Home / Dr Alan Lowdon

In conversation with Dr Alan Lowdon, Chair, Innovation Board

I recently spent a week in and around Denver, Colorado – the fastest growing metropolitan area in the USA. People are flocking to Greater Denver; its population is projected to rise from 1.8m today to 3m by 2030. It has already risen from 1.2m to 1.8m in the last eight years.

So, why? The answer is simple: ‘more and better jobs’ coupled with a dominant culture of technology, research and innovation, all underpinned by superb academic establishments and National Laboratories.

The Colorado School of Mines chimes with the North East of England, as does the National Renewable Energy Laboratory which enjoyed a 10-year Collaborative Research and Development Agreement with Blyth-based National Renewable Energy Centre (NaREC), now part of the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult. The Rocky Mountain Institute and the start-up and licensing machine which is the University of Colorado (UoC), Boulder, complement the already buoyant IP commercialisation ecosystem.

For the record, UoC creates between 15 and 20 start-ups per year and enjoys c. $125m in licensing revenues. This places its Boulder-based Technology Transfer Office (TTO) at the helm of a significant strategic business unit and one which will increasingly contribute to the University’s bottom line; it is this realisation which is UoC’s secret. It treats its stable of IP as an asset to be maximised through the application of business processes, practices and networks which support each ‘inventor’ to achieve a commercial return.

In engaging with the TTO, the inventor knows what to expect, gains assurance that best practice is being applied and feels part of an innovation ecosystem which is the heartbeat of the local economy. Is there anything in this approach that the North East of England, in particular, can learn from? Of course there is! Here are three ‘starters for 10’ (in University Challenge parlance):

  1. We must view our university and ‘Catapult’ assets in the same way that Colorado views its population of universities and National Labs, i.e. as fountains of future IP, job and wealth creation. Unity is the name of the game in Denver, with greater value being created from the whole than from the individual components.
  2. We have huge potential to up our game on the creation of start-ups/spin-outs if we invest in the fundamental incubation and technology transfer infrastructure. Such strategic business units must be viewed thus and funded to suit. Their profile and kudos also needs to rise in-line with their role as the engines of economic growth.
  3. ‘Place’ is important. People are flocking to Denver because it provides a very attractive quality of life at an affordable cost, much in the same way that the North East does. However, it is the density of opportunity which is a huge, attractive force. People weigh things up; “…if it doesn’t work out with company X, companies Y and Z look attractive, so on that basis, I’ll give it a go!” Density of opportunity in the Smart Specialisation Areas can be achieved; we need to continue on the exciting journey to create our equivalent.

The visit to Colorado was my fifth in recent years. Chatting to Erin Kuhn of the British Consulate in Denver, links between the UK and Colorado are strengthening year-on-year. For my part, I hope to make some of the key linkages which can help realise my three ‘starters for 10’ to support the continued rise of the North East of England’s innovation ecosystem and I look forward to sharing my progress with you.

Home / Dr Alan Lowdon

In conversation with Alan Lowdon, Chair of the North East LEP Innovation Board

I am writing this blog at 35,000 feet en route from one of my favourite places in the world – Gibraltar. Why is that relevant you may ask?

My network there was established during my role as Director of the Northumbrian Lyonnaise Technology & Research Centre (NLTRC) – a key cog in the Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux international water company that once owned the Northumbrian Water Group.

NLTRC and fellow Northumbrian Water Group company, Fastflow Pipeline Services helped the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar renew the vast majority of its potable water and saline (for street cleaning and toilet flushing) network infrastructure through technology transfer and innovation. This was achieved principally from the gas sector (plastic pipes and trenchless excavation, so essential given the tight streets and density of housing).

Today, the core Gibraltar community of 32,000 and its visiting tourists enjoy the benefits of a good quality water supply and excellent water pressure; something they’ll continue to enjoy for many years to come. I am very proud of the North East’s role in Gibraltar’s sustainability and water resource management. Gibraltar loves the North East for its involvement; we are innovation partners.

To resolve the challenges posed by the project in Gibraltar required ‘early adopters’; persons willing to take a calculated risk in order to reap the benefits of new technology and working practices that would alleviate ever-increasing problems. Specifically, the UK Dependency required swift action to eradicate its mounting issues around water pressure and increasing seasonal demand.

Gibraltar is a destination that thrives on innovation – seeking to solve problems quickly and cost effectively. The key ingredients of leadership, vision and internal entrepreneurship (intrapreneurship) were to be found in abundance in the then Lyonnaise des Eaux Gibraltar senior management team (now renamed AquaGib, and still within the Northumbrian Water Group).

Manuel Perez, the then MD, and Derek Cano, the then Operations Director (and current outgoing MD), were the ‘innovation nodes’ who – in the eyes of the board – legitimised the embracement and adoption of the ‘new’ technology and working practices from the gas industry.

This allowed the company to become a prominent voice and a heralded, international ‘case study’ within the Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux global group. The ‘Gibraltar Water Company’ punched well above its weight, and rightly so!

‘dot joiners’

In an innovation context, Manuel, Derek and their teams of advocates were the essential ‘dot joiners’ linking ‘what’s possible with what’s required’; to coin a phrase by Professor Roy Sandbach, former Chair of the North East LEP Innovation Board.

The dots were further joined in Gibraltar when I spotted an opportunity to help AquaGib in the summer of 2015.

With the MOD passing more and more pipeline infrastructure to the utility, the company needed to understand the impact on the operation of its water supply system.

Step forward Chris Elliot, Geography undergraduate at Durham University and long-standing personal contact, for a 10-week summer internship to extend the computer-based water network models to simulate the flows and pressures in the system with the arrival of the new pipelines. This proved to be hugely valuable to the company and illustrates the importance of personal contacts in the innovation – ‘matching what’s possible with what’s required’ – process.

Having spent a fantastic three days in Gibralter with Derek, I am heartened by the country’s economic growth, the establishment of the University of Gibraltar and the rise of a start-up culture based on its burgeoning gaming, fintech and analytics sectors. There is a real desire to drive forward post-Brexit, something we can all take inspiration from.

Finally, on a personal note, I am particularly proud of the role North East England has played in creating the key infrastructure in Gibraltar. It has allowed the pressure to build, be well managed, and gives today’s opportunities to ability to flow. Water is very much the source of life.

By Alan Lowdon, Chair, North East LEP Innovation Board