Innovate or die 

October 3, 2016

Hans Möller was interviewed by a Swedish journalist just after he relocated to the UK to take up the position of innovation director for the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP). He was asked what he would like to see happen in 2016.

Han’s reply was threefold: he wanted the UK to remain in the EU, the North East to secure a devolution deal and for Newcastle United to stay in the Premiership.

Instead, the Magpies were relegated to the Championship in May, the UK voted to leave the EU (with 11 out of 12 electoral areas within the North East LEP’s locality choosing Brexit) in June, and as of last month, four local authorities rejected the proposed devolution conditions leading the Government to announced that the North East deal was “off the table”.

Hans admits that he is dismayed by the three outcomes and that all three have made his job more challenging.

Brexit spells the end of European funding which has helped the North East LEP and its partners deliver a number of key projects that promote open innovation in the region.

The devolution deal also promised more local decision making (and £30 million a year funding), which Hans saw as an opportunity for the LEP to deliver more bespoke innovation projects.

Even Newcastle United’s relegation, he insists, makes an impact on the LEP’s work which, in part, looks to promote the strengths of the region internationally.

“Football is a brand and it can help a place get recognised around the world,” says Hans. “I admit that I knew about Newcastle and Sunderland before I arrived here, but I’d never heard of Gateshead because it didn’t have a top tier football team.”

Hans moved from his native Sweden in 2015 after he was headhunted for the North East LEP position.

Previous to this, he was a successful tech entrepreneur and had spent the previous 12 years as chief executive of Sweden’s Ideon Science Park, the largest of its kind in Scandinavia.

It was at Ideon Science Park where Hans met Roy Sandbach, a member of the North East LEP’s Innovation Board who had been invited to talk at the facility. Afterwards, the pair spoke at length about the North East LEP and how it formed a key driver to the partnership’s Strategic Economic Plan.

A few months later, Hans received a phone call asking if he would be interested in the position of innovation director.

He reflects: “I was 57 years old and had never lived outside Sweden, despite working for a number of international companies. My children are grown up, but with no children of their own yet, so my wife and I decided now was the ideal time to try something new.”

In taking the role, Hans would be responsible for taking the LEP’s innovation plan from strategy to delivery.

He is supported by a small in-house team, the Innovation Board (a mix of local authority and private and public sector representatives), as well as a range of public and private sector partners.

The North East LEP highlights four sectors – known as its Smart Specialisation – where the region has an international reputation, a strong skills and research base and the capacity to innovate. These are passenger vehicle manufacturing, subsea and offshore technology, life sciences and health, and creative, digital, software and technology-based services.

Hans was challenged with developing a supportive environment, focused on these Smart Specialism areas, where people can innovate effectively.

“Innovation could be an idea, a new product, a new service or a new business model. But you have to bring this to market – if not, it stays an idea. By creating an innovation ecosystem, you are creating the capacity and capability to support people’s fantastic ideas.”

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Hans maintains that the best ways to encourage innovation are through science parks (the North East currently has one – NETPark) and incubator programmes, and Hans and the LEP are currently in the process of helping to bring more sector specific incubators to the region.

University spin-outs are another area of interest to Hans and the team is looking at how the region’s universities can increase the number of spin-offs it produces.

Collaboration is a key focus for the North East LEP and this summer the innovation team supported VentureFest in creating The Innovation SuperNetwork, which enables sectors to connect and support business-to-business collaboration through a programme of conferences, seminars and workshops.

Hans also highlights the LEP’s work in bringing the £30 million National Institute for Smart Data Innovation (NISDI) to the region, working with tech network Dynamo, Newcastle University, Newcastle City Council and a number of private companies together to create the successful bid to Government for the £30 million facility, which was announced in March.

The Innovation team is also working on a number of new projects currently awaiting approval from the North East LEP board. One such project, in collaboration with Durham University, is The Innovation Observatory, which looks to put a lens on the innovation activity in the North East, track what’s happening and identify what kind of business models work well in the global market.

Engaging in innovation, Hans says, will help keep the North East’s competitive advantage on an international stage, especially in its Smart Specialisation areas. This, in turn, will help create new jobs and potentially new industries.

Failure to innovate, Hans warns, could spell disaster for the region.

“If we don’t innovate, we lose ground on our international neighbours which places huge strain on industry and jobs.

“Put bluntly,” he says, “it’s innovate or die.”

As our interview comes to a close, I ask Hans what he would like to see happen in 2017.

“The Government has to be clear about how it is going to replace the European funding after Brexit,” he replies. “Also, I still haven’t given up on devolution and I’m hoping the region can still secure some kind of deal – although clearly this going to take longer now.

“In both instances,” Hans reflects, “the role of the North East LEP is now more important than ever.

“Of course,” he ends with a smile, “I also want Newcastle United back in the Premiership, alongside Sunderland and Middlesbrough.”

Hopefully for Hans, he will have better luck with these latest predictions.

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