The tech boom in Devon is set to create more than 2,000 jobs in the next eight years.
Dr Sally Basker, the woman leading Exeter Science Park, said that embracing innovation is do or die for the region, with major plans in place to expand the park site on the outskirts of the city.
This month, the next phase begins to create two 27,000 sq ft office buildings opposite the Science Park Centre. It will create the first street on the site that will soon be connected by its own link road.
And, where the office space looks out over fields, there will soon be major building work with multi-million-pound plans to create new homes, a school and play areas for around 1,000 families.
If the Science Park seems remote right now, then it won’t stay that way much longer.
Drive up to the park and visitors are currently met by a barrier. Like anywhere with flat open space, the site has been attractive to travellers.
Dr Basker said: “But we are not remote or inaccessible. We are very much here, ready and open for business.”
Exeter Science Park is at 90% capacity with around 200 people working on site.
It is predicted that around 700 people will be employed by businesses in the Science Park within the next two years, rising to 2,000 by the mid 2020s and 3,500 by 2034.
Dr Basker said: “STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths and Medicine) has to have a place to grow and connect because it is the knowledge based economy that will be the driving force behind productivity in the future.”
The tech sector in the South West is big and it is growing. In 2015, it was worth £2.8 billion and in just five years it is expected to be worth £4.2 billion, predicted to outperform all other occupation categories by 2020.
The sector is said to be worth 5.2 per cent of the region’s entire economy and supporting more than 135,000 jobs from Cornwall to Bristol.
And Exeter has the power to be right at the centre of it, said Dr Basker.
“We are an hour from London by air and within two hours you can be in reach of nine universities from Bristol to Falmouth.
“We have the Met Office on our doorstep and a wealth of researchers in this area.
“And this is a region that has a long history of innovation, taking risks and free thinking, just think about Drake or the Mayflower Pilgrims.
“We need to capitalise on that. It strikes me that we have lots of SMEs that have got to be able to grow if they want to, but we need to pull all our resources to help them achieve their ambitions.
“Any entrepreneurial business, innovation or disruptive technology is high risk and needs a lot of investment to get started. Our job is to give them that support to grow.”
She said that the Science Park can become a regional hub, a place to share ideas, host workshops and seminars to give strength in numbers to businesses that are typically small with few employees.
And the key is working together, said Dr Basker.
“I don’t think we should see ourselves as a rival to Bristol or any other area, that to me seems a ridiculous notion.
“If you take that the entire population of Devon, Cornwall and Somerset is around 2million then I would take a guess that is less than the number who commute into London every day.
“One of our strengths and one of our weakness is our low population density and we need to make sure that we unite as a region to compete on the national and international stage.”
And key to that is diversity, she insists, particularly in sectors that are typically male dominated.
She said: “Generally, diversity in the workplace is so beneficial, it avoids group thinking, brings a fresh way of looking at problems and provides novel solutions to old problems.
“If you just have more of the same people you will get the same result rather than recruiting people who can bring you opportunities.”
Although originally wanting to be a musician, Dr Basker was persuaded to get a ‘proper degree’ and went on to study civil engineering. She has an impressive CV with roles that have taken her around the world with diverse organisations like the European Space agency in Brussels, as Director of Resources at the General Lighthouse Authority and Head of Business Development at the UK Atomic Energy Authority.
She says she has not been the subject of sexism, encountering more women students and colleagues throughout her career than you might believe.
However, there is an issue in recruiting enough girls in the sciences. The sector has an image problem.
She said: “I think the word engineer puts girls off. I think they hear it and think ‘engine’ but I was told that it comes from the French ‘ingénieux’ with its links to ingenuity.
“I think it is partly down to there not being enough role models and I wonder if there has been a failure to engage early enough with girls, it seems we are trying to change mindsets by the time it’s too late.
“It is a shame because for me, I have had a career that has taken me all over the world and now I have a job that brings together all those skills. There really is a fantastic opportunity ahead of me.”
Source: Devon live