Sue Cooke, CEO
A year ago today I joined the 3M Buckley Innovation Centre as the new CEO, to take forward the impressive legacy of the founder Professor Liz Towns-Andrews OBE, building on her powerful vision for a centre driving regional growth, enterprise and innovation.
It was both exciting and challenging to take on the entire responsibility for running a business, with real customers, tenants and a team of 15, many of whom had been with 3M BIC since it opened in 2013. How much change was needed, I was not yet sure.
My first few weeks were spent getting to know the tenants and the team, who had plenty of ideas to share. We spent a lot of time in workshop sessions in our 3M Room, which has the joy of writable walls for brainstorming and creative thinking. I also met a lot of amazing academics doing fascinating research at the University of Huddersfield, to better understand the potential for new research and development opportunities.
We worked up a new business plan together to focus on priority KPIs, including increasing business awareness of the impressive technology facilities and design talents on offer. My non-scientific brain was already being stretched into learning a new vocabulary of technical jargon: AM – additive manufacturing, generative design, x-ray CT scanning, light-weighting, confocal microscopy, eye-scanning software and many more.
As the best way to appreciate the full potential of our facilities is to see them in action, we then introduced a monthly 3M BIC guided tour and since then have had more than 150 people in the centre to see the fantastic assets and how they can be used by SMEs to develop new products and innovative applications of technology.
Having persuaded my marketing and events team that we should run more innovation-themed events, we spent the summer planning for the 3M BIC’s first Innovation Week. This featured speakers from 3M, Siemens, the LEP Chair Roger Marsh, local businesses, academic researchers and innovation agencies.
We had a brilliant response to our product design competition for student designers from the School of Art, Design & Architecture, who created an excellent range of innovative product ideas. One winner came up with an infection control device for hospitals, so she was definitely onto something! Mamas and Papas and Elmwood design agency also helped out with the judging and site visits for the winning designers.
In November I was delighted to be invited with colleagues to the Times Higher Awards in London, where 3M BIC was shortlisted with the University of Huddersfield for our work on knowledge exchange with SMEs, so a wonderful recognition of the team’s work over the years. A fancy ‘do’ was held the Grosvenor House Hotel, compered by the sharp-tongued Julian Clary.
Before Christmas, my ambition to bring all my team together into one open-plan office space was realised and following a lot of de-cluttering, it was great to see how positively this was embraced. It was good to be back in the thick of things, even though that meant giving up my office with a sunny balcony over-looking the river (now available to rent…).
The 3M BIC Board of Directors also gave me free rein to review the space utilisation of the building. We already enjoyed pretty full occupancy of commercial offices and labs, which are very popular, but had two large shared spaces for student entrepreneurs and network members who hot-desk with us, both under-used. So, we agreed a plan to bring the two together into a new co-working space and Enterprise Hub, and this opened in January, creating a vibrant new space for young entrepreneurs to spark ideas with other enterprising people based here. This has opened up the opportunity to create more labs and offices in coming months, enabling more businesses to move into the 3M BIC community.
From the New Year, storm clouds were gathering, literally, and the River Colne started to rise ominously as we faced Storm Ciara and the rest, but the 3M BIC flood defence barrier was put to the test and kept us all feeling safe and dry. Meanwhile, our marketing team’s work to refresh our corporate look was taking shape nicely and new signage was installed outside the building, although Storm Dennis made short work of one banner….
Our marketing was ramping up, with new collateral, pop-up banners and flyers all ready, along with a new website and membership package, due to be launched at Kirklees Business Conference. We were delighted to host a visit in March from the Local Growth Minister, Simon Clarke MP, on the day that the West Yorkshire devolution deal was signed, which was a great boost for our profile.
Then the world turned on its axis and the Covid-19 lockdown happened.
Our events and conferencing business had to be curtailed overnight, a difficult decision reached to furlough several staff and our tech team switched its efforts to producing PPE for face masks using the 3D printers onsite. We set up a skeleton crew to keep the centre open with social distancing in place for tenants who couldn’t work from home, so those with labs making hand sanitiser or supplying components and medical devices to key industries.
So, to say it’s been a roller coaster first year is an understatement.
Have I enjoyed it? Yes, very much so. Having worked in a much larger organisation previously, this has been a fantastic and very different experience of the full range of responsibilities of running an SME, albeit one with a supportive University parent, demanding very ‘hands on’ leadership.
As with all leadership roles, regardless of sector, it’s all about listening to people and building relationships, so whatever surprises, challenges or opportunities come your way, as they have done this year, I’ve learnt that you have to rely on your instincts and principles to steer the best course with your team. I am very grateful to my colleagues for adapting so well to all the challenges and new plans, whether external events or new initiatives which start with those ominous words ‘I’ve had an idea….’
My first year leading 3M BIC has definitely been action-packed and memorable. Looking back, I appreciate enormously the opportunity to work with such a fantastic, enterprising community of people.