A rich seam of innovation

April 23, 2020


The Catalyst building, on Newcastle’s flagship £350 million Helix science and technology development, is driving next-generation ageing and data analytics work. Steven Hugill finds out more about how The Catalyst will bolster the region’s reputation as an international innovation capital

Where coal once sustained a revolution in British industry, the former mine site – which was turned into a Scottish and Newcastle Breweries’ bottling plant when excavations ended – is now home to highly-skilled workers marshalling an industrial evolution of their own.

The flagship £350 million Helix development, set close to St James’ Park football ground in the heart of Newcastle city centre, is positioning the North East as a world-leading hub for innovation.

Drawing together academia, business and the private and public sectors, and led by Newcastle City Council, Newcastle University and investor Legal & General, the scheme includes The Catalyst.

The ground-breaking building houses the National Innovation Centre for Ageing (NICA) and the National Innovation Centre for Data (NICD) and is a hotbed for collaboration.

The Catalyst is fundamental to the UK’s drive in becoming a global leader across the ageing and data-related advances of tomorrow and also hosts the National Institute for Health Research Innovation Observatory.

NICA, founded in 2014 with a £40 million investment from the Government and Newcastle University, brings together internationally-renowned experts, scientists, industry and the public – including the VOICE network, which gathers members’ experiences to shape innovation – to develop new products and services capable of improving life for ageing societies.

“The Catalyst is like an opera house,” enthuses NICA director Nic Palmarini. “On the inside, we are building the innovation that creates different symphonies and a beautiful concert for the outside.

“What we are doing will put Newcastle on the map globally,” adds Nic, who reveals the centre will use data to better analyse areas such as how homes can be adapted to meet owners’ changing needs.

“Insight is very important and emerging technologies will help us – we want to connect the invisible dots out there.”

Nic previously played a key role in the advancement of artificial intelligence at the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab. He says NICA will also significantly bolster the North East’s employment landscape.

“We are creating the roots for something that will attract people and help them stay,” he adds.

The work of fellow Catalyst operator NICD will further ensure the UK, and its economy, flourishes in the global marketplace.

Addressing a shortage of skills in data analytics, the centre is introducing businesses to new innovation and working practices through data science to help launch products and services.

It is supporting organisations with free Discovery Workshops to solve data-related problems and helping to develop an innovation ecosystem aimed at driving strong commercial collaboration to help companies counter challenges and identify opportunities.

“Companies are collecting lots of data and effectively building libraries, but nobody is reading the books,” says NICD director Steve Caughey.

“Our work will help them understand clients and customers better, so they can tailor products and services to their needs.

“By collaborating with businesses and giving people necessary skills, we are helping them solve immediate problems and helping management see the value of reinvestment into data analysis for longterm success,” continues Steve.

“By building a critical mass of skills and innovation, we will increase data insight and become more and more attractive to individuals and businesses.

“Our work is making us more competitive than other regions in the UK and other countries around the world.”

Professor Jane Robinson, Newcastle University’s dean of engagement and place, says the great advantage of Helix and The Catalyst is their position as living laboratories, which means projects and experiments can run at scale in real-time to reduce the gap between research and commercialisation.

“Quite a lot of cities and universities have science parks, but Helix is unique,” she says.

“It is the only one of its kind in the UK and places the region at the cutting-edge of innovation and sustainability.

“Ageing and data are key growth areas for the economy. In terms of innovation at The Catalyst, it brings huge opportunities to bring investment and jobs to the region,” continues Professor Robinson.

“We already have some fabulous companies and a lot more are looking to invest here – the creation of the ecosystem of Helix and The Catalyst will really help catalyse the area.”

Michelle Percy, director of place at Newcastle City Council, concurs, saying The Catalyst will build on the North East’s innovative spirit and global links.

“We’ve always had innovation in our DNA; we sent coal around the world as a little dot on a map and did the same with the railways,” she says.

“Here, we are doing the exact same thing in the digital era – we are working with data and research to inform a worldwide stage.

“However, we cannot be complacent. It would be easy to say, ‘we’ve done it,’ but we have to get collaboration into the building and drive growth,” continues Michelle.

“Our role is also to ensure people understand the world-class things that are happening in The Catalyst.

“If people can see the astonishing work taking place on their doorstep, they’ll think, ‘this is for me, I can work here.’”

For more information, visit www.thecatalystnewcastle.co.uk