Professor Liz Towns-Andrews has brought together two worlds and created an innovation centre that others are now copying. She spoke to business reporter, Ismail Mulla.
There is a perceived faultline between business and academia with the two often seen to be at add odds with one another.
However, Professor Liz Towns-Andrews has spent the past decade or so proving that that simply need not be the case.
The CEO of the 3M Buckley Innovation Centre (3M BIC) in Huddersfield left the executive board of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) in 2009 to work on a blank canvas that would allow her to act at the interface with industry.
Professor Towns-Andrews said: “When I came to Huddersfield it was like a golden opportunity because the university had strategic plans to grow its research activity and its business engagement.
“I was able to combine both aspects and that’s where the 3M BIC came from.”
The aim of 3M BIC was to become the front door for businesses wanting to engage with Huddersfield University.
Professor Towns-Andrews was keen on adopting a “spin in” model whereby businesses move in and work with the university in a collaborative fashion.
The centre offers small firms, that otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford it, access to technology such as 3D printers and virtual reality kits.
3M BIC is celebrating its fifth anniversary and is home to success stories such as videogame developer Red Kite Games.
The move to Huddersfield University almost didn’t happen for Professor Towns-Andrews. When an academic friend of hers floated the idea of joining the university she was already at, what she considered to be, the peak of industry.
She “half-heartedly” tweaked her CV and was surprised to find that she had been shortlisted for an interview.
“I’d never been to Huddersfield before but I just loved the atmosphere of the university, the ambitions that it had,” Professor Towns-Andrews said. Prior to joining Huddersfield University as director of research and enterprise and as boss of the 3M BIC, Professor Towns-Andrews had already forged a reputation for herself at the cutting edge of science.
She has a PHD in chemistry. Spent time at a national lab, where she worked on a synchotron, a large, high powered x-ray machine. Professor Towns-Andrews said: “I built beamlines and did a lot of research. I supported academics for many many years. Then I moved within that organisation to act at the interface with industry. There was a big drive to get industrial engagement in these large facilities.”
Selling this cutting edge tech to businesses turned out to be hard, says Professor Towns-Andrews, but it worked and she got more involved with business.
Her interest in bringing benefits of scientific research to business was sparked in the late 1990s.
“I was still at a stage in my career which way I wanted to go,” she says. “I didn’t know whether I wanted to become just an academic researcher or a manager.”
Professor Towns-Andrews decided to do an MBA to get a better understanding of management and broaden her understanding of industry so if she decided to move away from science, she’d be more employable.
“But the MBA in fact changed the whole way I thought about the job I was doing because I was networking with people in business as well,” Professor Towns-Andrews says.
She added: “It made me understand better the world of business and it just started from there. The MBA was a massive turning point for me.”
Liz Towns-Andrews’s father Len Towns has been a big influence on her career and was the reason she became interested in science.
She said: “I’m an only child and my dad was an engineer. He had his own small company. He fueled my interest in science.
“Although he’d never been to university and was self-trained he was a very clever man.
“I was the first person in our family to go to university and my parents were really, really supportive but initially the inspiration came from my dad who got me interested in science.”
Professor Towns-Andrews says she decided to keep her maiden name after she got married for two reasons. The first was because she didn’t want to lose her burgeoning research identity especially as she was in a male dominated field.
“I was just getting my research career recognised,” she says. “I was publishing papers with my maiden name and I would have suddenly lost my identity.” She also wanted to keep the Towns name because of how proud she was of her dad.
The ironic thing is Professor Towns-Andrews may never have taken the role at Huddersfield University if he had been still alive. He died a year before she took the post in 2009.
She says: “He would have thought I was mad. I was on the executive of a very big organisation. I was in a very senior role. In his eyes, I’d already made it so why would I jump into something that was a new world for me.”
A decade on Professor Towns-Andrews has a Queen’s Award for Enterprise Promotion, she is an inspiration for women in science and 3M BIC is gaining attention across the country.
“The sad thing is that my father died in 2008 and I moved here in 2009 and he’s not been around to see the achievements,” Professor Towns-Andrews said. “If he was here now he would be so proud,” she added.
Looking to the future Professor Towns-Andrews ponders what her next goal is. “What do I hope to achieve? I’ve actually achieved it. It is how I envisaged 3M BIC. The word is getting out more and more. Other universities are copying the model. What I want to do is now move on to the next thing.”
That next thing is “grow on space” to enable the centre to keep growing business.
“What we don’t want to do is lose the businesses that we’ve supported to other regions,” she says. “We want to keep them here to grow the economy.”
She also wants to develop a model factory. “I want to create something that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the UK,” Professor Towns-Andrews says. “I did it with the 3M BIC, that’s now being started to be copied, and I just want to do something new again before I retire.”
Title: CEO of the 3M Buckley Innovation Centre and director of research and enterprise at the University of Huddersfield
Date of birth: December 8, 1958
Favourite holiday destination: Greenland
Last book read: Robert Galbraith – Lethal White
Favourite film: The Full Monty
Favourite song: Proud by Heather Small
Car driven: Mercedes SL
Most proud of: Receiving the Queens Award for Enterprise Promotion
Education: Tapton House Grammar school Chesterfield, BSc and PhD Sheffield University, MBA Open University.