Plugging into the right support

May 1, 2019

RTC North has worked with thousands of companies and individuals as a trusted partner on their innovation journeys. Now celebrating its 30th anniversary, managing director Jamie Ollivere tells Steven Hugill why the Sunderland-based organisation’s desire to support others in a continually changing world remains undimmed

“Here it is,” says Jamie Ollivere, bending down to reach for something obscured by assorted storage boxes.

“I brought it in for the guys in the office to see, they thought it was fantastic.”

As he gets to his feet, Jamie is holding a bulky silver object.

In his arms is the incongruously titled Tandy Micro Computer II, a 1980s programming pioneer complete with keyboard and brown box of floppy disks.

Formerly used by his father, Gordon Ollivere, it is a wonderful vestige of our technological past. It was on this electronic artefact that RTC North was kickstarted into life.

What once began as a venture led by Gordon is this year celebrating its 30th anniversary as one of the UK’s most successful independent technology transfer companies.

RTC North was one of 12 Regional Technology Centres established around the country from a Government initiative to help manufacturers develop new products and services by accessing expertise within regional universities.

While others have failed to adapt to self- financing status over the years, RTC North has grown steadily into its current position as a trusted and long-established business support organisation on a regional, national and international level.

Specialising in the commercialisation of new products and services, the organisation works with individuals, businesses and the public sector to help create more innovative and vibrant economies. Supporting partners at regional, national and European level, it is a lead UK partner in the worlds’ largest business support network – Enterprise Europe Network – and has established relationships with partners in Asia and North and South America.

It has worked with more than 15,000 companies, helped client’s access in excess of £200 million
for research and development, trained over 5000 individuals and supported the commercialisation of 140 products.

And, over the course of the next three years, it expects to work with at least another 2000 companies.

“Essentially, we work with the business support ecosystem and help plug companies into the right kinds of support at the right time, delivering programmes that reflect a national initiative,” Jamie explains.

“I have always liked to think of us as being an honest broker, where companies can come and get impartial advice.

“We are not trying to sell anyone anything, that is not our remit.

“I’m proud of the number of companies and individuals we have worked with but, moreover, as a mission-led business, I’m delighted of the role we play.

“Not being purely commercially driven means businesses can come to us for high-quality, impartial support and, where appropriate, referrals to our networks in the UK and around the world.

“We work closely with the Local Enterprise Partnerships and nationally with Government departments, and our priority is helping companies understand their core skills sets, their target customers and their unmet needs.

“Part of our longevity is that when we pitch for projects, whoever is contracting us know they are getting an organisation that is delivering for the right reasons.”

So where does that old Tandy Micro Computer II fit into the story?

The answer, reveals Jamie, involves an African odyssey.

The son of an Army medic, Gordon came to the North East and studied geography at university in Newcastle in the 1960s.

“He met my mother, who was from a very North Eastern coal mining family from Thornley, County Durham, and became really attached to the region,” says Jamie.

However, before laying serious foundations, the couple swapped the North East of England for the north east of Nigeria, and Sierra Leone too, working as teachers in the 1970s.

It was only when they returned that Gordon, whose grandfather Peter Goudie was the trusted right-hand man of British newspaper and publishing magnate Lord Northcliffe, began to crystallise what would become RTC North.

“He then bought a big, old computer and started doing consultancy, writing simple programmes for North East manufacturers. Some of the earliest companies he worked for have stayed and grown and we have known them for 30 years.

“At the Hawthorn Leslie shipyard on the Tyne, he trained people in the basics of how to use computers, and then moved to the Newcastle Technology Centre.

“This was a project out of Newcastle University around technology transfer, which was about working with universities and industry to help them understand what they could do better by using the expertise of these educational institutions.

“Shortly after, the Government tendered for regional technology centres, in an initiative announced by Margaret Thatcher via Kenneth Baker.

“My father bid for, and won, the North East and
Cumbria one. He set up out of Chester Road, in Sunderland. That is where RTC North started.”

Crucial to the successes of RTC North, whose presence now covers the North East, North West and Yorkshire, is its varied cluster of support programmes, which includes mechanisms to drive growth and innovation, as well as national and international development and bolster workers’ skills.

“We have the Enterprise Europe Network, which is the world’s largest business network connecting companies across 60 countries; Scaleup North East, which offers high-level business coaching; and the STEM Ambassador Hub, which helps young people with career choices,” says Jamie.

“Supply Chain North East also provides expert advisors, who help companies access supply chain and diversification opportunities, and we work collaboratively with the North East Process Industry Cluster, the North East Automotive Alliance and Generator to help companies become more robust.

“Furthermore, Innovate to Succeed and Pathways to Innovation delivers coaching to SMEs and support for new ideas and intellectual property.”

The value of face-to-face relationships, says Jamie, is fundamental to RTC North’s work.

“We employ people who have grown businesses themselves or have real knowledge of their sectors and are there to help SMEs accelerate growth, be more competitive and connect them to new opportunities,” he says.

“We also have access to people internally, and through a wider associate pool, who are highly skilled in marketing, product development and design, strategy development, operational improvement, sales and international growth.

“Significantly, where we can, we connect SMEs to each other for partnering or just peer-to-peer support. That is really one of the best kinds of business support.”

It’s clear then, that RTC North has come a long way since Gordon took the wrappers off his Tandy Micro Computer II back in the 1980s.

Time and technology may have moved on, but RTC North’s ethos of support and commitment to helping others remains undimmed.

“We’ve got to innovate ourselves, ensuring we put technology back into what we do and keep investing in our people,” says Jamie.

“We are always looking at how we can do new things to serve our clients right.”

  • Enterprise Europe Network – the world’s largest business network connecting companies across 60 countries
  • Scale Up North East – high level business coaching from scale up partners who have led businesses themselves
  • Supply Chain North East – expert advisors who can help you access opportunities to move up your supply chain or diversify in to new sectors
  • Innovate to Succeed – innovation coaching to help SMEs develop new markets
  • Pathways to Innovation – support for new ideas and IP
  • STEM Hub & Mentoring projects – matching ambassadors from industry with young people to inspire STEM careers choices

RTC North
For more information on how RTC North can help your business, please call the team on 0191 516 4400.

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