Ten Years of Innovation

Ten Years of Innovation

An ice cream party marks the 10th birthday of a building that has been home to a pioneering business development programme.

The £8.6m Gordon Manley building, named after the famous climatologist who was the first head of Lancaster University’s Environmental Studies Department, was opened in May 2007 by the then President of the Royal Society, Lord Martin Rees.

“It was created as a business and knowledge exchange space for the department to grow into,” explains Dr Ruth Alcock, head of the award winning Enterprise & Business Partnerships Team at the Lancaster Environment Centre.

As well as providing much needed office space for academics, the building housed professional training rooms and offices for small innovative environmental businesses, offering them access to the research skills and expertise that small businesses cannot usually afford.

“The idea that you can co-locate businesses in an academic department was very unusual at that time, though now many universities are following our lead,” Ruth explains, paying tribute to the vision of her predecessor, Dr Mark Bacon, who is now Director of Engagement and Partnerships at Keele University.

To celebrate the tenth anniversary, Ruth asked local ice cream maker Wallings to park up outside the building and offered free ice cream to staff, research students and business: more than 200 turned up.

Many pioneering initiatives have emerged from the building during the last ten years, including the China Catalyst Programme, linking small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in the UK and China, and the multi award winning Centre for Global Eco-innovation.  Both recruit postgraduate student researchers, supervised by leading academics, to work with SMEs to develop innovative products and services which reduce environmental impact and increase the efficient use of resources. Even undergraduates now get the chance to work with environmental businesses and third sector organisations on their final year dissertation projects.

“At one time business partnership would have been very separate from teaching and research, now it is part of business as usual,” Ruth said at a gathering to celebrate the building’s 10th anniversary.

A key to the success of the Lancaster approach is that research is collaboratively designed, by academics and businesses developing projects together.

“The projects we do are business driven. We don’t push our research at people, we ask ‘how can we help you?’, Ruth explains.  “That’s what most external organisations value, the opportunity to work with us to gain funding to do something exciting that will develop their business.”

It has certainly worked for The REACH Centre, which specialises in helping businesses navigate the complex field of international chemicals regulations.

It’s founder and chief executive, Dr Jonathan Lutwyche, was the only resident employee of the recently established business when he arrived in the new building in 2007, having gained funding to work with three of the leading environmental chemists based in the department.

Ten years later he is leading a 50-strong workforce with staff from 10 countries, satellite offices in Japan and Italy, and customers in more than 30 countries.

“There are so many benefits for us being located here,” Jonathan explains. “Number one is that two thirds of our staff come from Lancaster University, many of them have carried out student projects with us at PhD, masters and bachelors level or have done part time work with us while studying. We now even sponsor a PhD student and do some lecturing in the department. It is win win for both us and the students.

“Number two is that, especially at the start, SMEs have no track record and no real credibility, so it is awfully hard to get business. The contracts we secured early on were very much underpinned by the fact we were located in, and working with, a very credible academic institution. That played a pivotal role in getting us off the ground and then accelerating us into a high growth company.”

Dr Ben Herbert, from Stopford Energy and Environment, moved into the Gordon Manley Building in 2008. Stopford has also developed close link with the Lancaster Environment Centre and wider university.

“As well as gaining access to world class R&D facilities and a pool of graduates for student projects and employment, we have developed excellent academic relationships to support our activities in IP development and industrial training,” he said.

The Enterprise & Business Partnerships team has also grown with the building, and now employs 15 staff. The team is still pioneering how universities work with business. Innovations include professional training certificates delivered jointly by academics and business people, and a new African initiative, developed jointly with partners in Africa, establishing the Nigerian Centre for Global Eco-innovation at the University of Benin.