inform future plans:

  • Know when to ask and when to tell: getting a tech startup off the ground is really hard work. It takes guts, determination and a healthy dash of madness. It would be easy for those of us in the wider business community to assume what the needs of founders are, but that’s only going to go so far. Equally, founders can be so enveloped in building their businesses they might forget to look up occasionally. The North East tech ecosystem needs to be shaped by entrepreneurs, for entrepreneurs.
  • Take the longview: early stage startups often navigate a precarious and unpredictable path to get off the ground. By definition they find the sweet spot between product development and market fit through iterating, experimenting, and even failing first. As tempting as it can be to shout every early success from the rafters, those companies need space and time to come to fruition. If we want to see a tranche of tech businesses born in the region over the next decade we need to plant seeds now and be ready for the long haul – if that means watching and waiting, it will be worth it.
  • Be purpose led, outcome focused: related to the above, it’s easy to lose the USP of an early idea in the mix of all things “digital” (which these days, is really just “all things”). But losing that nuance means we compromise on uniqueness. Prioritising resource onto purpose and outcome, rather than immediately tangible quick wins might go a long way.
  • Context is everything: building tech clusters is complex. To be clear, this isn’t the same as building an individual tech startup. Cluster development requires multiple factors and actors to work together as part of an overall ecosystem and each regional cluster is specific to its economy, culture, assets, identify and profile. A healthy and sustainable tech cluster is geographical, not sectoral.

As we collectively navigate the challenges of the current climate, the North East will need to be as innovative, resourceful and resilient as ever. We will need to be creative and daring to build the economy of tomorrow and to do that we can learn a lot from the tech start up community. To further bolster our status as one of 12 clusters of tech let’s continue to demonstrate that we value our tech businesses and work collaboratively to ensure they feature in future reports and more.

Laura Partridge, Digital Programme Lead, North East LEP

Find more information about London Tech Week and UK Tech Cluster Group’s 12 Clusters of Tech series, and download the North East report here.

If you want to know more about the North East digital strategy and supporting the region’s tech startups contact Laura Partridge on [email protected].


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Future proofing the North East economy

The coronavirus pandemic has seen a period of accelerated change across the world that has left many businesses thinking long and hard about what the future holds.

The North East Local Enterprise Partnership (North East LEP) and its partners have been supporting the region’s business community to manage the impact of the pandemic and also plan for our economic recovery. Our work continues to be guided by the North East Strategic Economic Plan, which sets out our ambition to create more and better jobs by growing four specific areas of industry – digital, advanced manufacturing, health and life sciences, and energy.

To complement and run alongside the North East Strategic Economic Plan, we want to delve even deeper into the emerging markets and future trends that will dominate the UK and global economies. What are the sectors and areas of industry that will provide the greatest economic growth opportunities in the future? And how can the North East capitalise on them?

To help us answer those questions, we’re seeking to appoint a specialist contractor that can undertake an independent markets foresight analysis on behalf of the North East. We want to identify the short, medium and long-term opportunities our region should focus on to support our immediate economic recovery, and those that will help grow our economy in the future too; creating jobs for local people, attracting investment in the region, and improving our economic activity rates and productivity.

Some of the potential areas of opportunity are in response to our current situation. Active and sustainable travel, for example, has rocketed during the coronavirus pandemic and there is more demand for environmentally friendly transport solutions. How can the North East use its world-renowned expertise and skills in the automotive sector to drive forward this green revolution?

Renewable energy made up almost half of Britain’s electricity generation in the first three months 2020, further bolstering the green energy sector. What does that mean for the North East? How can we grow our share of the market?

How well positioned are we in the region to respond to future technology developments that will affect trends in key sectors; for example autonomous vehicles, the ageing population, and the rollout of 5G – or even 6G capability?

This project is about future proofing the North East economy and making sure we’re ready to respond to global economic opportunities in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

The North East LEP would like to undertake the economic markets foresight analysis this year, and we invite interested suppliers to join us at a online supplier briefing event on Monday 05 October from 10:00-13:00.

Find out more about this exciting opportunity to help the North East shape its future competitiveness, and sign up to attend, by visiting the eventbrite page.

By Alan Welby, Innovation Director at the North East Local Enterprise Partnership.

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Blyth solar business steps up production of new solar module

Solar Capture Technologies is a Blyth-based business with more than 38 years’ experience in solar research, development and manufacturing. The team aims to empower generations to use clean and renewable solar power solutions, and to make solar accessible to everyone. Lewis Caseley, Commercial Manager, explains how connections made through the North East Energy Catalyst are helping to take their new product to the next level.


How did you first make contact with the North East Energy Catalyst?

We saw the call-out for businesses to enter the North East Energy Catalyst’s Energy Innovation Challenge earlier this year and the theme of the challenge – which was all about reducing carbon emissions – fitted well with our business and the new technology we’re developing.

We’re working on a new product based on a lightweight solar material made from polymers and we’re now at the stage of wanting to access funding and demonstration sites, and get the product in front of the right people, and we thought that the Energy Innovation Challenge could help us do this.

Can you tell us more about Solar Capture Technologies and the products you’re developing?

The business has its roots in research and over the years we’ve worked with multiple research bodies and universities. More recently, we’ve moved more towards developing our own products and already have our solar panels in place on emergency roadside phones, ticket machines and bollards across the country’s road network.

Our latest product in development is the SolarFace which combines our advanced solar harvesting technology with high performance composite materials.

What makes your product different from what’s already out there?

SolarFace modules are really lightweight which means they can be used almost anywhere – not only on buildings but on cars, on commercial vehicles like ambulances, offshore, and we’re even working on a floating unit.

They are a quarter of the weight of traditional solar modules and can be manufactured to fit any shape. For example, when used on housing or commercial buildings, the panel forms the fabric of the roof as well as generating power.

We’ve also designed the product to operate at the lowest light levels, so they continue to generate energy through the winter.

It’s a ground-breaking product and to take the product to volume manufacture we needed investment and access to networks.

What happened as a result of entering the Energy Innovation Challenge?

The challenge went live just as the UK entered lockdown so the events we attended with the rest of the cohort were online. We’ve met other SMEs operating in the energy sector and made some interesting connections.

We’re also now applying for funding through the North East LEP’s Energy for Growth programme and working with David Lynch, the North East LEP’s Energy Innovation Partnership Manager, to make connections with organisations in the social housing and transport world, which will help us to secure sites to demonstrate SolarFace’s capabilities.

What’s next for you?

The profile of solar power is increasing as more and more people are looking for new ways to generate power and reduce carbon emissions. At the same time, businesses are beginning to understand how solar can help to save them money and improve their products.

There’s huge potential for us within the automotive industry, transport, public spaces and education, and we’re working with partners to demonstrate the possibilities for SolarFace – for example, we’ve created benches made from recycled plastic which incorporate the solar panels and can be used for phone charging, to boost wifi networks or to power lighting.

We’re also investing in upgrading our factory facilities and moving to mass manufacturing and automation which will make the product far more competitive.

The North East Energy Catalyst is ground-breaking partnership to unite the North East’s leading energy innovation, demonstration and delivery capabilities. Read more about the partnership here.

Round two of the Energy Innovation Challenge is currently underway, with 10 submissions from North East SMEs. Round three, on the theme of energy materials, will open in January 2021. To find out more, contact David Lynch on [email protected].

The North East Energy Catalyst is supported by ERDF and the Energy Innovation Challenge received grant funding from the government’s Local Growth Fund via the North East LEP.

It is facilitated by the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), and North East Energy Catalyst partners are: Newcastle University; Durham University; Northumbria University; Zero Carbon Futures (a subsidiary of Gateshead College); Northern Powergrid; Northern Gas Networks; The Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult; The British Engines Group; Innovation SuperNetwork; Northumbrian Water; The North of Tyne Combined Authority; The North East Combined Authority.

The North East Energy Catalyst is supported by ERDF and the Energy Innovation Challenge received grant funding from the government’s Local Growth Fund via the North East LEP.