A new innovation hub could place Leeds University in the same class as leading centres of learning in the US. Deputy Business Editor Greg Wright met Dr Martin Stow.
EAVESDROPPING on conversations in coffee shops can lead to unexpected commercial opportunities. Dr Martin Stow was engaged in an animated conversation about his latest venture, Nexus, the University of Leeds’s new innovation hub, as he queued up for a coffee.
As he prepared to leave, he was approached by a stranger – Paul Hallett, the co-founder of Vet AI, a company that aims to use technology to improve pet care. Mr Hallett had been so inspired by what he had overheard that he wanted to see if he could join Nexus. This conversation may well lead to a long-term link between Mr Hallett and the new innovation centre.
There’s no doubt that Mr Stow’s enthusiasm for Nexus is infectious. Over time, he believes it could lead to the creation of an enterprise hub that rivals anything in the US. Nexus, which is due to open in May, will serve as a gateway for business leaders of the future, who want to access the university’s academic expertise.
Based inside a new £40m building on the university campus, Nexus will include office and lab space, along with meeting facilities.
Mr Stow is a biochemist with a first class honours degree and a Phd from the University of York. He has spent 25 years in senior research and development roles within the healthcare and life sciences industries.
He understands how technology and research-driven businesses work at every level. He’s a former vice president for research and development at Johnson & Johnson and has also served as the CEO of a technology-led start-up.
“My vision is around making it easy for businesses to connect with the university, so they can access the world class skills and expertise that we have here,” he said. “The bigger picture is around how we can grow the economy from a regional perspective and use Nexus as a catalyst to do that.
“This all about how we ensure that the capabilities of the university can be used to initiate and to grow companies. One of the statistics I like to quote is that only four per cent of the innovation active businesses in the UK are actually working in any shape or form with the universities.”
Mr Stow believes Nexus can help to reverse this depressing trend.
He said: “Let’s use that expertise, knowledge and skills to really equip and drive the regional economy.”
Mr Stow has an engagement team who will be the first point of contact for firms who want to work with the university.
He added: “They will build up a relationship with the business and they will start to understand their needs. They will then translate those needs and broker a service. They will oversee a relationship and develop that relationship between the business and the university.”
Mr Stow believes the new Nexus complex will act as an enabler and a facilitator.
He said: “It will only work with companies that have high growth potential and are innovative and want to work with the university in areas of our strengths. We’re looking for tenants who meet that criteria. We have to bring value and competitive advantage to companies, so we are screening them quite carefully.
“The building is very much a facilitator for those long-term partnerships. We have an events and seminar networking space. There’s a lot of co-working space, a cafe and a business lounge to encourage informal interactions between entrepreneurs, academics and business people to ensure they can spark new ideas.”
Mr Stow added: “The events and the workshops won’t just add value to the community, it will add value to the broader region as well.
“It allows us to showcase expertise that the university has, and showcase the new initiatives, like the high speed rail initiative. But the events will add value and help companies grow and allow SMEs to scale up.”
Leeds University already has a strong track record in developing spin-outs, with companies such as Tracsis, the transport software provider, going on to achieve success in the wider corporate world.
Mr Stow said: “The University of Leeds has six spin outs which are listed on the AIM (Alternative Investment) market, which is more than any other university in the UK.”
But Mr Stow wants to make a “step change” and dramatically increase this number.
“I see Nexus and the whole business engagement framework as an important element of making sure that happens.”
Another major headache for small firms is the lack of ‘grow-on’ space. If a small firm can’t find a larger base as it expands, there is a danger it will leave the region. Mr Stow believes there is scope to solve this problem through collaboration.
He added: “Grow-on space becomes really important to keep that company within the region. We are looking at a number of opportunities at the moment, working with a number of partners.
“There’s a passion and a desire from people in Yorkshire to make things happen, regardless of the external environment. They are going to make their business successful. Putting Leeds on the map, is really important.”
He said big corporate names who arrived in Leeds were staggered by what the city has to offer.
He added: “We’ve got a thriving, dynamic economy but also a really strong quality of life. We need to promote ourselves more to make sure that message gets out.”
Nexus has joined forces with professional services firm KPMG which is bringing its business expertise to the university’s start-up community.
Mr Stow said: “All the key stakeholders are in this for the long term.
“I would love us to become the benchmark in the UK, where people say, ‘What they are doing at Leeds is a great model in terms of how universities work with businesses’.
“We can become best in class. I look at how MIT (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and Stanford and other US universities do this and I would love to get that type of reputation for the University of Leeds.
“That is not going to happen in two or three years, but that is how large and how grand the vision is.”