The Northern Powerhouse is a hot topic at the moment following the launch of the First Report of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership and the upcoming Northern Powerhouse International Conference in Manchester. Even the Chinese are getting in on the act.
The North Needs More Than Infrastructure
While it’s important to focus on infrastructure – from where I live near Skipton it is as quick for me to get to London by train as it is to reach Liverpool – there also needs to be a bigger focus on manufacturing, and advanced manufacturing is a traditional regional strength.
Building a Northern Powerhouse isn’t just about better transport links, it needs to include building the companies manufacturing the materials, components and products that the 4th Industrial Revolution will be built on. From the mechanisation of the textile industry through steel making to the development of the chemical industry, the North of England has always been at the forefront of technological change. The cotton yarn being produced in the picture above was once a world-beating advanced manufacturing process that enabled the growth of cities across the North-West.
And the resources to build a Northern Manufacturing Powerhouse already exist. The region has a number well-funded academic and translational institutions devoted to advanced materials. These include the National Graphene Institute, the Sir Henry Royce Institute, Water@Leeds, The University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, Science City York and the Centre for Process Innovation to name but a few.
Capturing Value Locally
But little of the value seems to be captured locally. There is a net outflow of graduates from the region, and the British Venture Capital Association reports that 77% of 2015 venture capital investment was in London & SE, 6% the north, 3% Wales which further underlines the imbalance. So there is clearly a need for more than just money and the £400m Northern PowerHouse Investment Fund.
Why isn’t Manchester or Leeds a hub for hard tech start-ups, i.e. things spun out of universities such as graphene, medical imaging, aerospace and other disruptive technologies where SME’s play a key role in making the link between world class research and transferring the technology to major markets. We know that it can be done in the UK, look at Oxford and Cambridge, so why not Newcastle, Sheffield or Liverpool?
Stop Blaming Universities
It’s easy to blame academic institutions for not doing more, but exploiting scientific excellence and catalysing high growth innovative businesses requires more than just academic excellence. It is not the primary role of academics to exploit emerging technologies and this requires the development of a community of entrepreneurs, existing businesses and funders willing to take the risks to which academic and publicly funded institutions are averse. It isn’t any surprise that creation of innovative companies can be accelerated by combining commercial skills with academic excellence, and by bringing together experienced entrepreneurs backed with solid scientific support the risk of failure can be reduced.
From Henry Bessemer to the 4th Industrial Revolution
That’s where the Bessemer Society comes in, and why I recently agreed to chair the Northern regional branch. The Bessemer Society is a forum and mutual society formed of ‘serial’ CEOs, founders and entrepreneurs who are committed to creating successful new companies based on technological innovation in the fields of science and technology.
Named after the nineteenth century steel inventor and entrepreneur Sir Henry Bessemer it aims to encourage his blend of technical, creative and entrepreneurial skills that are the catalyst for founding any progressive and lasting enterprise.
And those are exactly the skills required to make the Northern Powerhouse.
Aside from speaking at the Northern Powerhouse conference, we’ll also be holding a series of events across the region to build a community of non-academic collaborators across the Northern Powerhouse region who can work with academics to exploit technologies.
That means bringing together companies large and small with academics and local governments to try to stimulate the establishment and growth of high technology 21st Century industries in the region.