Norman's News: Ulster’s new USP - The go-to place for Innovation

Added Tuesday, September 4 2018

This month’s title echoes that of a recent speech by Science Minister Sam Gyimah at the opening of the Schrödinger Building, Oxford Science Park. I recommend reading it here. 

Minister Gyimah posed a question: what could the spirit in which the Oxford Science Park was founded offer for the country as a whole? 

I think his case should have reflected the true origin of Oxford University innovation.

Oxford Instruments was the first university “spin-out” of any substance. An Oxford Professor of Physics, Nicholas Kurti, was an international leading light in the new field of superconductivity. This provided a draw for bright students from across the globe, providing the technology didn’t blow them up. Liquid Helium mishandled, can be effectively a bomb!  Many metals dunked in the stuff, lose all electrical resistance and can carry huge currents and create large magnetic fields. Kurti and his assistant, (later Sir) Martin Woods, discovered, invented and developed a technology and began to offer the results to the world, from their company Oxford Instruments Ltd.

Their magnets led to Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and Oxford Instruments were ready and able to develop magnets that could be placed safely in hospitals anywhere. Oxford Instruments went public and became part of the FTSE 250, with an appetite for acquiring other tech companies including QUB’s Andor in 2013.

With the cash that Sir Martin and Lady Woods made from the IPO they, among other things, founded a number of Innovation Centres and The Oxford Trust to encourage and facilitate the study, application and communication of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, with programmes running across three key objectives – the 3Es:

Enterprise – To support economic growth by encouraging innovation.

Education – To inspire young people about science, technology, engineering and maths.

Engagement – To encourage people of all ages to engage with how scientific research impacts their lives.

Only after all that did the University and the College respond to add their weight to the growing trend for university spinouts, with the university science park. 

The Oxford Trust’s first CEO, Paul Bradstock OBE DL, was on the Board of the NI Science Park for many years and added his influence as we evolved into Catalyst Inc!

The minister concluded, “By drawing on our national strengths of openness, entrepreneurship and strong institutions, we can make the UK a true platform for innovation. This in turn will help establish the UK’s place in the world, and our future prosperity.”

I agree! I note two things however:

  • This was the one and only mention of the UK; and
  • That the “Golden Triangle”, the unofficial grouping of elite universities located in the cities of Cambridge, London and Oxford, consumes possibly hundreds of times the research money that is available to NI universities.

Yet if I compare our outcomes I don’t see that same ratio. Catalyst Inc is similar in size to Oxford Science Park despite the smaller investment and includes the role of the Oxford Trust. In addition, QUB and UU companies are growing strongly with influence across the world.

I trust therefore that when the Minister’s new joint agency, UKRI, reviews the Haldane Principle, a long lived axiom that ensures equity in the funding of UK Science, including the devolved nations, it takes account also of who uses it best!

Could do better Minister, I think, but there’s a big prize waiting for getting it right!

CEO Catalyst Inc, Dr Norman Apsley OBE

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