Meet the boss who aims to help East Yorkshire's economy hit new heights

Debra Leeves aims to help East Yorkshire’s economy reach new heights as she takes on a leading role with the Institute of Directors , writes Deputy Business Editor Greg Wright.

Debra Leeves
Debra Leeves

Career opportunities can emerge in strange places.

As her phone rang in the airport lounge, Debra Leeves would never have guessed that she was about to start a conversation that would change her life. Her mind had been focused on a move across the Atlantic, but the pull of her home city was to prove too strong.

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“I was working in Zurich and my remit as CEO was to grow a medical technology company, turn it around and then sell it,’’ she recalled.

“I was in Zurich airport waiting for my weekend flight home to the UK, and contemplating my next role. I had already been offered a position in the US when I received a call from a recruiter. They told me there was a job going in the North of England.”

Intrigued by the expression of interest, Ms Leeves wanted to find out where the company was based, Initially, the recruiter was a little coy.

“They finally revealed it was in a place called Hull. They feared I might not be interested because of the location. I told them I was very interested. I was born there.”

Ms Leeves’ pride in her birthplace is reflected in her decision to lead the Institute of Directors’ East Yorkshire branch, where she aims to reach out to new members who might have assumed the IoD was not for them.

The job she accepted in Hull - as chief executive of Vertual, a technology spin-out from the University of Hull - places her at the forefront of innovation in a region which is both outward looking and fiercely self reliant. The former pupil of Wolfreton School has had a remarkable career journey.

She has worked in technology, biotechnology and pharmaceuticals for 25 years, managing companies in the US, Middle East and Europe. Ms Leeves currently sits on the board of AIM-listed technology company Cambridge Cognition, which reflects her national significance. But her prime focus is on East Yorkshire.

“The region has an abundance of successful entrepreneurs and self-made business leaders with a strong presence in energy, manufacturing and engineering, technology and digital, agri-foods and bio-renewables, as well as ports and logistics,’’ she said.

“I want to ensure that, in the post-pandemic world, all directors are as prepared as they can be to trade and accelerate their business operations.

“My aims are to help shape the IoD agenda and make it relevant to all directors in the region while promoting East Yorkshire to the wider IoD community and government policy makers.”

“I want to encourage more directors into the IoD,’’ she said. “It is sometimes only associated with London and the south east, but the IoD has many facets to it. This region is so diverse. Hull and East Yorkshire has more young entrepreneurs than anywhere else outside London.”

The person who had the biggest impact on her career was her late mother, Heather Brown.

She encouraged her daughter to put herself forward to be head girl of Wolfreton School, in Willerby and also urged her to apply to go to university to study pharmacy. Later, Heather supported Ms Leeves’ decision to seek career opportunities in London.

Ms Leeves said: “ I hope she would have been proud of what I have achieved in my career and the return to my roots.

"Having come through the ranks, I know female directors are still in a minority,’’ she added.

“I want to encourage more women to become directors and see policy developed which is relevant to this region.”

Since returning to Hull, she has become aware of the powerful sense of community in the city.

“There’s a real sense that we are all in it together and will help each other to become successful,’’ she said. “Most of the staff at Vertual went to school and university in Hull.

“There are a lot of talented graduates in this region and some fabulous technology businesses. I would like to see East Yorkshire as the tech region of the North. Hull and the Humber businesses can make a massive difference in terms of tackling climate change. Renewable energy is a massive industry which is going to get even bigger. The region has the talent and capacity to lead the way.”

The company Ms Leeves leads - Vertual- is working on a pipeline of new products. It develops virtual reality training systems for students, radiation therapists and physicists.

“Our software puts the student in a 3D setting, to help them visualise how they would treat a patient or detect a cancerous tumour, so they don’t have to rely solely on textbooks,’’ she said. “The software tricks the brain to make the student feel they are really in the treatment room using radiotherapy equipment.

“We believe we can expand the product portfolio to help train more healthcare professionals, such as nurses and medics. We started with nine staff and we now have 20.

“We are looking to expand further by hiring software developers and commercial people over the next three years. We already sell to 34 countries. Nearly all of our software developers have come out of the University of Hull.”

Although her career development took her overseas, she never lost sight of where she came from.

“I remember watching Hull on the news in Zurich when it was the UK city of culture.’’ Ms Leeves said.

“I felt so proud of my home city. A lot of people have taken jobs in Hull or studied at the university and never left. It’s an excellent place to build a business.”

It seems the years she spent globe-trotting were merely a prelude to a triumphant homecoming.

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