There is a large white board on one of the walls at the 3M Buckley Innovation Centre at the University of Huddersfield. About the size of the year planner I have on my office wall in front of me now, it is a much coveted Queen’s Award for Enterprise Promotion. And its recipient, Professor Liz Towns-Andrews, is very embarrassed by it.
“It’s just my job,” she insists. “It was very nice to get the award, but I was just doing my job.” She is wrong, of course. Call it personality, character, likeability, drive or experience. She has it in such immense quantities that she has become an almost iconic part of Yorkshire’s enterprise culture.
She runs the Buckley Innovation Centre (named after businessman Sir George Buckley, who is a graduate of the university and former CEO of the multi-national 3M corporation) as a home for tenant companies who collaborate with the university and each other on technology-centric work.
From 3D printing to bio-sciences, via X-rays, pharmaceuticals and the National Measurement Institute, the BIC is awash with ground-breaking research and growing partnerships.
As Towns-Andrews walks me down Innovation Avenue, a corridor of glass-fronted laboratories and workshops running the full length of the converted mill building, she talks about the tenants as if she is working with them, rather than just being their landlord: ‘What we are trying to do with this new equipment is....’ and ‘We’re hoping that we can develop....’
“It is a ‘We’. I know what my role is within a team,” she says.
“That role is a bit schizophrenic – certainly two-fold. On the one hand I’m the chief exec of a company we set up to make this centre self-sustaining and business-facing. On the other I’m director of research and enterprise for the university, so I have a responsibility for growing our collaborations and demonstrating the impact our work has.
“So with regards to the companies that come in here, we want to make sure there is an alignment with our research base. Because ultimately we want to drive partnership and deliver impact. So who comes here is not a straight commercial decision.”
Before setting up 3M BIC, Towns-Andrews was director of Innovation at the Science and Technology Facilities Council, part of the UK Research Council, with whom she had worked for more than 25 years. The STFC was responsible for work with some very large facilities, like getting access to the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, as well as large labs in Oxfordshire and Cheshire.
At the British labs, Towns-Andrews promoted their work and potential to industry. Add to that a role in commercialising the IP at the labs and the perfect CV for that list of her jobs was taking shape. “But when I came to the university, I wasn’t looking for a job,” she says.
“In my head, I was always going to be at the Research Council until I retired.
“But the culture and ambition of the university made me realise I had the opportunity to take all the things I had learned in my career and actually do something with them. I thought I had about ten years to reach my goals until my retirement (she is 56 now), but when I look back over the last five years I realise I have achieved that, particularly around things like RGF money and partnerships with local organisations.”
Universities can be regarded by SMEs as impenetrable and distant, and perhaps not towards the top of a list of people to work with. But Towns-Andrews has changed that perception, certainly around West Yorkshire, by operating the 3M centre as a business, to demonstrate how the relationship can work.
When a new organisation looks to the centre for a possible partnership, it is likely that they will meet not only her but also academics from the university just a few yards across the road, who will already have been briefed about the newcomer so that a discussion can start at the first meeting. There is an organised commitment here that is setting its own rules about engagement and how relationships need to be run.
“I am the CEO here, but I have always been entrepreneurial in the way I approach things and I think that is important and gives me credibility in both camps, academia and industry. People ask me how I switch from one to the other, but I think it is just experience. It comes naturally to me.”
Her approach and success has taken her to Barcelona, Chile, Canada and many other destinations, where this strategy is fresh and challenging. Her very engaging manner gives her an air of confidence that makes her audience listen. This professor is not nervously delivering a new theory or a white paper, but is instead saying in every meeting ‘I’ve found that this is the right way to do it. It might seem very different to you, but I’ll help you get there if you want me to.’
Towns-Andrews is originally from Chesterfield, and was the first one from her family to go to university. Dad was an engineer, which has obviously helped her appreciation of the work being done at the centre. The rest of the family were embedded into the mining industry.
“My mum and dad were so proud when I went to university and particularly when I became Dr Towns after getting my chemistry degree. I had to work hard to get there – I failed some exams and had to pick myself up.
“To be made a fellow of the Institute of Physics was absolutely jaw-dropping for me. Then I came here and my boss and the vice-chancellor asked me to develop my CV as an academic CV so that I could be put forward for conferment of professorship.
“That is quite an honour, as I have an idea of what a professor should be and they were way ahead of me. But I did it.
“I remember being on a Baltic cruise when the VC Bob Cryan rang me with the news. I can feel myself getting emotional just thinking about it, and there is a part of me that wishes.......”
There is a pause, and it is clear that, among so much technology, a very human, emotional button has been pressed. She surprises herself by the tears in her eyes.
She apologises, composes herself and continues in a momentarily faltering voice: “I just wish that mum and dad had had a chance to enjoy it with me.” Her mum died in 1998 and dad in 2008, a year before she was offered the job in Huddersfield. She says if dad had still been alive, she might have turned down the offer
“Because dad would have thought I was bonkers, jumping from something that was super-secure into unknown territory.” But the choice was made and it was the right move, soon to be followed by a university Chair of Innovation in her name. Proud moments, but still a little bit of a puzzle for her.
“Things like this building are tangible and I know I have made it possible and I do feel it is my job. But some of the other things I do - I can’t see what is so special about it. Everyone else says they can, but to me it is just work.
“I have always wanted to make things happen for the university. It has been so supportive of me that I want to give things back to it – and to Bob Cryan, who has been the most amazing guy to work for, trusting me and empowering me.”
The model that Towns-Andrews and her team have engineered at 3M BIC and the lessons they have learned can now be applied to the wider region in the form of a much bigger SME programme and some sort of physical presence to benefit the whole area.
One of her dreams is that, before she retires, the first sod might be lifted to build that new site. I suggest ‘The Liz Towns-Andrews Centre’ but that only gets a small chuckle as the conversation continues. She genuinely doesn’t see how clear a possibility it is that, in a few years time, the signwriters are going to be checking whether her name is hyphenated and where the ‘s’ goes.
In 2012 Huddersfield was named Entrepreneurial University of the Year and the following year it took the top title – University of the Year. “Regionally and nationally people are beginning to realise that something special is happening here,” she says.
“In the past no-one had heard of us, but now we are getting academics wanting to move here and industry wanting to work with us.”
Those industries are carefully assessed by Towns-Andrews to make sure the mix is right on Innovation Avenue, and there is scope for substantial investment in the very best equipment to attract the right ones.
The £10m-£15m that has been pumped into the centre, from the restoration of the building to the latest piece of kit, is looking like a very solid investment, and with collaborations with Santander to develop Innovation vouchers for SMEs and local authorities for the next phase of her strategy, the future is already here and growing.
By now, the pride of mum and dad Towns would be immeasurable, applauding each accolade and clicking the camera from their ‘Reserved’ front row seats. Their daughter has dug out her own seam of innovation and carved her name into a landscape of academia and industry - and she still doesn’t fully realise how good she is.