Paul May, EEDA's first director of innovation
"This region is one of only three which makes a positive return to the UK Exchequer, so innovation here helps both the region and the country as a whole."
Dr Paul May joined the East of England Development Agency (EEDA) in February as its first executive director of innovation.
As part of the chief executive’s team at EEDA, his job is to drive forward innovative business activity to improve the economy of the East of England – the UK’s ‘ideas region’.
A Cambridge science graduate, with a PhD in laser physics from Imperial College London, Paul’s career has taken him from working in technology and development roles at IBM and Sharp to board positions at several global-leading technology start-ups. He also has a Sloan Fellowship masters degree from the London Business School. The East of England Development Agency (EEDA) is the driving force behind sustainable economic growth and regeneration in the East of England. 1. What have been your first impressions of the strength of East of England innovation since joining EEDA? The East of England is known as the UK’s ideas region and, from my own experience of living, studying and working here, the title is well deserved. This region is recognised world-wide as an innovation leader, with global research conglomerates like Unilever and Astrium calling the East of England ‘home’.
Our region also attracts more research and development-based investment than any other in the UK. 2. What are the region’s strongest suits in terms of technology sectors? There is a wide range of technological expertise across the region from telecommunications at Martlesham, to aviation and aerospace in Hertfordshire. Cambridge has world-class innovation in the pharma and health care sectors, with Norwich home to leaders in the food and crop science sectors. In Bedfordshire, Colworth is another leader in the food and pharmaceutical technology sectors. Automotive engineering is strong in Hethel and Dunton, with technological advances in the built-environment being made at Business Research Establishment in Watford. Creative media is also strong around Norwich and Leavesden. That’s to name just a few!
The region also has a strong base in ‘green technologies’ and with calls from government to create more ‘green-collar’ jobs, the East of England is well set to deliver this thinking. 3. What is your strategy for harnessing the power of local innovation for the good of the region and UK plc? The East of England has some of the greatest businesses, academics and research facilities in the world. But we can always do more, and one of the big items on my agenda is brokering closer ties between industry and academia. EEDA has recently invested £2 million into the Hauser Forum project which will create a state-of-the-art enterprise hub to stimulate “open innovation”; innovative collaborations between clusters of academics, start-up businesses and established industries.
I want to increase connections between companies, within and across sectors, to foster innovative collaborations and ensure that businesses are better equipped to commercialise new products, services and business models.
This region is one of only three which makes a positive return to the UK Exchequer, so innovation here helps both the region and the country as a whole. 4. How does EEDA encourage innovation? EEDA has a wide range of help available for innovative businesses developing new, exciting technologies, which can be found on The Business Map - www.bizmapeast.co.uk .
Through Finance for Innovation, for example, £11 million is available to companies for research and development, as well as market research, to help turn innovative ideas into commercial reality and business expansion through capital investment.
We also support Enterprise Hubs, of which there are 15 across the region, including the Peterborough Eco-Innovation Centre and Hethel Engineering Centre. These Hubs provide the space and practical support for start-up companies. They also benefit from the knowledge transfer opportunities which come from being located with other innovative businesses. 5. How have the funding cuts imposed by national Government impacted on your ability to support innovation in the region? EEDA is continuing to lever-in significant investment from other funding sources, particularly European streams where over £110 million will supplement projects in the region over the next few years. The new Proof of Concept round is a good example of this, where European Regional Development Funds (ERDF) have enhanced a programme of support for innovative businesses. 6. How has the economic downturn impacted on this region’s companies? Innovation is more important than ever to business survival and growth. Even in the good times, only around 40 per cent of businesses survive more than six years. Those that do survive and grow do so by innovating to meet the changing needs of consumers and society.
While the downturn is having an impact on us all, 50 per cent of businesses have reported that they are experiencing stable conditions or positive growth. 7. Does EEDA’s obligation to the region as a whole mitigate against its ability to exploit a proven technology hothouse such as Cambridge? Cambridge is a world-class centre for research and its continuing growth and its success is vital to innovation in the region as a whole. The experience, knowledge and reputation we have gained from Cambridge’s success is being spread out across the East of England.
EEDA is supporting world-class centres of innovation, with cluster corridors linked to Cambridge. For example, EEDA is working to develop an ICT corridor from Cambridge to Martlesham and a bio-science corridor from Stevenage, through Cambridge, to Norwich. These corridors will boost innovation opportunities for research centres and businesses along their whole length. 8. Most commentators believe the UK lags behind countries such as China and the US in terms of technology transfer. How can this region convert brainpower into market muscle and commercialise more of its IP? One in ten businesses in the East of England are co-operating with universities for research and development activities, with 28 per cent belonging to specialist industrial networks to keep up to date with emerging technologies. Importantly, businesses that cooperate with universities and belong to industrial networks are more likely to report stronger performance. 9. Should this region continue to embrace collaboration with overseas investors and collaborators as fulsomely as it does now, or adopt a more protectionist stance to guard its IPR? We live in a global economy and need to collaborate with partners from both home and abroad to generate growth. In some fields, for example, in the display industry, the innovation may take place here, but the manufacturing plants are in Asia. Without collaboration, innovative ideas will not become commercial reality. 10. Is it unrealistic to expect an under-funded organisation such as EEDA to compete on the global stage in promoting innovation when the international marketplace has become increasingly competitive? This region attracts more than a quarter of the UK’s private-sector investment in research and development and we compete on a global stage. Innovation is not an optional extra. When the economy picks up, you need to be ready with the next generation of products. If you aren’t there, another company, either at home or abroad, will be!
EEDA will continue to provide the right conditions, infrastructure and funding support to ensure that the East of England’s innovative verve continues to shine. Partnership work is key to our success. For example, we are currently working with the Strategic Health Authority to establish opportunities for companies to develop new products and processes for the healthcare sector – due to be launched this month.
And the importance and potential impact of our investments should not be underestimated. We know, from recently commissioned reports, that typically every £1 that EEDA invests delivers a return of between £3.70 and £5.80 for the region.