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Professor Alan Lowdon, chair of Innovation Board

Having been a member of the North East LEP Innovation Board since October 2014, Professor Alan Lowdon has been appointed as Chair of the Board.

Alan is Chairman of the Durham University Energy Institute Advisory Board, has more than 30 years’ experience in the international energy and utilities markets working for multinationals including Shell, Suez, British Gas, Rolls Royce Industrial Power, Mott MacDonald and SKM as well as heading up three university spin-off companies and leading on technology and innovation for Narec (now the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult). He currently acts as an advisor on energy to the UK and US governments and various UK universities and is a visiting professor at the University of Durham.

Alan takes over as Chair of the North East LEP Innovation Board from Professor Roy Sandbach.

We asked Alan about his thoughts on innovation in the North East and his plans for the future of the Innovation Board.

How innovative are we in the North East?

We have a great platform to build on, as the North East has historically been very good at innovation. In terms of innovation in manufacturing, energy and transport, the North East set the bar and we have a legacy of innovation which other UK regions simply don’t have.

Now, we need to continue to be flexible and to adapt as a region. We’ve got lots of skills in our colleges and universities and there is some fantastic work going on across the region’s colleges, universities and catapults. We need to give new talent an opportunity to flourish via innovation and to have a platform on which to base innovation and entrepreneurship as without innovation we risk becoming stale and uninteresting – we need to make sure we stand out as a region.

What are the priorities for the Innovation Board?

We have to be focused in what we do and prioritisation is key which is why the LEP has identified four smart specialisation areas: passenger vehicle manufacturing; subsea and offshore technology; life sciences and healthcare; and creative, digital, software and technology based services. The Board will influence at a regional level the overall innovation agenda in these areas, playing to the region’s strengths and simplifying processes.

It’s vital that we look at access to public and private capital to make sure that programmes are funded and that we identify alternative sources of capital to help bring innovative businesses out of the starting blocks.

One exciting development which will come to life over the next few months will be the Innovation Observatory, based at Durham University and developed in partnership with Newcastle, Northumbria and Sunderland Universities. The Observatory is designed to identify good innovation practices, patterns and trends, helping secure more opportunities for North East businesses in the global marketplace.

What are some examples of great innovation in North East business?

We have so many businesses using innovation in different areas of their work. PDL in Hexham is an engineering design consultancy which has drawn on its skills to accelerate into the renewable energy sector. They’ve established a presence in the USA and Asia, in areas which are getting heavily involved in the renewable energy space. PDL has an innovative approach to recruitment and retention of its staff which has paid off.
Newcastle’s Reece Innovation and IHC Concept have both used innovation to strengthen business areas such as design, manufacturing and production, while programmes such as FinanceCamp are applying innovation to the funding sector.

Why is innovation important for the North East and the region’s economic growth?

Innovation is just one part of the spectrum of activity which is carried out at the North East LEP as it works to create more and better jobs for the region. It’s important to show how innovation sits within and strengthens all the other strands of activity, including skills, funding and business growth.

Innovation isn’t just associated with research and development and we need to help people see how they can fit into the innovation landscape. Innovation sits within all kinds of business areas – processes, skills, delivery, manufacturing and funding, for example.

We can give people opportunities through mentoring, facilitation, building regional capacity and confidence in doing things differently.

What are the key ingredients of innovation?

People with the right skills and attributes create an environment where innovation flourishes. Without them, the connectivity, buzz and energy we need to accelerate forwards doesn’t exist. The key ingredients for me are open mindedness and a willingness to take risks. People who are successful innovators also generally have a propensity to be really good networkers. I call them ‘dot-joiners’ – they join other individuals together to form relationships where they can see there’s a mutual benefit in relation to abilities and skills.

In an environment where risk and failure are tolerated, and success is applauded, innovation can flourish.

Find out more about the North East LEP Innovation board here