The directions to Prof John Fisher’s office at Leeds University were a little challenging. But the views were so well worth the journey.
I needed to go to the main car park on Woodhouse Lane (left, right and park under the trees) and head for the deputy vice-chancellor’s office which is room 13.04 in the Marjorie and Arnold Ziff Building (number 77 on my map). Then enter via the Beech Grove Terrace entrance and take either the lift or stairs to level 13. Lift, I think.
But I was then rewarded with two views – one from Prof Fisher’s very large window showing a wide expanse of university buildings and countryside beyond and one from the man himself, a visionary leader of a team with a global reputation.
His specialist field is summed up by his pioneering programme ’50 active years after 50’, which aims to develop products to make old age a thing of the past. Age is fine, but with new joints and new innovations, he aims to help people look forward to their 100th birthday with confidence and vitality.
His list of achievements - which have rewritten the history of his sector, earned him a CBE for services to medical engineering and a global top-of-the-list reputation - are staggering.
In building one of the most successful medical and biological engineering research institutes in the world, he has attracted more than £100m of funding into Leeds University and published more than 400 papers.
He invented a ceramic-on-metal hip replacement which has given a new lease of life to thousands of people around the world and is a leading developer of tissue regeneration technology, which builds biological ‘scaffolding’ to help patients replace their own ageing body parts.
“In a sector like medical technology, which is very mature and highly regulated, innovation is not necessarily done directly by the big organisations. It is done in the research base at universities, in small companies and in university spinouts,” Prof Fisher tells me. “The other key role for the universities is the provision of skilled people to deliver the innovation in universities, smaller companies or in the larger companies as it gets adopted.
“Science is still advancing an awful lot, with new technologies and materials emerging all the time. It all has the potential to feed into health care and produce the innovative products. There is an integrating part of healthcare technologies and I think universities have a role to play going forwards where you are bringing together innovation in technology, improvements in diagnostics and information and then the patient themselves and how they fit into it all and adapt their lifestyles.
“The role of the university is very much about the upstream end of things – the initial creation and advancement of knowledge and the proving of concepts and technology. This is embedded in the research at universities and increasingly in collaboration with the NHS.
“The model of big industries doing their development work in their own R&D labs started changing 20 years ago and is quite dated now. I think they feel they get a greater diversity of input from a more global community. One of the projects I work on for Johnson & Johnson sources technology input from seven universities around the globe – there is no way they could generate that level of expertise from one university or a corporate research lab.
Going so global on such a scale can cloud an appreciation of how much this level of work contributes to the regional economy, and how brightly the spotlight is that Prof Fisher has helped turn towards Leeds.
The region has some very big players, but a huge amount of the work is from the SMEs. Prof Fisher is at the top of a pyramid with a granular foundation made from fresh approaches, innovations and new pioneers.
“The SMEs won’t necessarily be going for global markets, but will be doing innovation in a different way, perhaps aimed at a national market, but feeding into the global picture. John Fisher and his team are very much about the bigger picture, where the interest, the markets and the investment is focused on global excellence and worldwide partnerships. Quite a change from my days at Preston Polytechnic, but the urgent needs of businesses and the driving need for Britain to always grow its scientific reputation in those intervening decades has transformed academia’s role.
“Often universities build a reputation solely around an academic area, and if that knowledge becomes useful and exploited, then they develop business links. The approach I have taken here, which is now in the process of being taken more widely, is to do what a business would do.
“I wanted to look at the core capability of the knowledge base, the disciplines and the academic bit, but also look at the market opportunity of need, whether that is a clinical, technology or product need.
“Then I do a classical business strategy approach. Where is the market need greatest? Then use that as the focus of the academic capabilities and create a new enterprise very strongly aligned to a market need. This is an essential part of any university’s strategy now, but when lecturer John Fisher joined Leeds in 1988, this was radical thinking and he has played a key role in changing that and perfecting the balance between knowledge and commerce.
The perfect pipeline connecting the two requires an early focus on the end goal. As he says, if you are setting off on a journey, it helps if you know what your intended destination will be, rather than just leaving and not knowing where you might end up.
“It is no coincidence, as a result of how we do things at Leeds, that the vast majority of our graduates have skills that they go on to use in a creative industry. Our starting point is taking in undergraduate students who are here to be educated, but if they stay in a knowledge environment, they will stay in education or research, because they do not necessarily have the right skill sets.”
Crucially, Prof Fisher had worked in aerospace and automotive before he moved to academia, giving him invaluable experience outside the lecture rooms. He then worked in the NHS and founded a couple of companies, but always found that the most fertile ground for creative innovation was the universities.
For Leeds, that innovation comes down to three areas – joint replacement, regenerative devices and stratified and precision medicine. The first is hugely successful, based around that ceramic and metal hip replacement; the second is the biological scaffolding mentioned earlier and driven forwards by Prof Fisher’s founding of the Tissue Regenix company and his work as executive director of Regenr8, another university spinout helping bring regenerative therapies to market.
The third element is part of the future for the sector, and involves making joints to particularly help a section of patients with a common problem. So instead of one hip joint, there would be a range to cover hugely varying types of degeneration. Tailor-made rather than off the shelf.
That work opens up vast markets, from the wealthier areas that are putting a lot of money into healthcare to the poorer regions of the world where the ability to stratify the development process can mean a cheaper version of a joint. Not second-rate healthcare, but care at a substantially reduced cost. It becomes a choice between no provision or provision at a secure level, all of which brings the individual patient right to the fore, ahead of the care provider, as the market moves ahead.
Prof John Fisher is leading – to give 50 years of vitality and freedom to the 50-pluses – is life-changing for thousands upon thousands of patients and for the sector he works in.
But also his approach to that work and the role he has played in moving a university’s line of sight from pure academia towards commercial potential has been pivotal in changing the way universities are viewed hugely increasing their value to the regional and national economy.