Interview with our CEO Peter Birkett
Tue 25th November 2014
For our 1,000th tweet, we wanted to find something that captures what makes the Science Park so special! This great interview with our CEO, Peter Birkett, from the Winter 2013 edition of the Southampton Science Park Newsletter does that perfectly...
Tell us about your background and how your past experience helps you in your role today? I’m a physicist at heart. My first role was as a research scientist for the Royal Aircraft Establishment before working for QinetiQ, the global experts in defence, aerospace and security, whose scientists and engineers are involved in world-class research and innovation. During the time I was working at QinetiQ, opportunities emerged to set up business ventures, exploiting leading edge technology. Having become increasingly interested in entrepreneurship, I grasped this opportunity and set up a flight simulator company with two business partners, capitalising on emerging developments in commercial-off-the-shelf technology and changes in regulation. This provided me with invaluable experience in all the disciplines you need to start and run a business. It’s this combination of a scientific background coupled with commercial experience which is proving invaluable to me today. I understand a lot of what the companies here are going through as they build their businesses, and can offer empathetic support to early stage businesses on the Park.
In your opinion, what is the key to encouraging growth in the science and technology industries? Firstly, of all the elements that contribute to growth, there’s got to be a good business idea. Science Park company SEaB’s MuckBuster® is a great example of this: anaerobic digestion was already a well-established technology but by putting it into a shipping container,
they’ve created opportunities in a whole range of new markets. Often people are overly focused on the technology but I think it’s always easier to make the technology a little bit better than it is to start selling it. It’s only by going out and engaging the market that you figure out what people really want and work to meet their needs. Business incubators like SETsquared, with whom we
work closely, are very effective at helping to accelerate good business ideas and technology through support, access to funding, and networking. They will often help to recruit people if there’s a need for additional skills and have a real ability to think on a global scale. These are all essential tools for growth.
There seem to be clusters of industry sectors emerging here. Why is this, do you think? Fundamentally, clusters aren’t made - they evolve, to a certain extent, of their own volition. The trick is to recognise when you have a cluster and encourage people to work together to play to their collective strengths. However, why these clusters form in the first place varies considerably. For example, I think the look and feel of the Science Park, and the fact that we’ve just introduced a new sustainability policy and are actively engaged in trying to reduce our carbon footprint, appeals to Cleantech companies. Increasingly, I’m beginning to see more enquiries from marine companies too and that’s largely to do with the new collaboration between the Southampton Marine and Maritime Institute and Lloyds Register whose headquarters are being built just down the road from the Science Park.
There’s a clear emphasis on community and support - was this intentional and how have businesses here benefited? Yes, it’s been an active part of our strategy to develop business support and community aspects. Accommodation is only part of the picture. What makes us different is the real sense of community that we have here. An environment where businesses can really support one another, where we have start-ups rubbing shoulders with multinationals. Introducing the coffee shop and social club are great examples of how we’ve enhanced community aspects over the last few years and it’s been really interesting to hear how companies have benefitted. I’ve heard so many stories of people who have had conversations in the coffee shop queue or at one of our networking events, and out of those conversations have come new business relationships, growth opportunities and knowledge sharing. One event we are particularly proud of is the hugely successful CEO breakfasts, where movers and shakers meet under the Chatham House rule. Perhaps, more than anything, this has resulted in people getting to know and share ideas with other businesses on the Park, in a way they hadn’t before.
What excites you about the future of the science and tech industries? Seeing how different technologies are being combined to bring about new business opportunities is very exciting. It’s interesting to see the way that ICT, medicine and Bio-Tech have come together in recent years with the development of telemedicine for example. I also love to see technology being used in a novel way to solve real world problems and I’ve been particularly interested in the evolution of environmentally focused companies. It’s been very inspiring to watch i2O Water, another Park company, grow from a start-up to become a major force in their market. Their use of intelligent systems to manage water pressures in a distributed network is inspiring.
What has been the highlight of your time at the Science Park so far? I think I would say the Catalyst Centre initiative, created to offer mentoring, business support and free accommodation by way of a competition for entrepreneurs. It was a completely new concept and we didn’t know how well it would work. Now, I can honestly say it’s been energising to engage with motivated people who are starting businesses and be able to facilitate their growth plans – the sheer buzz of sharing their excitement as they win grants, funding and new customer contracts is extremely rewarding.
Looking ahead now, tell us about your vision for the future of the Science Park. Looking to the future there are lots of things I envision! In the medium term, there are various ideas regarding accommodation such as the completion of Benham Campus and opportunities around the University’s engineering site, right in the centre of the Park, which I aspire to do something about! We’ve got further planning permission for another building at the entrance of the Park and various other options for expansion too. However, high quality accommodation is a given, so fundamentally we will continue to focus on how we can best help nurture companies. The exciting bit, and the bit that proves elusive for many looking to build innovation centres, is how you create a really effective entrepreneurial community and business support environment. We think we understand the essentials of this and look forward to developing our ideas.
And finally, what’s the one piece of advice you would give to an aspiring entrepreneur? It’s got to be: engage with your market early. That way, you begin to know very early on whether there’s a real demand for your product or service.