Friendly competition for a knowledge economy

Last week, I wrote of my hope for the new Assembly and the priority I would wish it to give to supporting our knowledge economy aspirations. This week let me paint the picture of the size and scope of the competition from across the Irish Sea.

My thoughts were prompted by a visit to Daresbury Science and Innovation Park, roughly half-way between Liverpool and Manchester. Until ten years ago, this had been the site of the National Syncrotron, a device once a key part of the UK nuclear programme that had become, in essence, a giant, high-power light bulb. Its light streamed out of a series of ports at wavelengths anywhere between X-rays to mm-waves at fantastic intensities, which allows all sorts of science measurements and experiments from deep physics, through materials engineering to dynamic studies of biological systems.

All things, however good, must come to an end and Daresbury’s Syncrotron was closed in favour of a new device, the Diamond Light Source, but in Oxfordshire, this time. Now, as you can imagine, the gritty North Westerners did not take this lying down. They formed the first Science-Industry Council (akin to Matrix, our Science-Industry panel) in the late 1990s. They first studied and then began to broadcast the state of their region, its dependence on Science and most importantly what to do about it. They faced a task and opportunity similar to ours.

Everybody thinks they know the NW of England; Andy Capp, Coronation Street, red bricks, canals and cotton but that’s not what they found. They discovered an economy of 7m people, producing a GVA of £120B (larger than many countries including the Ukraine and ROI) of which some 25% was directly dependent on Science and Technology. They also found one of the strongest research bases in Europe due to Universities with a combined turnover of £1.2 billion, 50 Research Institutes and three of the top 10 UK companies by R&D investment,  Astra Zeneca (£2.5bn), Unilever (£637.5m) and Rolls-Royce (£454m); not forgetting, BAE Systems (£176m), Eli Lilly (£107m), Bentley Motors (£105m), Renovo (£20m) and Protherics (£18m).

Manchester was one of the earliest Science Parks in the UK (and one that has given us much help and advice in our own development) but the beginning of the 21st Century and spurred by the NW Science Industry Council, massive new investments have been made in each corner of the region.  Daresbury alone has had £80m in its infrastructure, with huge success in attracting high quality, high growth tenants, similar to ourselves but scaled by four times the investment. Now the private sector has become involved and all thoughts of the loss of the Syncrotron have been banished.

Now the thinking turns to how to keep it going and that’s why I was there, as the Institute of Physics, to chair a discussion on the industrial perceptions of the value of physics and of physicists. As I’ve written before, with all the proposed changes to Higher Education and in particular the suggested level of funding cuts as well as changes to the schools’ curricula, we have a worry that supply of quality skilled graduates will not keep up with the clear demand from the growing knowledge sector. And speaking from experience, physics is not a topic you can learn late in life.

We need not have worried there: we found all present believed that physics (in combination with other STEM disciplines) continues to be of vital importance to new high growth companies in places like the Daresbury Science and Innovation Campus (and NI Science Park), who are able to employ graduates at full added value.

I also took note that we better get a bit faster in our own plans for the growth of the knowledge economy locally or our graduates might exercise their mobility!

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What a fast changing place is Northern Ireland

It’s probably infra dig to refer in one paper’s column to an event sponsored by another but my observation from the recent Belfast Telegraph Business Awards was too significant not to comment; that the overall winner and a fair few of the other award winners and runners-up were local high technology companies.

Almac, the winner of the Outstanding Business Team of the Year, was the third pharmaceutical creation of the late and much missed Alan McClay and it has been able to carve a global position for itself in the complex world of drugs and their effective manufacture and delivery. They have a strong relationship with academe, as signaled by the outstanding McClay library at Queens, whose imposing façade brackets our Victorian jewel, the Botanic gardens, with another award winner, the Ulster Museum. (I look forward to the day when the historically significant Tropical Ravine is restored to its proper splendor, but that’s a different story.)

The others included Andor, a specialist spin-out of Queen’s University. It was formed to make available to the world the excellent camera designs that the Queens’ physics team had created to find planets orbiting suns outside our solar system. Andor has gone on to take the technology into many other markets and I would recommend their website to anyone interested to see, literally, the building blocks of life that they can now reveal :

(http://www.andor.com/learning/multimedia/microscopy_systems_overview/) .

The third I want to pick out is HeartSine Technologies, a spin-out of the University of Ulster, and the latest in a long line of legacies from Frank Pantridge, our late master of portable defibrillation, or the electrical jolt to re-start a stopped heart. I guess many know of Pantridge but few know the work continues turning his invention into a model of innovation (which is the monetizing of invention and creativity). Without that excellence, which I’m delighted was recognized here, then we would not have the business and the world would not have these wonderful machines which can turn a member of the public into a first aid expert, http://www.heartsine.com/ .

I have to confess a special affection for Heartsine, as the early Science Park (all two of us) moved out of our room in Thomas Andrews House, to let all six of them to set up and get started quickly. Heartsine was never a tenant as their rent went straight to H&W Property Ltd but then UU spun out another company to make some key components for them. By that time, we had room in our old portacabin and they joined us as our second tenant. So began the company that makes the defibrillators for the US president and the European parliament.

The significance of this to me is in the rate of change. Only a decade ago, when we started work on the Science Park, many questioned whether Universities would ever have a role in business (beyond the general “finishing” the education of our business and political leaders). Our aim was nought to Nasdaq in ten years and this year’s awards show we’re getting there!

Well done all the winners but investors should note the accelerating success of our high techs.

If You’re Not in You Can’t Win

You will have all heard the phrase   “If you’re not in you can’t win,” which stands to basic logic.  I can point to the NISP Connect 25K Awards which goes one step further. Here simply participating means you will win or at the very least gain something extremely valuable in the process. Just ask any of the previous participants and finalists about their experiences and  typically they will talk as much about the value of the rigorous assessment process itself, as they do about who won the category or overall awards.

In a nutshell these awards, sponsored by Bank of Ireland, QUB, University of Ulster and AFBI,  are designed to unearth ‘The Next Big thing’ – or the best innovations emerging from NI’s research base which have the most commercial potential on a global stage. That could mean they have the potential to be spun out into a full blown company, be licensed or used to form strategic business partnerships.

Year after year, these awards bring forward technology from across all categories – Hitech, CleanTech, Biotech and Digital Media/Software –  and their potential commercial application is very often as good as anywhere else in the world.  Winners have included Sophia Search www.sophiasearch.com  which has developed revolutionary search engine technology which makes it easier to find information within organisations – providing a more efficient means of organisational information to be accessed especially where unstructured in nature across word, pdf, email etc.   Four years on from winning the 25K Awards this company has chalked up Northern Ireland’s largest ever business angel investment of £800,000 through Halo, the NI Business Angel network, opened an office in Silicon Valley and are now partnering with a number of technology companies across the US to integrate their software.

Last year’s winner Lenis Aer has since formed a company and is moving steadily forward on its innovative patent protected process for the manufacture of lip skins, the leading edge of an aeroplane engine surround structure.  In a market estimated to be worth £115million per annum Lenis Aer’s unique forming method achieves considerable operational savings through improved efficiency and reduced emissions, both key drivers for the airline industry. Even at this early stage they have attracted interest from a number of the world’s largest airplane manufacturers.

Just two examples of the possibilities when good ideas are given a helpful start. The good news is there are plenty more where these came from and we now just need more local innovators to step forward before the deadline of 22nd April. The £25K’s process offers an invaluable experience to all participants where they will more fully understand the complexities inherent in successful transition from technological development to commercial realisation. Throughout the Awards process applicants have the unique opportunity to connect and engage with established science and technology corporations, entrepreneurs, service providers and investors who are interested in promising technology. The programme connects the inventors with relevant stakeholders to increase the propensity of commercialisation and turning breakthrough ideas into reality.

In this context it would seem almost criminal for researchers who are developing innovative ideas here to miss out on this fantastic opportunity to test their ideas. With the deadline of 22nd April looming, all it takes is the completion of a simple initial 2 page application form available on www.nispconnect.org/25k to start the ball rolling. Those that do can be assured that this is one of the rare occasions when everyone who enters this competition truly is a winner.

Please fill in your SIC codes

Bureaucracy doesn’t get a good name generally but believe me, it can help if you use it right.

I learned this as a young researcher in the Scientific Civil Service. Of course there were the ‘job’s worth’ like the keeper of the stationery cupboard who would never hand out his last eraser and who demanded to see a worn down pencil before issuing a new one – good management and the devolving of budgets in cash terms dealt with those. The one that worked though was the keeper of the inventory of valuable equipment, like million pound (in today’s terms) special instruments. When a new research project was allotted and you couldn’t know enough to write the business case for your own, a quick call to ‘inventory’ would quickly determine whether an instrument existed on site and could be borrowed. To my mind this saved countless hours of fruitless arguments and millions of pounds; the case could be made rock solid or blown apart very quickly, and in innovation rapid death is just as valuable as quick success.

It did more. On one occasion it was one of my team who got the call, ‘Have you still got the XXX Microscope?’ Naturally, because all scientists are squirrel-like with their equipment, he came to complain but common-sense prevailed. In fact he ended up getting more involved with the new project, reading magnetic tape optically, than with his original one, which was losing support anyway. In the event, the introduction through ‘inventory’ led us to the business of optical recovery of magnetic recordings of seismic data from oil explorations in sub-Saharan Africa. One small bureaucratic step eh?

Anyway, back to the theme. I’m guessing all have filled in their census forms and it won’t be just in fear of the inspector’s visit and the £1000 fine. I hope most of us recognise the benefit of the authorities knowing as accurately as possible the numbers and needs of the population of the country.

The same is true of our businesses and one of the ways is through the Standard Industry Classification, SIC, Codes. The list may be found at

http://www.statistics.gov.uk/methods_quality/sic/downloads/uk_sic_vol1(2003).pdf

These codes certainly matter to large publicly quoted companies as they determine the section of the Stock Exchange under which the share price is reported and expectations of earnings vary from sector to sector. The most spectacular rise and fall, of which I am aware, using these codes was of GEC in the late 1990s. The Weinstock era had given way to the new broom of George Simpson, who had personally led the company’s change of perception from lumbering ‘heavy engineering’ to vibrant ‘Technology’. The result was immediately loads of cash for investment in dot.com boom but then spectacular fall in the aftermath of bust before the investments had time to pay off.

I have been working with the SIC codes for other purposes recently. One, with the Institute of Physics, is to determine where our people work and finding pleasantly surprising facts. The other is in connection with innovation and the Science Park and about which you’ll undoubtedly learn more later. This too has been producing surprising results. In order to quality check the data I thought to look up the codes for some companies well known to me. Horror of horrors, I discovered that you smaller private companies don’t always fill them in. Please re-consider. It is a requirement and there will be a nasty caller appearing one day but better still, trust me, it will give us the objective ammunition to do innovation some good in this age of evidence-based policies and regulations.

The “Impact” of a lower Corporation Tax

Last week, I attended a momentous event for Northern Ireland. Secretary of State Patterson with the heads of all five political parties launched the consultation on the possibility of Corporation Tax reduction for Northern Ireland, how it might be done and, all importantly, the cost. Others will talk and write on many of the pros and cons of this prospect but I want to offer one view, very specifically from my perspective, on the interface between business, academe and government.  To set that in context, you need to know that I, with many colleagues from our universities, just began the long process of REF2014. Normally these two events would not interact but from now on they are likely to get more entwined.

REF is the highly competitive process, previously known as RAE, which assesses the quality of university research. This, in turn, informs the “university funding bodies” who decide how much “second leg” funding our higher education bodies will get from the state.

Note: this is different from the debate currently raging. That concerns the “first leg” of funding which is determined by student numbers. That debate is about the quantum of this money per student-course and the proportion of it that is paid by the student. I was one of the baby boomers who benefited from free grammar school and university education.  Realistically, I have to admit that if I had had to pay and get into debt, I might well not have been able to stay the academic course without sponsorship.  Still, I think times are different now and the deals on offer are pretty good; so on balance, I’m for the changes. I would urge the current generation and their parents to pay particular heed to courses and their requirements; just drifting along is probably unwise.  There are many web based sources to use, from learned societies and universities themselves; Sentinus has just launched a u-tube video that is very relevant, go to  http://www.youtube.com/embed/XfHmaYAT0VA?rel=0 .

Anyway back to my current thesis. The relevance of REF is that Academic Research, for the first time ever (and uniquely in the world, I think), will be assessed, in part, for its “Impact” on society. This may be social, cultural, environmental, or such as to produce health and quality of life benefits. In STEM (science, technology, engineering & mathematics), however, the vast majority of the cited benefits are expected reasonably to be economic.

It is not easy to translate academic research into tradeable goods and services. It involves the mutual engagement of at least two consenting and empowered adults to overcome all the natural and organisational barriers in the system. Operationally and culturally, our region is making remarkable inroads; business people and their professional organisations have stronger links than ever before across a wider swathe of academe and at earlier stages of the creative process.  Northern Ireland is recognised as a major user of the Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (INI) and Fusion programmes (ITI) and our own NISP CONNECT £25k Award, sponsored by Bank of Ireland. Indeed the role of such intermediaries has been recognised by the Higher Education Funding Council, through the outcome of last year’s pilot.

In Northern Ireland, the active and productive engagement between business and universities is less than might be, solely because of our unusually high proportion of cost centres of businesses headquartered elsewhere. A lower Corporation Tax should reverse that trend and through the REF, help produce a virtuous circle and potentially one of the most vital regions in Europe; so I’m for both and soon!

Threats are met by Collaboration not Competition

This week’s piece was inspired by two recent but otherwise disparate events.

 

The ETI committee had asked for a progress report on Matrix, the NI Science Industry Panel. They were especially interested in the outworking of the recommendation to encourage more collaboration in networks and communities and how that stacked against the more normal government mantra of competition. I attempted an answer but the next day in Miyagi Prefecture, the Japanese reminded us all of the answer in their response to their horrific earthquake, tsunami and nuclear emergency. External threats provoke collaboration and drive out competition.

 

It was especially resonant for me, as I had spent a week there in the 1990s. I was at a conference on Surface Acoustic Wave Devices (SAWs), held in that region’s prestigious Tohoku University. I had been astounded by the quality and quantum of facilities in that university, far in excess of anything we had in the UK. Today, at least before the earthquake, it had paid off. In 2009, Tohoku University was ranked 20th in the world for Engineering and Technology and top in Japan for its patent count in 2007. I do hope this excellence has not been destroyed in the maelstrom.

 

To understand the story, I need to tell you why I was in Sendai. I had just completed successfully the first trial phase of licensing our liquid crystal display technology in return for cash and partnerships. Then another senior scientist came to me to tell me that he had serious IP but in SAWs . He thought these might be valuable still, even though his programme had been stopped for some years. SAW had been invented by my colleague and his mentor for RADAR applications but had been superceded by digital techniques. So we went to the conference to relearn the subject.

 

Cutting a long story short, we learned that these modest devices were absolutely critical for mobile phones, because they were the only cheap way of separating the outgoing high power signal from the incoming weak one. Not the professional way a RADAR engineer would do it, but fit for purpose, especially when tweaked. We succeeded, let a few licenses and made a few million but, unlike with liquid crystals in which we were still active and contributing, we made no friends and developed nothing new in this field.

 

We had seen the technology only through the eyes of RADAR and taught the technology only to a few suppliers, among whom we had run procurement competitions to save a few pounds on government equipment. One of those had been Racal, the company which went on to spawn the mighty Vodafone, but still competitive secrecy had concealed the technology from the relevant group.

 

Meanwhile in Japan (and also in Korea), universities, like Tohoku with the very best of facilities, were linking companies like Toshiba, Fujitsu, Kyocera and Murata in collaborative partnerships to get the value of the technology properly assessed for all its applications; only afterwards did the companies go into the world to compete like mad. This behaviour has been forged over generations as the Japanese have faced earthquake, tsunami and volcano, switching almost daily from competition to collaboration as the situation demands.

 

I’m certain they will find the resources to face this latest challenge, though with the Fukushima nuclear aftermath they will have to still reawakened dark memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; I certainly hope so. Despite some blacker and atypical episodes in their history, they are a remarkable people. They deserve our sympathy and support and have a lot to teach us about standing up to external threats, whether natural or economic.

A Passion for Teaching

I recently attended the annual Association for Science Education (ASE) conference at St Mary’s University College in Belfast. The ASE is the largest subject association in the UK and plays a significant role in promoting excellence in teaching and learning of STEM subjects in schools and colleges. As honorary president I was delighted to see so many teachers, technicians and other professionals turn out to support the progression of STEM education in Northern Ireland.

Primarily the conference is used as an opportunity for those involved to further develop their own skills in the delivery of STEM education, and I must admit it was hugely comforting to witness the delegates’ genuine passion for teaching. Throughout the day members of the ASE got the opportunity to share ideas and tackle challenges in STEM in order to generate fresh thinking around the best ways to engage the younger generation, who, I think we are all in agreement, are the ones that are going to help drive Northern Ireland’s economy towards one of knowledge and success.

It is therefore important that those in the STEM education profession are continually developing new and exciting ways to connect with young people. It’s our job to highlight to them the real world application of STEM and the advantages of pursuing careers in these industries.

STEM hardly ever advanced by idle dreaming or by spontaneous sparks of thought. Mostly it came from men and women trying to solve problems and as often as not, trying to find ways to improve their businesses or their lives. What is nearly forgotten is just how many came from Northern Ireland and by highlighting these past successes to the youths of today, and our future leaders, we may just be able to convince them of the value of studying STEM.

Just the other day, I learned that Joseph Black of the University of Glasgow had Belfast born parents. Black solved the problems of latent heat and laid the foundations of a school of excellence in heat, thanks to funding from the whisky industry. In turn he nurtured a young instrument maker, James Watt, who went on to power the Industrial Revolution. You see, everyone is taught by someone in some shape of form but it’s the ability to entice and excite that will be the difference in long-term learning and short-term memory. If tomorrow’s children of Northern Ireland are to be able to make their contribution or even to understand modern science and technology, it is down to the members of such networks as the ASE.

The businesses of Northern Ireland are engaged in global markets in many exciting areas from medical devices to low carbon energy and transport. They have only one natural resource on which to rely and that’s Northern Ireland’s quality pool of talent. It’s by no coincidence that the Northern Ireland Science Park houses multi-national organisations such as Fidessa and Broadsoft. These foreign direct investment ventures were nothing but intentional all crediting the highly skilled workforce of Northern Ireland. What this suggests is that if we can continue to nurture the younger generation and encourage the uptake of STEM subjects not only will the individuals benefit from fulfilling careers with longevity but also our quest for a profitable knowledge-based economy will be firmly on track.

And the Green Oscar Goes to…

You may remember a few weeks ago I wrote about the opportunities available to Northern Ireland in the Renewable Energy sector and referenced the third annual Action Renewables Association Awards. In true Oscar fashion the awards were held last week in the beautifully redeveloped Ulster Museum, itself an exemplar of best practice now rated BREEAM excellent, retrofitted as it is to high levels of energy efficiency. In fact I have only one complaint about our wonderful museum, that the only reference to Ulster’s scientific and technological past is in the safety announcement; the muster point is at Lord Kelvin’s statue! I expect there’s a plan….

 

I have great respect for Action Renewables. Founded and funded initially at the behest of the then Secretary of State, Peter Hain, they, like the Science Park, have had to come out from the comfort of grant funding and into the cold commercial world, while staying on Mission. The testament to their success is the quality of companies in their membership as evidenced by the award sponsors, such as technology developers like Dimplex Renewables and RES as well as energy providers and other professionals. So I was delighted to join the judging panel and amazed by the progress already made in cutting our energy requirements through true innovation being adopted through organisations of all shapes and sizes across both the public and private sectors.

 

Rural Generation based in Londonderry scooped the overall prize for ‘Outstanding Award for Work in the Renewable Energy Sector in NI’ sponsored by Tughans. The company has significantly contributed to the development and establishment of the biomass heating sector in supplying over 8,000 tonnes of wood chip into the biomass heating market annually from Short Crop Rotation Willow. As leading experts in the biomass heating sector they have also already supplied and installed 150 biomass boilers equating to 12MW’s of heating capacity. They continue to innovate and are at the forefront of knowledge transfer in the local biomass market.

 

Best Carbon Saving Project went to Greiner Packaging Ltd, based in Dungannon, for its aptly named ‘Project Cool’ which involved the design & installation of an innovative cooling and heat recovery system which simultaneously cools the production processes & utilization of the waste heat generated in production. ‘Project Cool’ saved them £400,000/yr or 1490 tonnes CO2/yr, as well as eliminating all heating oil requirements. Savings like this in the current economic climate are not to be sniffed at, especially as we watch the oil price skyrocket.

 

I was especially pleased that, without bias, I was able to be associated with an award to my home town, Larne, for the ‘Most innovative renewables installation’. They had installed 19 Solar Bins, which should eliminate entirely, the marring of our most beautiful Antrim coast road with over-flowing waste bins. These new bins compact the waste and call in for collection when full, all powered by the sun. 

 

I’m glad to say that the next generation of innovators were not forgotten and the Renewable Energy Awareness Award (Best School) went to Omagh County Primary School. The school showed overwhelming passion for the subject and they could teach us all a thing or two about the opportunities that exist in Renewable energy.

 

I have kept the best wine ‘til last. I was amazed, personally, by the results from Oaklee Housing Association and Tyrone Timberframes. They have shown the huge reductions in energy bills that can be achieved in new and old houses with today’s technology. Their projects were in social housing but all of us, whether in cottage or castle, should be paying close attention.

 

Congratulations to all the winners and to everyone taking part, for showing that renewables have long left the beard and sandals domain and are today an integral part of our society and a vital part of our new economy.

Tinker, Tailor…. Rich man, Poor man…Engineer!

As you read this newspaper today, a most important workshop is taking place at W5. Thanks to the good offices of the Education and Library Boards, some 200 careers teachers are “doing engineering” in a series of lectures, demonstrations and activities; so they can better advise the students of that region what job prospects they might have and how best to prepare for them. From the Science Park’s perspective, further stocking of our most precious resource, our smart people, can only be a good thing and thus I was delighted, not to mention flattered, to be asked to give the keynote address.

 

It’s by now an Ulster cliché but engineering is one of the many local good things which is a “best kept secret”, including, I keep being told, the Science Park itself. According to Engineers Ireland: “Engineers make things and make things happen!”

 

The products of engineering fill our homes, our streets and our businesses. We use them at work and equally in our leisure. We depend on them for our heating, our lighting, our transport, our food, our health and for keeping our environment clean. Yet the stereotype remains; engineer as a man in dirty overalls, covered in oil crawling about under a car or lorry. The truth, in the engineering parts of modern garages, is that they are cleaner than most homes!

 

Many of these products and services owe a big part of their invention, discovery or commercialisation to an Ulsterman. Eric Megaw was the inventor of the magnetron, which powers the ubiquitous microwave oven. Joseph Larmor’s discovery of magnetic precession is used in the operation of the MRI scanner. Ernest Walton was key to the splitting of the atom with his rectifier-type, high voltage accelerator. Then the works of both men allowed Steve Meyers to design in Geneva, the Large Hadron Collider, the most complex engineering project in the history of mankind and one which to succeed has needed almost every invention which had gone before. Now its technology is being re-used to such an extent in the European fusion energy project, ITER, that some reckon it may put fusion energy into the European electricity grid before 2030. One reason for our general lack of awareness of these Ulster engineering giants is probably because most had to leave our shores to find their fame (and fortune) elsewhere but, I’m delighted to tell you, that’s changing.

 

By anyone’s reckoning some huge global markets are still expanding rapidly, despite recession and the best efforts of some banks; they include low carbon energy, low carbon travel, the technology of high-speed telecommunications, the software for business and finance and, of course, the technology to keep providing food and sanitation to the growing population of humans, each of whom wishes and deserves, the same lifestyle as you and me. Today, scores of engineering-based companies in Northern Ireland, both foreign and local and with growing workforces of engineers of all kinds, are using all the channels available to them to tackle these markets and they’re succeeding. Engineers number thousands once again, not as visible as once perhaps, because they are distributed, for resilience, across a number of markets and disciplines from finance to bio-. Their success is limited only by three factors, their own energy and innovation (not in doubt, the gene is dominant), capital (which needs serious attention) and engineers (hence the importance of today).

 

There is no shortage of precedent. Ulster engineers have made it to the boards of numerous blue chip companies, De Beers, British Gas, Cisco, Yahoo, to name but a few. Ulster role models, with an entrepreneurial bent, have created global brands such as Denman and Galen, big enough to go IPO and to buy the brands of others. Many of these were not necessarily the best at school either.

 

In truth, our engineers are limited only by their own ambition!

NISP CONNECT Eco-system

The word eco-system has become very fashionable in recent years. Following the announcement that Nokia has teamed with Microsoft’s Windows, I learned that we now have three mobile eco-systems from which the (bewildered) customer may choose. Maybe the better analogy would be discovery and exploration than choice, for an eco-system is more like a jungle than a tidy garden. Wikipedia defines eco-system as a biological environment consisting of all the organisms living in a particular area, as well as all the nonliving, physical components of the environment with which the organisms interact, such as air, soil, water, and sunlight. It is all the organisms in a given area, along with the nonliving factors with which they interact; a biological community and its physical environment. Inside the eco-system there is constant activity, competition and co-operation, synergy and independence, birth and death; from the outside there is a semblance of constancy as the system responds to external stresses.

Four years ago, we in the Science Park decided to explore the economy changing concepts pioneered by San Diego, California and known today as CONNECT. Their guiding principle was to build an eco-system rather than an economy, knowing that one would follow the other. The motivation was unalloyed envy of Silicon Valley in Northern California but the approach was uniquely sociology-based as opposed to others based on economics, politics or technology. Prof Mary Walshok (one of the key founders) began to identify processes and programmes of engagement that would unite the normally disparate strands of business society and the research base into a single mission to change their economy on the basis that “all ships rise on a rising tide”.  So the legend was born and San Diego converted from tired navy port to one of the most dynamic knowledge economies in the US, in which new high technology companies had the best ever chance of success. Some 20 years later Michael Porter from Harvard Business School was to attribute a lot of this change to the University of California at San Diego and its CONNECT programme.

In 2007, a series of circumstances, some programmed and some serendipitous, brought the Science Park into contact with a young returner to Northern Ireland, Steve Orr. He, after his own entrepreneurial successes in San Diego, had immersed himself in the CONNECT methodology and had apprenticed himself to Prof Walshok herself.

First supported by funding from Belfast City Council, then as a formal pilot for independent review by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, by the Science Park, the universities and with the strong support of the private sector, we began to deploy a few of the UCSD CONNECT programmes to test their effectiveness in the Northern Ireland culture. The announcements in February are the outworking of that process. CONNECT suits the NI psyche perfectly, except in funding. In the US there is a strong self-help and philanthropic element to “earning one’s way”. Here we still believe (wrongly) that it’s the government’s job to “Do Some-Thing!”

Government in this case has done something but for a limited time. The funding will allow core support for a full CONNECT roll-out for a further five years, during which time we shall create and with help raise funds for the NI Science Park Charitable Trust. In 2016, we hope, indeed expect, that it will be able to provide independent core support as the eco-system forms to build the new economy quickly and sustainably.