What’s going to be the key to helping organisations and communities thrive in the post-Covid age? For David Plumb, chief innovation officer at the University of Warwick, the answer is the fostering of ecosystems with partners which can find creative ways to exploit the potential of emerging technologies.
“We want to help the regional economic recovery,” he says. “That’s been a huge focus for us this year and we want to continue to concentrate on that area. We want to do that by bringing together our three core communities of students, academics and local businesses.”
Plumb joined the university in September 2018 and has established a five-year innovation strategy that he hopes will encourage entrepreneurship across campus and out into the local area. Formerly chief digital officer (CDO) at mobile giant O2, Plumb says moving into the innovation role at Warwick is a chance to fulfil his career aims at a pioneering institution.
“I’d reached the point in my career where I wanted to coach, mentor and inspire the next generation. I find that really interesting and really satisfying, so I think from a values point of view, I was ready to do that,” he says.
“The role came up – and it’s a top 10 UK university. There aren’t many chief innovation officers with that sort of opportunity at that type of institution, so it’s an amazing role. I get to work with businesses, students, academics and investors in an ecosystem. The two things came together and I haven’t looked back – it’s been fantastic, really.”
Taking the lead for creativity
Plumb’s role is to lead the development, expansion, application and sharing of the ideas that the university generates. He reports to the university’s registrar, which is similar to the role fulfilled by a chief operating officer in a major enterprise. Plumb manages directors across his three core areas of influence: students, academics and investors.
“There’s three teams that mirror the communities,” he says. “They all run their own programmes, and then we bring people together because we are able to say, ‘Well, I can see you’re launching a startup in that space, we know an investor or an academic that could help you.’ So the ecosystem allows us to introduce people to each other.”
While Plumb oversees innovation, the university also employs a chief information and digital officer, Tony Pauley, who was appointed in April 2020. He ensures the IT team delivers the right systems, networks and technologies to staff and students. Plumb, on the other hand, says his focus is all about fostering creativity.
“It’s about bringing new things through and is much more cutting edge,” he says. “It’s a role that’s about supporting organisations and academics and businesses who are trying new things. Tony’s running an IT department for 30,000 people, with high-grade systems that require ‘five nines’ of quality. They’re very different roles.”
Building an innovation ecosystem
On the face of it, Plumb’s prior role as CDO at O2 appears a long way from the remit he holds at Warwick. However, appearances can be deceptive – and Plumb believes his responsibilities at the telecoms firm acted as a strong primer to heading up innovation at a university.
“It was a broad role, so I was actually responsible for innovation as part of my role at O2. I was also responsible for our wholesale and strategic relationships. That meant I essentially had two transferable skills: running an incubator and starting new businesses; and corporate entrepreneurship and innovation,” he says.
Plumb says he was charged with working with outside partners, signing contracts with major organisations such as Sky and the UK government: “I brought those two building blocks of transferable skills to Warwick, and then put those capabilities into this role which aligns with my values – and it’s just super-exciting because there’s so much going on.”
His team’s day-to-day work is about building and supporting an innovation ecosystem. For students, that means helping individuals to learn to be entrepreneurial, but also helping them to launch their own companies. For academics, his work involves working with academics who might want to use their research and spin it out to create a company or licence.
Finally, he works with startups and scaleups on the university’s Science Park, a specialist space that has been in operation since 1982. Organisations here can draw on the university’s academic expertise to help their knowledge and technology businesses to grow.
Plumb says the innovations he helps to foster span these interrelated areas.
“What makes it interesting is bringing everything together,” he says. “Looking outwards to corporates and investors – and then bringing them in internally, and bringing students academics and businesses together – is the kind of ecosystem-building approach that I believe is the key to creating new opportunities.”
Helping to incubate great ideas
Plumb’s ongoing attempts to identify and foster entrepreneurship will be supported by his five-year innovation strategy. Signed off by the university’s executive committee last July, this framework describes the main priorities and the outputs that Plumb and his innovation directors want to generate at Warwick.
“We want to create places where people can come together to work on their programmes,” he says.
“We’ve already opened an innovation hub. It’s about supporting the growth of these creative programmes for students, academics and businesses. We want to support innovative thinking – and the Creative Futures Incubator in Leamington Spa will be a key incubator.”
“Looking outwards to corporates and investors – and then bringing them in internally, and bringing students academics and businesses together – is the kind of ecosystem-building approach that I believe is the key to creating new opportunities”
David Plumb, Warwick University
Described as a gateway between the university and the region’s creative industries, Creative Futures is a co-working space in the nearby market town of Leamington. The aim is to help local businesses grow and to eventually become part of the UK’s largest creative cluster outside Greater London.
Plumb says there are plans for other similar incubators. He says Creative Futures provides an environment where like-minded people can exchange ideas. The initiative provides a subsidised co-working space in Leamington, with six months’ support, mentoring and advice to help entrepreneurs develop and launch a business.
“That approach means we’ve got a number of people coming through at the same time. That’s the primary focus and, as part of that, we’re spinning out new companies with university research and we’re helping students with their spin-outs. Helping the region also helps the university and our students with their research and spin-out projects,” says Plumb.
Supporting an economic recovery
The innovation strategy at Warwick is already helping to deliver results. Last year, the innovation team at the university engaged with more than 7,000 people across an ecosystem of students, academics, enterprises and investors.
The team has helped 500 businesses in the past 12 months to either start, scale or pivot. In total, the innovation team has helped its ecosystem of entrepreneurial individuals and businesses to raise £45m of external investment.
“They’re all big achievements that we’d never achieved previously at Warwick,” says Plumb.
“What we’re now starting to see is that we’re signing partnerships with organisations like BT and Warwickshire County Council to try to amplify and accelerate our focus on the regional economic recovery. We want to take those sort of outputs to the next level.”
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Here, Plumb is referring to a recently announced alliance between his own institution, Warwickshire County Council and BT that will help entrepreneurial individuals and organisations in the local area to create useful applications for 5G networks. The alliance has enabled BT to switch on the UK's first dedicated public 5G network at the university.
The "connected campus" will bring 5G mobile coverage to students, staff and visitors across a 720-acre site. People in surrounding areas will also benefit. BT will soon extend 5G network coverage to support creative companies working with the university and those in Leamington.
“Our interests coalesce nicely with BT and the council,” says Plumb.
“BT wants to find new use cases where 5G is at the heart, the council wants to support economic recovery, and we've got academics and students and businesses trying to grow. So we've called it an innovation alliance because we expect all partners to benefit.”
Bringing people together
The hope is that 5G networks will aid the work of students, academics and local businesses and create a cluster effect, helping like-minded individuals and entrepreneurial organisations in the area to develop new data-led applications.
The alliance will back innovations in three cores areas: autonomous mobility, medtech and gaming. For Plumb, this kind of joined-up thinking on key areas of technological development is the best way to support innovation.
“If you bring together device manufacturers and local companies in Leamington with students who can both be the innovators, but also the test market, and then get BT to bring in subject matter experts, and we support that with funding and programmes, then that is going to be the environment that’s going to create the next opportunities,” he says.
Plumb is keen to use his position to help drive creativity in other areas, too.
“I’d like to make sure that we give everybody the opportunity,” he says, referring to the Her Innovation Collective, which, in association with the NOI Network of successful businesswomen, aims to mentor and coach the next generation of entrepreneurs.
“It’s about giving students the confidence, the belief and the skills to go and fund businesses and to be entrepreneurial. Whether they end up running their own businesses or working for a corporate, they’re going to need to be entrepreneurial in the world that they’re going into,” says Plumb.
“I would love us to be seen as an ecosystem that’s supportive of giving everybody an opportunity. It’s not just about helping deep-tech people – it’s also about supporting creative people and also those who perhaps don’t see themselves as founders and entrepreneurs. I want Warwick University to be seen as a leader in that diverse and creative space.”