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Innovation and the North East’s economic recovery

Alan Welby, Innovation Director at the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), and Gillian Hall, newly-appointed Chair of the North East LEP’s Innovation Board, discuss how innovation can bring more jobs to the region and help businesses to recover from the impact of COVID-19.


Can you explain what role the Innovation Board plays in helping to drive growth within the North East economy and more and better jobs for its residents?

Gillian: Innovation is one of the areas of focus – alongside skills, business growth, transport and investment – that can help us to increase productivity and the number of jobs in the North East.

Business owners might not think that innovation is something they do but in fact it’s often just about working out a new, better way of doing something. If you’re tweaking your product or processes to find a competitive advantage then that is innovation. If you’ve come up with a new product then that is innovation.

A lot of what we’re doing is around supporting partners to come together to make something bigger than the sum of its parts. The Northern Accelerator partnership between Durham, Newcastle, Northumbria and Sunderland Universities is a brilliant example of this, providing a structure to support the commercialisation of ideas from academics and showing how we can build a knowledge economy with regional assets and regional people.

The Innovation Board is there to increase activity like this and to be a critical friend to the North East LEP’s innovation team.


As the newly-appointed Chair of the Innovation Board, what are your priorities for the coming weeks and months?

Gillian: Turning plans into action and keeping things moving forward are my priorities.

We have a big job to do and it’s easy to spread ourselves too thinly. It’s very important for me to make sure that the Board is focused on delivering projects that are going to make a difference and that we achieve the aims set out in the North East Strategic Economic Plan.

We also have very active part to play in the North East’s COVID recovery plan, making sure existing projects have what they need to keep going but also seeing what needs to be done in the short and medium term to support businesses and communities to recover.


The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly impacted on businesses, with many having to introduce new ways of working or even pivot and change what they do. How important is innovation going to be to help companies through to recovery?

Gillian: Quite naturally, we have a tendency to want to go back to the way things were but we must come to terms with the fact that this can’t happen and that we need to change our mind-set and adopt new ways of working.

Businesses are already thinking in an innovative way about how they can survive in a different world; these new ways of thinking are true innovation and businesses should be celebrated for moving quickly and making positive changes.

Alan: COVID is a massive disruptor and businesses in all sectors have had to find new ways of doing things. As a result, we’re seeing new collaborations and new solutions bring brought forward to the problems COVID has raised.

Innovation is about coping with change, and we need to test, challenge and drive each other to change and adapt.


How do you plan to support companies in the region to use innovation to help them recover from the impact COVID-19 may have had on their business?

Gillian: During recovery we often see businesses cutting expenditure in areas like R&D. It’s a real risk that R&D specialists in our region will lose their jobs and that their expertise will be lost to the North East so we’re talking to partners about launching a ‘lifeboat scheme’ to support businesses to maintain their R&D and to keep hold of this group of people who are vital to innovation and to the success of our region in the future.

We are also thinking about those people who have had to retrain or look for new jobs. This is a very stressful time for many people and we’re working with the NHS to look at wellbeing and supporting people’s mental health.

Alan: As part of our COVID response programme, we’re also launching a series of open innovation challenges which will help people to quickly bring forward new products and services to market.

The challenge programme will mobilise the innovation community to help find solutions for businesses, for education and for individuals, making things better for the region as we recover and begin to get people back to work.

And more broadly, we have a COVID-19 support toolkit which is available on the North East Growth Hub, and we have our North East Growth Hub Connectors who can help business owners to access the best sources of support and funding for them.

What lessons can business take from this crisis?

Alan: Be flexible. Find communities and use networks to work together. The support and the opportunities are out there to help your business to pivot and recover, so reach out and please don’t struggle alone.

Gillian: COVID-19 is a dreadful thing but I am hopeful that some positives will come out of it. Businesses in our region – whether that’s factories in Team Valley, Cramlington and Washington, or office-based businesses in our city centres – are turning into innovators and we should celebrate this.

New ways of working will lead to new jobs which may be different from those that we’ve seen in the past. For example, we have a hugely impressive VR and gaming sector, (including Europe’s first dedicated centre for emerging technology in the form of PROTO) which will play a part in developing new ways of delivering remote products and services to people.

The core of our region and our businesses are our people. It’s important that as a region we don’t leave anyone behind as we move towards recovery, and we will hold the government to account on this nationally as well.

Find out more about the role innovation plays in building the North East economy here.

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Gillian Hall appointed to lead North East Innovation Board

The North East Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) has appointed a new Chair to its Innovation Board.

Gillian Hall, who has more than 25 years’ experience as a business owner, non-executive director, and corporate lawyer, will lead the Innovation Board as it supports the drive to create more and better jobs in the North East.

Alan Welby, Innovation Director at the North East LEP, said: “Increasing innovation is vitally important to the growth of our economy, especially now, as businesses and communities are recovering from the impact of COVID-19 and finding new ways of working.

“Gillian has a real drive to make sure that the work we do has an impact and that we make a difference for people in the North East. Her hands-on approach will ensure that we work towards increasing innovation in the region with pace and purpose.”

Gillian Hall said: “By encouraging innovation – whether that’s within small businesses or in large corporations – we can boost the region’s productivity, create more jobs, and make a positive difference to the lives of people in the North East.

“In the wake of COVID-19, we will also be playing a role in the North East COVID-19 Economic Recovery Plan. As the Chair of the Innovation Board, my priority is to turn plans into action and, along with the rest of the board members, I will be working with the team at the North East LEP and our partners across the region to support businesses and communities as they recover.”

Innovation is one of the areas of focus within the North East Strategic Economic Plan, which lays out the roadmap for creating a more productive economy in the region, and creating 100,000 more and better jobs in the North East by 2024.

The Innovation team at the North East LEP, with the support of the Innovation Board, works with partners to grow the amount of R&D taking place in the North East and to attract investment into the region.

The North East LEP Innovation Board is made up of representatives from the region’s local authorities, academia and industry. The members are Gillian Hall (Chair); Tony Appleton; Richard Baker, Strategy and Policy Director, North East LEP; Estelle Blanks, Executive Director, Innovation SuperNetwork; Professor Michael Capaldi, Dean of Innovation and Business, Newcastle University; Councillor Nick Forbes, Leader of Newcastle City Council; Helen Golightly, Chief Executive, North East LEP; Dr Colin Herron; Patrick Melia, Chief Executive of Sunderland City Council; Lee Viney, Regional Manager, Innovate UK; Alan Welby, Innovation Director, North East LEP; Dr Nicola Wesley, Chief Operations Officer, AHSN; and Professor Michael Whitaker.

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In conversation with Alan Lowdon

In his latest blog post, Alan Lowdon, Chair of our Innovation Board discusses championing the North East as a place to live, study and work.

In January of this year, I had the privilege of visiting Laude College near (snowy) Marbella, Spain. The college is an international school spanning years 6 to 13. The trip was organised by Mike Burrett, Vice-chairman of the Durham University Energy Institute (DEI) Advisory Board and formed part of their outreach activities. Mike and his family live in the vicinity of the college. The trip was fully supported by the international office of Durham University. Accompanying us on the trip was second year Durham MEng student, Kitty Stacpool.

Our aim was to raise awareness of the UK university system, its benefits, its draw-backs and, in particular, to promote Durham University as a place to consider when making the important choice of where to study. Not only did we fly the flag for Durham, we championed the cause for the North East of England as a fantastic place to live, study and work.

The main event saw us present to some 200 students assembled in the sports hall, covering years 9 to 13. Kitty stole the show with her anecdotes about student life – lectures, college life, sports, societies and socialising. She was also able to impart a serious amount of information about the science and engineering courses on offer and answer the question as to how fast the university wifi was! Mike and me provided the ‘seasoned input’ and described the importance of degrees and apprenticeships to future career advancement. The whole approach was seen as highly innovative by the school staff as it had never been tried before; the student response was superb. This was emphasised when we circulated sheets of paper during the Q&A session in order to give everyone – the confident and the shy – the opportunity to pose their questions. Over 90 were received! Answers to these have been formulated and returned to the school to put on display so the students can see the answers to the questions they posed.

The return leg is scheduled for the summer when 20 or so students from Laude will make the trip to the North East to see first-hand the facilities at Durham University and the wider North East. Demand is set to outstrip supply! There’s nothing better than experiencing the real thing!

It’s very rewarding to ‘give back’ to the system which has served us so well in our careers. Witnessing the enthusiasm in the eyes and voices of the Laude College students made the whole thing worthwhile, the snow in Marbella apart!

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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.

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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

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Two new Innovation Board members join the North East LEP

The North East LEP has welcomed two new members to its Innovation Board, which is responsible for driving innovation and economic growth in the North East.

Dr Colin Herron, Managing Director of Zero Carbon Futures and Tony Ikwue, Director of Enterprise and Innovation at the University of Sunderland, are the newest members of the board, which is comprised of leading figures from the region’s business, academic and civic communities.

The board is chaired by Professor Roy Sandbach, the North East LEP’s innovation champion. Professor Roy Sandbach said: “Innovation is a vital part of the North East LEP’s Strategic Economic Plan which ultimately aims to create more and better jobs for the region. It’s a pleasure to welcome two new members to the Innovation Board, who are ideally placed to join us in driving innovation within the North East business community.”

Colin Herron is Managing Director of Zero Carbon Futures, the North East-based organisation responsible for delivering projects which helps towns, cities and countries adapt to the introduction of low carbon vehicles. Colin joins the Board as a representative of the North East Automotive Alliance and to support the North East LEP’s smart spec area of the development and adoption of electric vehicles.

Colin said: “I am delighted to be given the opportunity to join the LEP on the Innovation Board to represent the automotive industry.

“The automotive industry has grown to become a cornerstone of the North East economy and it is still growing at an incredible rate. We are seeing unprecedented innovation taking place with the launch of new products such as the Nissan Leaf, as well as technologies and ideas that will change the face of the industry like never before. It is essential that the North East is at the forefront of driving the industry forward and I look forward to using my knowledge and experience to support the LEP to stimulate growth and support automotive businesses to continue to grow.”

Tony Ikwue is the Director of Enterprise and Innovation at the University of Sunderland. He is passionate about low carbon economic development and brings a wealth of experience in the design and implementation of innovation systems as drivers for sustainable growth and prosperity.

Tony said: “We are entering an exciting period of change at the University of Sunderland. Our new Centre for Enterprise and Innovation, due to open this coming winter, will support business growth – encouraging entrepreneurship and creating knowledge jobs within the city and region.

“The North East has a huge amount to offer businesses and investors and we are delighted to work with organisations like the North East LEP, to harness that potential and help nurture the regional economy by sharing our skills, knowledge, facilities and research capabilities to help businesses prosper.”

The Innovation Board, whose members share their expertise on a voluntary basis, meets several times a year.

Professor Roy Sandbach added: “The membership of this group is diverse and includes leaders and experts in a variety of sectors who are working to continue the region’s growth as a centre for innovation. This will have a real impact on our ability to drive economic growth and deliver more and better jobs for the people of the North East.”

Other members of the North East LEP Innovation Board are Dr Alan Lowdon, Visiting Professor at the University of Durham; Dr Peter Simpson, Director of N8 Research Partnership; Neil Hemming, Managing Partner at global software leader SAP; Professor Nick Wright, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation at Newcastle University; Dr Tim Hammond, Director of Business and Innovation Services at Durham University; Professor George Marston, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Innovation and Research at Northumbria University; Gillian Hall, Senior Partner and National Head of Corporate Law at Watson Burton LLP; Dr Arnab Basu, Founding CEO of Kromek Group Plc; Brian McCarthy, Relationship Manager at Innovate UK; Norma Refearn, Elected Mayor of North Tyneside; Councillor Iain Malcolm, Leader of South Tyneside Council; and Hans Mőller, Director of Innovation at the North East LEP.