What the new CPI boss has planned for UK manufacturing

Posted on 31 Mar 2020 by The Manufacturer

There’s a new face at the helm of the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI), one of the High Value Manufacturing Catapults, and they represent a significant change for the future of UK manufacturing.

Nigel Perry, the long-serving CEO of CPI (Centre for Process Innovation), the North East-based independent technology innovation centre, will be retiring in March, making way for current COO Frank Millar to take up the mantle.

This transition offers an opportunity to reflect on, and learn from, the successes and failures of previous initiatives. Armed with this insight, a new course of action can be plotted, one that will ensure a bright future for UK manufacturing.

Now employing more than 450 staff, CPI helps great inventions get to market faster by supporting companies in high-value markets that depend on innovation in the process industry, all enabled through CPI’s expertise and core capabilities, including: biotechnology and biotherapeutics, pharmaceutical processing, formulations, printable electronics and photonics.

In this exclusive Q&A with The Manufacturer, Millar discusses CPI’s role in the current climate of UK innovation. He  also covers CPI’s impact on the region’s productivity levels, its allocation and spending of public money and discusses what the future of CPI holds under his leadership.

How has CPI advanced the commercialisation of innovative ideas in the UK?

Helping companies successfully commercialise their innovations has always been deeply knitted into CPI’s culture and approach. We work with companies and organisations of all sizes, from our academic partners to multinational corporates, but SMEs are where I think our expertise really shines.

We have consistently championed SMEs and the critical role they play in the innovation ecosystem. SMEs have a huge capacity to generate ideas, innovate and absorb support – they are unconstrained. We’ve been able to provide them with the vital capital equipment and expertise required to translate great inventions into marketable products.

Cleanroom at CPI’s National Printable Electronics Centre

Cleanroom at CPI’s National Printable Electronics Centre.

A good example of CPI’s contribution can be seen with PragmatIC Printing. We helped the company to accelerate the development of its ultra-low-cost flexible electronics technology and realise its potential to enable business and customer insights from real-world, real-time, item-level digital identities. CPI leveraged its state-of-the-art scale-up facilities in order to help PragmatIC develop an automated, scalable manufacturing process.

By working with our flexible electronics experts in a supportive and low-risk environment, PragmatIC was able to improve its technology and obtain the data necessary for manufacturing in mass market volumes. The company’s novel technology is now being adopted by a growing base of global brands across diverse markets, including the retail, pharmaceutical and security sectors.

What has been CPI’s experience of commercialising innovations in the North compared with London?

CPI has a home here in the North East, but we’ve always looked outwards, nationally and even globally, to get a feel for what’s changing in our markets and what they are demanding. We’ve always been open to working with any company that appreciates the relationship between innovation and productivity. That’s always been our main criteria and we don’t tend to regionalise it.

In the process industries, we have generally found ourselves working with companies at the higher end of the productivity continuum; the pharmaceutical sector is a good case in point. While the industry continues to successfully discover new candidate drugs, they also recognise that their manufacturing technologies need substantial innovation.

CPI have received a 107m investment from the government in collaboration with the High Value Manufacturing Catapult

In 2018, CPI received a £107m investment from the government in collaboration with the High Value Manufacturing Catapult.

The challenges of producing tailored medication and harnessing the potential from digital and data-enabled healthcare demand that they must constantly innovate and evolve by reinvesting in their manufacturing technologies.

That’s what we are achieving with the University of Strathclyde, AstraZeneca, GSK, Scottish Enterprise and Innovate UK at the new Medicines Manufacturing Innovation Centre in Glasgow. The continuous and just-in-time manufacturing solutions under development will have a real impact on helping address the pharma industry’s manufacturing innovation challenges.

Another industry where we are doing more work is food and feed. As our needs and demands as a society are changing, we are increasingly questioning how sustainable our food production is. This presents a wealth of opportunities to innovate in this sector.

A good example of our work in this arena is with an SME called Calysta. Calysta is working to commercialise an alternative feed ingredient for farmed fish produced via their proprietary methane fermentation platform.

By combining our deep knowledge of fermentation processes with Calysta’s bespoke fermenter design to produce protein, the unsustainable cycle of depending on fishmeal for nutrition in farmed fish is disrupted by using more sustainable feedstocks. We’ve been able to prove the scale-up of the fermentation process and enabled Calysta to develop its intellectual property and acquire private investment funding over the past four years.

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CPI received £107m of government funding in 2018 to develop next-gen manufacturing technologies over five years. How is that project progressing?

Innovation is not steady-state work, and the government funding we receive helps us to develop our capabilities. That not only means sustaining our staff and facilities, but also recruiting the brightest industry minds and developing them technically and managerially.

CPI has almost £200m worth of capital assets that need to be maintained and improved to remain state of the art. But equally important is that our in-house talent is also maintained and improved.

CPI’s National Formulation Centre

Inside CPI’s National Formulation Centre.

That government funding keeps us at the cutting edge, ensuring we are fit to service our partners in industry and academia, particularly SMEs. When an SME approaches CPI to collaborate, funding is often tight. The SME’s team may be working with their own money, raised from friends and family, or even a remortgaged property.

Although it may sound like a small number in the grand scheme of things, £10,000 can be a huge sum for an SME and extremely precious when developing the next stage of its technology. CPI must therefore ensure that we supply our partners with absolutely the best value. This includes providing them with the security that any money they invest in our collaboration will be used to deliver on our promise to accelerate their route to market.

Government has been accused of deprioritising the Northern Powerhouse amid the chaos of Brexit. Do you agree?

From CPI’s perspective, the Northern Powerhouse is whatever we – as a region – make of it. It provides us with an access point; conversations between universities, SMEs and large companies we perhaps wouldn’t have otherwise had.

For our part, we’ve developed good relationships with the ‘N8’ research universities across the region. We are working continuously with the N8 to bridge the gap between their academic research and industry. Through this, we can translate the capabilities of those organisations into a meaningful programme that other regional stakeholders in industry can get behind.

Another strong feature of CPI is our membership at the High Value Manufacturing Catapult (HVMC).

Map of Catapult Centres - The Catapult Centres are an elite network of world-leading technology and innovation centres designed to transform the UK's capability for innovation and help drive future economic growth. The centres are not-for-profit, independent organisations which connect businesses with the UK's research and academic communities to “close the gap between concept and commercialisation”. They are established and overseen by the UK’s innovation agency, Innovate UK.

As a national body dedicated to commercialising innovations with policy makers and businesses in all sectors, suddenly you’re offering something quite powerful. HVMC members are recipients of public money and therefore must ensure that their capabilities are available for the entire nation.

It is a major benefit having three centres from the Northern Powerhouse, CPI and Sheffield’s Advanced and Nuclear Manufacturing Research Centres, as members of the HVMC. Through these centres we can represent the whole of the HVMC and bring all the members’ diverse and powerful capabilities to the North.

Taking over from Nigel, can you plot some concrete next steps for CPI?

There are elements of CPI that are absolutely world class and I want the whole organisation to be operating at that level. The original concept behind CPI was to be internationally recognised as having capabilities that are difficult to replicate and hard to find elsewhere. I think we’ve done that well and have really solidified our reputation with large firms and SMEs.

However, I think there’s always more we can do and that is uppermost in my mind. Just as the HVMC is developing its reputation, I think CPI has the opportunity to achieve the same engagement and impact. One of the great things about CPI is that we are independently minded and that’s a trait rooted deep within our culture.

When you come to CPI seeking an opinion about a technology, technology transfer or innovation policy and funding, you will get a truly independent view. I want to build on that reputation here in the UK and across the world.

We’ve also demonstrated ourselves as a proven partner of both the public and private sectors, and I want to ensure that the impact of that is tangible, measurable and unquestioned. We exist to enable others to be successful.

Now we’ve got to demonstrate our value by repeatedly showing the impact that our expertise in innovation has had on the UK economy, not just how much money CPI has received. I think that’s the standard we are setting for ourselves.

“To UK industry, I want to say let’s join the system up. We’ve got a fantastic academic heritage in this country, along with remarkably innovative SMEs and large companies that have an appetite for collaboration. We are aspiring to be the world leader in next-generation manufacturing. If we can join up and innovate together, the effect could be astonishing.”

Both Nigel Perry and Frank Millar are chartered engineers, each with decades of experience.

Nigel Perry (R) will be stepping down as CPI’s CEO at the end of March; Frank Millar (L) has been appointed as his successor.

Nigel Perry (R) will be stepping down as CPI’s CEO at the end of March; Frank Millar (L) has been appointed as his successor.

Nigel Perry has spent more than 40 years in the global process industry, with 20 years of that career at ICI. From there, Perry joined PwC Consulting to focus on the development, consolidation and evolution of the European High Technology Sector. There, he oversaw the adoption and emergence of new technologies, business models and entrants.

In 2003, he was appointed CEO of the CPI, where he grew the start-up from inception to the globally recognised company it is today.

New CEO Frank Millar has spent much of his industrial career delivering services to the process industries with UK engineering and project management companies.

He has 20 years’ experience developing and deploying new technology in the gas processing and nuclear-decommissioning sectors, as well as working in project delivery and business management roles across the globe.

In his 10 years at British construction engineering company Costain, Millar oversaw the successful integration and performance of entrepreneur-led SMEs. Moreover, he managed the operations of the company’s process engineering business from a subsidiary to becoming a fully integrated core division.

He has also sat on the board of the Engineering Construction Industry Association (ECIA), including serving a term as its President and was on the board of the Engineering Construction Industry Training Board (ECITB).