As the North East LEP’s first innovation director, Hans Möller has been charged with creating a culture change that will generate more and better jobs. Here, he tells Robert Gibson why he’s confident the region has what it takes to make it work.
When Hans Möller was considering re-locating from his native Sweden to the North East, he weighed up a number of factors.
A job as the North East LEP’s innovation director appealed to his sense of adventure, while regular flights from Newcastle to Copenhagen meant that he could return to his home in southern Sweden was not difficult.
“And you have an Ikea,” he says - perhaps joking but perhaps not: it is difficult to tell given his deadpan Scandinavian delivery.
After a developing a love of innovation through years in IT and consultancy, Hans held the chief executive’s post at the Ideon Science Park in Lund for over a decade.
His new post is no small task. It means overseeing how more than £125m of investment is spent on creating more and better quality jobs within the region, as well as working closely with the LEP’s recently formed innovation board to create the framework for a new and dynamic culture of innovation in the region.
Hans, though, is confident when it comes to the North East’s potential.
“I think we have some fantastic assets here,” he said.
“That’s the case when it comes to the key sectors we’re concentrating on and to the universities carrying out world class research.
“We’ve also got large enterprises like Nissan and the supply chain that comes with that.
“The potential really is great, but it’s not known about, either within the region itself or outside the region.
“I think we need to work a lot with communication and brand building – that will be major part of what we deliver.”
Innovation to Hans, essentially, means using a new idea to take a product or service to commercialisation.
He is also, though, a believer in Professor Roy Sandbach’s take on the matter – that to innovate, one has to match what’s needed with what’s possible to create economic wealth and social good.
Pro. Sandbach, who chairs the LEP’s innovation board, was the link that brought Hans to the region in the first place, a mutual respect cementing the potential for a strong working relationship.
“For the last few years at Ideon, I’d been working in lots of different initiatives to do with open innovation,” Hans explained.
“In April a year ago, we had a huge seminar series and invited Prof Sandbach as a speaker.
“At the time, it was the launch of the innovation strategy and, when he told me about it, I thought it sounded very interesting and I could see the strength there was in the region through everything from fantastic IT companies like Sage to the automotive sector.”
He admits the move was slightly daunting. Before relocating he knew no one here apart from Prof Sandbach and Catherine Johns of NETPark. But at the same time it was the kind of challenge he was after on a personal level.
And, with their three children having flown the nest, he and his wife Kirsti – due to move over at some point soon - were in a relatively flexible position.
“I started in March and since then have spent around 80% of my time meeting people,” Hans said.
“In two months, I’ve had face-to-face meetings with around 300 people and more than 50 organisations, including universities, councils, SMEs, large companies and support organisations.
“I’m happy to say that I think the innovation strategy is about 95% right, which is a fantastic start. Roy Sandbach and his team have done a great job and we now must go ahead and implement this.”
At the heart of his vision, he said, was the idea of collaboration and partnership working, making the most of the region’s strong points through creating a central focus.
“People tend to know each other here,” he said. “They network and the different bodies have started to collaborate, but much more could be done.
“We have ongoing initiatives to try to promote that, including a project called Supernetwork, which is a network for different organisations, research groups and companies within the innovation eco-system.
“The LEP, though, is a small organisation and we need partners who could take the lead on this.”
Another ongoing project involves improving how the region commercialises research, promoting a stronger link between the universities and industry.
The North East’s thriving life sciences sector will likewise be a focus, as will attracting and retaining young talent in the region.
Hans, though, also makes the case for simply growing the number of science parks and growth hubs, suggesting that compared to Sweden, there is currently a disproportionately small offering here, even if the likes of NETPark in Sedgefield are of the highest calibre.
“They can make it much easier to find collaboration opportunities, as well as to see the skills development process,” he said.
“At Ideon, for example, people tend to shift company once in a while – from large companies to start-ups, or from start-ups to SMEs or large companies, depending on the situation.
“If you have a family with small children, for example, it’s not always easy to run a start-up.
“But, on the other hand, in large companies there can be a lot of bureaucracy, which can be avoided by starting something new.”
Science parks and innovation hubs, he added, also tend to bring different sectors together, often creating “disruptive” concepts: “When people from different backgrounds come together, innovation often comes from building on a new technology of some kind or from putting together existing technologies to address a new problem in the market.”
Hans speaks from years of experience as well as from a place of passion - so it’s perhaps surprising to learn that as a young man, he envisaged himself working not in tech or science, but as a sports teacher. He trained in the profession, while also studying biology at university, and, upon moving to Stockholm, took on a teaching role for a couple of years.
“But this was the early ‘80s,” he said. “PCs were entering the education system and I was working for a private school at the time. I built up the computer-based system there and that indirectly brought me into the IT industry.
“I realised spending my life as a sports teacher was not ultimately what I wanted to do.”
Moving to the US company Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), Hans started out in educational services, teaching customers how to use PC operating systems.
From there, he progressed into various management positions before eventually heading up the firm’s Malmo division.
On the one hand, the business introduced him to the potential of innovative thinking - with AltaVista, DEC was among the first to break into the search engine market. On the other, though, it employed around 120,000 people throughout the world and he began to tire of the red tape that comes with that.
“So I left and founded a consultancy company together with two partners,” he said. We built that from scratch and established offices in Malmo, Lund and Copenhagen.
“It employed 120 people and was a profitable business. Within two and a half years, we had been bought by a NASDAQ-listed company.”
Following the buy-out, Hans remained with the business for another three-and-a-half years.
But when the opportunity for the top role at Ideon arose, he realised it had his name written all over it.
“They were looking for someone with a solid IT background who was also entrepreneurial,” he said.
At the time, the park included around 150 companies.
Under Hans’ leadership, numbers grew to around 350, with top names like Sony Mobile and Microsoft being among them.
The focus of the site - the most successful of its kind in Scandanavia - also changed considerably, developing from a strict focus on start-ups incorporating research from Lund University to a more diverse mix.
The so-called ‘open innovation’ process also became more deeply embedded, bringing a wealth of obvious benefits.
Most notably, Tetra Pak had been struggling for some time to find a solution to a problem involving the folding of round - as opposed to square - packaging.
“They had spent millions on this but just couldn’t solve it,” Hans said. “We therefore set up an open innovation process for them and recruited people from all over the world.
“We found out that the best people to consult when it came to folding paper were origami artists.
“We found 10 and put them together with mathematicians, designers and engineers from Tetra Pak in workshop.
“Within eight weeks, they had developed five solutions, all better than what Tetra Pak had done in several years at a fraction of the cost.
“That’s one example of how this model can facilitate such developments and I would like to see that happen here in the North East.”
Hans’ links to Ideon could prove vital to progressing the region’s innovation agenda, with the “innovation ecosystem” having become a global, as opposed to a local, phenomenon, each participant within it potentially being able to benefit from ideas stemming from anywhere in the world.
There’s also an argument to be made, Hans believes, for promoting the region as an accessible, affordable and highly skilled base through which overseas companies can make a start in targeting the UK market.
“I’d like to see this region recognised as a hotspot in Europe,” he said.
“To get there, we’ve got to implement the innovation strategy, developing our infrastructure, our science parks, and our incubators, helping connect SMEs, large enterprises and our university researchers.
“It’s all about creating new and better jobs. And, ultimately, if it’s attractive enough that I can get my children to move here, despite other opportunities, I’ll know I’ve succeeded.”