Profile - Professor Nicola Spence: Growing concerns that give an academic grounding in business

She's a global authority on botany who wants to bring Chinese investors to Yorkshire. Deputy Business Editor Greg Wright met Professor Nicola Spence, new chief executive of Science City York.

OVER the years I've met entrepreneurs with CVs that would have fitted on a postage stamp.

This isn't because they lacked experience or intellectual depth. It's a reflection of the focus needed to succeed in business, where detailed knowledge of a single sector is often regarded as the highest virtue.

Once a retailer, it seems, always a retailer.

Professor Nicola Spence's CV reflects influences that have taken her from the labs of Yorkshire to the plantations of Africa.

These global ties could help North Yorkshire's hi-tech firms form alliances with Brazilians who want to find "greener" ways of producing fuel.

She is certainly the first chief executive I have met who has worked on projects to halt the spread of bean viruses.

Her expertise in the control of plant disease stems – if you'll pardon the pun – from her MsC in microbiology and PhD in plant virology.

She's a troubleshooter who can stop plant diseases spreading. Tropical crops can be ruined by a single virus, placing hundreds of thousands of people at risk from starvation

In her new role, as chief executive of Science City York, she has the job of bringing the worlds of business and academia together, and as a result, secure investment for North Yorkshire.

Science City York was established in 1998 as a partnership between City of York Council and The University of York to promote North Yorkshire as a centre for innovation.

It became a joint venture company involving the university and the council in 2007, and also receives funding from Yorkshire Forward.

Science City York's previous chief executive, Dr Richard Hutchins, quit his job for personal reasons in September 2007, after only serving for five weeks.

Ms Spence was chosen from 70 applicants to take on the 85,000 a year role in September, and started work yesterday.

The former chief scientist at the York-based Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera) joins at a time when much is expected of Science City York.

Last year, it was announced that up to 700 jobs were expected to be created by 2014 following the European Commission's approval of a 19.7m investment package.

The cash will help to create around 90 businesses and provide support for research which will attempt to turn waste into fuel.

By 2014 the project, led by Science City York in partnership with the University of York and Fera, is also expected to increase the productivity of the region's hi-tech industries by 37m.

Ms Spence said: "Over the last two to three years, I have been developing Fera's links with business and the University of York to build skills and capability in the regional science sector.

"I found that very motivating and stimulating."

In 2009, she decided the time was right to move from a research-based organisation to a more business-focused body.

Ms Spence added: "The role is very much about connecting science and business to deliver growth.

"The potential for growth in the science and technology sector has never been higher."

She will soon be announcing the appointment of three business mentors. Although Ms Spence can't name them, she said they had all got "exciting CVs and experience".

She added: "They will provide specialist services for business growth and innovation."

The business mentors will have full time roles funded by the European Regional Development Fund and Yorkshire Forward. "They will work with smes (small and medium-sized enterprises) in the bioscience, creative, IT and digital sectors,'' she said.

"They are a catalyst to really drive things forward when businesses have reached a point in their development where further growth is limited by resource and capacity issues.

"The aim of the mentors is to enable a higher return on investment and improved market position."

She has high hopes for the Leeds city region, which was recently given unprecedented devolved powers from Whitehall in a bid to combat the economic crisis.

The city region – which is a partnership of 11 Yorkshire councils – became the first in the country to take control of housing, transport, skills and innovation.

"The Leeds City Region Initiative gives us a real opportunity to connect the innovation agenda across the whole region,'' she said. "We also must realise that we have global rivals for business growth.

"People must see that there are exciting things going on here. European and international firms might want to set up a head office here, to be close to the science and technology in the region."

There's no point in trying to attract hi-tech international firms if they've got nowhere to stay.

She added: "It's important that business space is connected to a strong research base, with high-quality lab space available."

She believes York must cash in on its strong scientific reputation.

York was designated as a Science City – along with Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester, Newcastle and Nottingham – by the then Chancellor Gordon Brown in the 2005 Budget.

Ms Spence said: "A delegation from Brazil visited York before Christmas; they were particularly interested in biofuels. The University of York has developed partnerships with Brazil in the biorenewables sector.

"The university and Fera are world class which means we can get high profile leaders from other countries to visit the region.

"The university and Fera have received several delegations from China in the last few months.

"The Chinese are particularly interested in science and technology to support their exports in the food chain, and anything that ensures the quality, authenticity and safety of food.

"The Chinese are keen to work with a UK science base. China is very interested in developing technology locally so they can provide assurances about the quality of their products."

So an academic who protects plants could soon be helping foreign firms to take root in Yorkshire.

Professor Nicola Spence

Title: Chief executive of Science City York

Date of birth: February 22 1961

Education: Bsc in Botany from University of Durham, MsC in Microbiology from Birkbeck College, University of London, PhD in plant virology at University of Birmingham.

Favourite song: Don't You Want Me Baby by the Human League

Favourite holiday destination: Cornwall for surfing and Africa.

Last book read: Alexander McCall Smith The Number One Ladies Detective Agency

Car driven: VW