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Exclusive Business News Wales Interview: David Thomas, Bridge Innovation Centre

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Business News Wales talks to the Manger of Pembrokeshire’s Bridge Innovation Centre (BIC) and Pembrokeshire Science and Technology Park.

He gives our readers a background into his role providing help and advice to SMEs and growing businesses. He also gives his opinions on attracting inward investment to Wales and the importance of  education for the future generation in business.

Can you give our readers a little background into yourself and your role within the Bridge Innovation Centre?

My name is David Thomas and I am the Bridge Innovation Centre (BIC) and Pembrokeshire Science and Technology Park (PSTP) Manager.  My role as an economic development officer for Pembrokeshire County Council is to run the day to day operations of the BIC and PSTP, to work with businesses that are located in the BIC, and to work in the wider economic development of Pembrokeshire.  The Bridge Innovation Centre provides high quality modern facilities as well as providing help and advice to support growing or start-up businesses. The Centre allows expansive opportunities for businesses, by providing, business, technological and academic support and networking possibilities with leading national and international companies, as well as academic and research institutions. If I was to describe the BIC I would say that it is “a beacon for all that is positive in business. I have been in this role now for just short of 10 years.  The BIC is a member of the UK Science Park Association and therefore has a wide network to call upon.  We also work with other networks such as the Marine Energy Wales, and also run innovation themed projects with EU funding.

What are your plans for the next five years, and where do you see your challenges and opportunities?

I am quite excited by the next 5 years.  Although I won’t even begin to speculate about what exit from the EU is going to mean to us as a nation, I am excited about a new EU funded ERDF Ireland Wales Project that we are about to start on. This project is all called Building Clusters and Networks in Innovation Enterprise and Research, it’s about helping SMEs in the sectors of food and drink, life sciences and renewable energy to come up with ideas for new products and services, to invest in design development and testing of these ideas to bring their ideas closer to the market, we also will be working with networks and clusters to try to enhance or create networks where there are gaps.

To me this is my major challenge in delivering this project and is opportunity number 1!  In terms of other opportunities, we are working at bringing a Fab Lab to life to enhance the digital agenda across Pembrokeshire. Fab Labs are places where you can make lots of things by design in Computer Aided Design and then make them using Computer Aided Manufacturing Tools such as CNC machines, Laser Cutters, 3D printers and other such modern digital manufacturing equipment.  Finally the day to day operations of keeping a busy innovation centre running and well occupied with high tech businesses is the ongoing challenge that will keep me coming to work every day!

Looking back at your career, are there things you would have done differently? 

I have to say I have enjoyed my career immensely (so far)! Starting my working life and career as a Royal Air Force Engineering Officer was a fantastic opportunity that really developed my skill set massively. To coin an old phrase ‘the best years of my life’. Taking a mid life career change and life choice to move to Pembrokeshire was a great decision.  Almost by accident I found out about the job that I have now been in for 10 years. Working with businesses and helping to deliver on the innovation agenda is what my job is about. It’s great and every day I love coming to work. Sadly the first few years didn’t go too well when we were part of the Technium network, but that gave interesting lessons in how we could achieve, and what we now do really is making an impact.  So there isn’t really much I would choose to change.

What do you think are the most important qualities for success in business?

Tenacity, drive, enthusiasm, a love for what you are doing. Above all a desire to deliver.

What are your top three tips for success?

  1. Maintenance of them aim –  i.e. being focussed on delivering your core business.
  2. Recognising new opportunities and acting on them when they arise.
  3. Not taking it too seriously – you can end up in an early grave!

Are there any innovations within your sector that you believe should be adopted by the wider Welsh market?

I am in the business of innovation – so is that a sector? I heard this phrase recently: Necessity is the mother of innovation.  Think on that!

Do you have any predictions in regards to the impact of Brexit on your sector?

As a public sector employee in local government, this is a bit of a politically loaded question that I can’t answer at this time, especially with the general election on June 8th looming.  However, that said therein lies the answer I would think; we just don’t know and we will have to wait out the result of the general election, see what the new government does and where it leads us thereafter. One thing that I am sure of is it will be a time of change for us all.

Do you foresee any issues that Welsh business will be facing in the short/medium/long term?

Lots really. Although I quite rightly have ducked the BREXIT issue, everyone in business has got an eye on that particular ball and might be speculating what is going to happen.  The challenge is understanding what the implications are and adapting and changing accordingly. There is a saying that  ‘if you do what you always did you get what you always got’ – I don’t believe that statement, particularly in this context, because if you do what you always did and the rules of operation change, then you might not have a business to get what you always got any longer. The same applies if the market changes and you aren’t looking to what your next product or service is going to be.

What can Wales do to attract more inward investment?

There are so many factors that attract businesses to set up, operate and trade in a particular place, these factors are many depending on what their business need is. Pick up any business text book and you can read up on that.  To attract businesses, a place has to have a competitive edge.  Enterprise zones are one way of doing that, but the attraction to come and set up in an enterprise zone has to be incentivised and long lived.  I’m sure there are other plenty of other reasons too, but I am struggling to find time to think on that!

What skills should the education system be promoting to the next generation?

One of the things that I often hear from the businesses that I work with is that young people are not arriving in the workplace with work skills.  It’s quite hard to define what these skills are and to train for it, but simple things like personal discipline to be in work on time and with a positive work attitude might be one.  One particular skilled area is for the ICT sector. As a country we do not start teaching computer programming skills until very late – i.e tertiary education where programming/ computer studies is an elective choice rather than part of a curriculum.  The UK is being left behind when it comes to software production with many companies outsourcing to countries where those skills are. Thankfully this is changing, but as someone who has spent time in the software engineering field, I hope that programming in the curriculum is taught in a way that is engaging and gives young people a vision as to why they are doing it.

One thing I would say is that we should be finding out where young people’s capabilities and interests lie and moving them into those areas far earlier than we do.  This is my own personal opinion of course but the one size fits all national curriculum is probably not the best way to go about engaging youngsters. When we wonder why we don’t have enough young people with the right skills – I would think it has a lot to do with the fact that by the age of 16 those who are not fulfilled by the curriculum are disengaged and unfulfilled, so finding their way beyond this age becomes quite difficult. It is important to have a good general level of education but league tables and GCSE results don’t help the vast majority, particularly those labelled as ‘underachievers’.  I also think that knowing what opportunities there are in the wide world to help motivate young people to get the right skills for employability would help – careers advice might be the word for this – I was told I could go and ‘work down’t pit’!  Not much help to a 14 year old looking for his way in life.

How important is it for there to be a close relationship between business and higher education in Wales?

HE does much to engage with business nowadays. All universities have departments where they provide outreach and engage with business. There is a wealth of untapped knowledge for business; however, on the slightly negative side I have heard it said that the speed of response from academics can be slow when businesses want quick results, so there is probably a way to go. However, it is an area where much positive work is being carried out, I think Swansea University, just to choose one of our universities, is doing much, particularly with the second campus to engage with business.

The views of David Thomas in this interview are his own and do not in any way reflect the policies of Pembrokeshire County Council.