The Interview with Ian Dunn

Fri 21st July 2017

Ian Dunn is the Chief Operating Officer of the University of Southampton and Chairman of the Science Park. Here he talks about what makes both successful and outlines his vision for the future.

Ian, you’re a Southampton graduate and since then, you’ve had a varied career and travelled the world: what brought you back to the South Coast? I am delighted to be back in Southampton. The scale of the University, its breadth and the challenges we face are considerable and I’m positive that the University and its Science Park play a powerful, encompassing role in society. I hope to play a part in growing this impact going forward. 
I believe there’s potential for students to benefit from a lifelong engagement with the University: a journey that takes them from student to alumni to advanced research and into employment or entrepreneurship. It all begins here and it’s underpinned by quality every step of the way.

Your role means that you work across the academic and business spectrum. Is it a challenge to reconcile the two, quite different, cultures? Historically yes, and that’s something I’d like to work on. It’s all about encouraging everyone to look over the fence at what’s going on on the other side, recognising what different parties bring to the table. Collegiality means just that; we need to be better at finding the best ways of working to implement the University strategy. With regard to our entrepreneurial activity, we can work to help our academics better understand the value of their work in a commercial setting and consider how they might advance their work, attract investment, price it and take it to market. At the same time business leaders should consider taking a longer term, more holistic view of the power of high quality research.

Can you explain more? There’s a vast spectrum of research carried out here at Southampton. This encompasses work that can lead to early commercial adoption in the short-mid-term as well as blue sky thinking; the lengthier, riskier research that may or may not lead to academic or commercial breakthroughs.

Financial pressures often lead entrepreneurs to concentrate their efforts on the former, what can be delivered in the shortest possible timeframe to reduce risk and achieve a faster return on investment. However, it is often the more intangible blue sky thinking that has the potential to become real game changers in society. In the US and China they take this longer-term view and it has, for example, led to fundamentally new ways of working. 
This happens less in the UK. I’d like to see that change though greater funding and more robust policy frameworks. The Science Park could play a bigger part in this too.

The Science Park is home to Catalyst and SETsquared, highly successful incubators for early stage businesses. What advice would you give to academics considering starting up in business? First, recognise how hard it’s going to be. Secondly, don’t be too proud to ask the ‘stupid’ questions. Thirdly, engage with as many people from the commercial sector as you can. It is easy to fall into the trap of believing that the research derived intellectual property/idea/concept is the only part that matters. It is very important but successful businesses are true systems and all pertinent skills need to be brought together – finance, marketing, legal, sales etc.

Southampton is very strong when it comes to taking pure research and applying it in a commercial environment and this is where real value lies. Overall, the University contributes £2.5bn GVA (Gross Value Added) to the UK economy and our Science Park is a core part of delivering this impact – it is a real asset.

That said, the devolved nature of the University structure creates challenges in the journey from pure research to commercialisation and I believe there’s a need to create closer links between our various research faculties and the Science Park to increase this value add.

How can this be achieved? Communication is at the heart of it: we must grow awareness of, and celebrate our success stories across the whole campus and we’re not doing enough of this. I think there are a lot of students – perhaps even staff – here that don’t know the Science Park exists.

The Science Park should be one of the first ports of call for students and researchers looking for their next step, for mentoring, for support with enhancing their employability and for help developing their ideas. Equally, the Science Park must be fast to respond with appropriate, effective solutions. Language plays a very important role in these communications: it can limit us or it can help the debate. There seems to be a societal shift at present towards independence vs establishment with students leading this challenge, so we must find a language to engage with them in a meaningful way.

The second thing, and this might sound obvious, is that we need to reduce the distance between the University campus and the Science Park. It’s only 1.8 miles but it can seem a bridge too far in some ways. This needs looking at, both physically and culturally.

What’s your vision for the future? There are three key themes from our strategy and they really are relevant: quality, collegiality and financial sustainability. Quality is the key in every aspect: how we teach, the research we undertake, how we choose to take it to market. If we are truly a quality organisation everything else will follow.

Our recent success in securing a £300m bond was a real demonstration that markets see strength and potential in our breadth of activities and capabilities at the University. The Science Park was a key part of our presentation for this funding success and this capital now underpins our financial sustainability.

The Science Park plays an important role in the delivery of this strategic direction in terms of collegiality and community too. Tenants based there need to be aware of what’s happening down the road and students and researchers equally need to know how their employability and future success could be enhanced by forging a greater relationship with businesses in Chilworth.