Industrial evolution

England’s north west combines strength in key industries with a dynamic technology research base. Berenice Baker reports.

The north west of England — a powerhouse of the industrial revolution — is now home to a thriving array of technology-led businesses and boasts one of the nation’s most significant engineering research clusters.

The region’s strengths in major industries such as energy and aerospace are underpinned by an academic sector that is eager to see its innovations reach the commercial arena.

One organisation helping technology transfer in the region is University of Manchester Intellectual Property (UMIP), the managing agent for commercialising innovations developed at Manchester University.

UMIP was formed when the former UMIST merged with Manchester in 2004, creating one of Europe’s largest academic institutions in engineering and technology.

Chief executive Clive Rowland said the agency identified two main gaps in the process of bringing technology to market. It now provides funding to help spin out companies through the proof-of- principle and seed-funding stages of their development.

UMIP funds work that closely supports the region’s strengths. For example, the north west employs 50,000 people in energy-related jobs and is recognised for its expertise in nuclear power.

Major facilities such as Sellafield in Cumbria mean 23,000 people are employed in nuclear in the region —about half the total jobs of the UK’s entire nuclear sector. On the academic front, Manchester University is home to the Dalton Research Institute, set up in 2005 with the aim of becoming one of the world’s leading centres of nuclear education, training and research.

Alternative energy is also a key element of the north west’s innovation mix. UMIP is supporting renewable ventures such as the Manchester Bobber, which it hopes will generate wave energy from the UK’s coastlines in the near future.

Developed by Manchester University researchers and industrial partners, the system consists of a number of platforms, each of which supports a closely-spaced array of 25 to 50 bobbing floats. The Bobber is now approaching the commercialisation stage.

The north west also boasts its share of success stories in advanced electronics and communications.

For example, Nano ePrint, formed in June 2006, owns a suite of intellectual property related to a planar nano electronics platform called Self-Switching Devices. This technology allows electronic devices to be fabricated in one-step lithography or printing, enabling extremely low-cost manufacturing.

The region has played a key part in medical history — Liverpool was one of the first locations for the manufacture of penicillin by fermentation — and is now home to some 230 biomedical companies employing 25,000 people.

Earlier this year the Manchester: Integrating Medicine and Innovative Technology research centre (MIMIT) was launched to combine the talents of medics and engineers to solve clinical problems.

MIMIT’s approach is based on listening to clinicians’ needs and building solutions to meet them. It has already produced a pioneering anaesthetic delivery system.

In another example of research working side by side with business, Daresbury in Cheshire is home to the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) Synchrotron Radiation Source, a world-class facility dedicated to the exploitation of synchrotron radiation. Alongside is the Daresbury Science and Innovation Campus, which recently received £25m of investment with the potential for up to 1,200 new jobs. The new development adjoins the existing Daresbury Innovation Centre and the Cockcroft Institute and will host more new technology and science-related businesses.

As it forges ahead in new areas, the north west has held onto its position as a key player in some of the UK’s longest-established industrial sectors.

According to the North West Regional Development Agency, the region is the nation’s largest centre of aerospace manufacturing; Nimrod, Tornado, Airbus wings and the RB-211 jet engine are all being developed there. More than 60,000 people work in the sector, contributing £7bn to the regional economy.

In the automotive arena, the region is home to vehicle manufacturers such as Jaguar/Land Rover, General Motors/Vauxhall and Bentley. The sector boasts an annual turnover of £9bn.

Chemical manufacturing is the region’s largest export industry, generating £10bn in sales. Sixty per cent of the world’s top 50 companies have a base in the north west.

Even the region’s most iconic 19th century industry, the textile trade, has moved with the times. The mills may have long gone, but the north west is now recognised as the most important advanced flexible materials centre in Europe.

For technology stories from your region, visit