Enter the cyber woman

Enter the cyber woman

Brian Nicholls talks to Janice Webster, the North East’s ‘Cyber Woman’, and highlights some top achievers of digital technology in the region.

TO call Janice Webster the North East’s “Cyber Woman”, in truth, suggests an automaton, whereas she’s real flesh and blood – dynamic, flexible, highly personable and, away from the keyboards, much into home entertaining, gardening and sewing.

Janice, however, has also been acclaimed the UK’s most enterprising academic. She is founding director of DigitalCity, her pet project over 15 years and one promising to be a major generator of new technologies in the region. Through Teesside University, Tees Valley is growing a reputation for creativity in digital design. Who designed the starring creatures in BBC TV’s Walking with Dinosaurs, special effects for The Matrix films, Lost in Space, Alice in Wonderland and Jason and the Argonauts? Who designed the Aston Martin DBS for Daniel Craig’s debut as James Bond in Casino Royale? Say: “Teesside-inspired people.”

You’ll be spot on. A film by two lecturers there won an international award, too, for best animated film of 2005, beating the Wallace and Grommet blockbuster, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

Judges said their Emily and the Baba Yoga, based on a Russian folk tale, was made meticulously. From now on, Janice’s spadework at DigitalCity will encourage a snowball of attainment not only in entertainment, but many sciences, technologies and businesses.

If Tees Valley has yet to equate with Silicon Valley, it is at least enabling the words “computer science” to stand closer to “process industries” in the lexicon of achievements there.

DigitalCity encourages digital imagery in any business, cultural or medical activity. Janice explains: “It helps you to use very ‘rich’ digital tools for profit and competitive advantage. It is also about innovation and pushing your own boundaries and expectations.”

Janice, accomplished in business also, gained her national honour out of 150 nominees considered by the benchmarkers backed by the Higher Education Funding Council for England. She took the glory back to Teesside University not only as a top academic there, but also as an ex-student of Teesside Poly, as it was then. Born in Ilkeston, Derbyshire, Janice is one of a growing and vital breed in the North East: accomplished both in business and academia.

The DigitalCity she has fostered supports and encourages the electronic ambition of students and young businesses alike. It is expected to enhance the North East’s standing internationally, and especially in innovative uses of computer tools for any discipline – be it design, medicine, sport, therapy, rehabilitation, arts or learning. Her associations with Teesside date from 1974 when she studied 3D and interior architecture to graduate, with first-class honours. Husband Graeme was first head of computing there. He also ran the CAD unit and, in 1978, rose to assistant director of the polytechnic, then deputy.

In 1989, after the reorganisation, he left to spend five years on European Union projects and consultancy. With three PhD students, he researched the development of new visualisation software, especially for computer graphic animation. Janice recalls: “He was also keen to create graphics on the new Apple II computer. So in 1979, while I was an interior design student, he started to create a new programme to help me ‘draw in 3D’. “This was the start to us designing tools. There were none on the market - only 2D draughting and some research in a handful of universities. Ours was a husband-and-wife team with a common desire to create something new.”

Janice had been a mature student from 1978. In 1982 the entrepreneur within sprang out and she set up in business. “I was sole trader, but with technical direction - the essential element – from my husband.” It was fulfilling, but a conflict of commitment – extensive company travel versus parental caring – obliged her to cease running it full-time in 1986. She returned to the poly.

However, one career had furthered the other: “My client base and knowledge was converted into an MSc. I could use my industry contacts for live projects.” It also planted seeds for DigitalCity. As a senior lecturer, meanwhile, she helped set up Teesside’s MSc in computer-aided graphical technology applications (CAGTA).

She headed the Institute of Design then, in 1997, went on to direct the Virtual Reality Centre. From 2002 she was founding director of DigitalCity. Janice also credits the university’s Academic Enterprise team and her own DigitalCity team. But everyone we have spoken to is adamant Janice was prime mover in a varsity/ commercial venture, whose partners include regional development agency One NorthEast, Middlesbrough Council and Tees Valley Unlimited. Colleagues and associates think Janice “larger than life” and “a joy to meet on campus” – eager to enter the spirit of things as when, just a few years ago, she cut a fine figure at the uni’s May Ball in skin-tight leather. She and Graeme are long-settled residents of Yarm, the university having given both “a great career”.

Janice is also a trustee of BALTIC Contemporary Arts Centre and Tees Valley Dance, and a Fellow and committee member of the Royal Society of Arts. Today’s university is five times bigger than the poly she remembers, but, she says: “It is the same friendly place, still innovative to stay up the league tables, still nurturing innovation.”

So what motivates her? “The will to succeed, not giving up when times are tough, and seeing young talents grow and flourish beyond any place I could ever go... as, for example, Andy Lomas. I am also motivated by new products. As a designer, I am interested in inventing the future.” Andy Lomas? He’s the Cambridge graduate who holds from Teesside an MA and one of his MScs. He, besides working in Hollywood, rose to head computer graphics at Europe’s largest visual effects and computer animation studio, created the BBC’s dinosaurs and continues to visit Teesside.

“I was his course leader,” Janice recalls. “We keep in touch. He lectured part-time for me, has helped me find student placements and generally supported Teesside. He’s a friend.” Mare Reichmann, 41, design director of Aston Martin, is the alumnus who researched the latest James Bond car with David Craig. Janice’s successor as institute director, Jim TerKeurst (an American), says: “We aim to rekindle the spirit of enterprise that made Middlesbrough a powerhouse of innovation in the 19th and early 20th Centuries.”

Meanwhile, Janice explores new avenues as a consultant with the university. Still linking talent to DigitalCity Fellowships, she has also brought NHS Innovations and a medical consultant together with the graduate business unit firm Animmersion, run by Sam Harrison and Dominic Lusardi, DigitalCity Fellows in their mid-20s. At a Royal Society of Arts event in February Janice and they presented a new training tool, potentially a world-first. “I still use my network to bring talent together and grow digital companies,” Janice says.

“A cyber education product also allows me to try to reach also young people finding it hard to engage.” When relaxing at their house in central France, the Websters’ only concession to computers is a laptop with no internet access; merely a means to process old slides and help sort and upgrade the best 100 perhaps of 4,000 holiday photos. But Janice, at 66, finds work too interesting to retire. Might she yet spin off a business from her consultancies? “Now there’s an idea...who knows? Maybe I should start a new company.”