INTERVIEW: Dr Matt Fulton on supporting the green economy

Dr Matt Fulton has headed up the University’s low carbon business support programmes  – The Centre for Global Eco Innovation, Low Carbon Eco Innovatory, Eco-i North West  and now The Innovatory – since  2012. We asked him about the highlights, the challenges and the future:

You’ve been helping businesses for ten years now, are there any particular highlights in terms of both companies and students who have taken part in the programmes?

We’ve had so many good projects it’s hard to pick out the best, but there are a couple of standout projects that have been transformational to both the students and the companies.

The first is Marlan Maritime, that now has a completely new product after working with the School of Environmental Sciences (SoES) using one of our PhDs to utilise IP originally developed by NOC, which is a perfect example of knowledge exchange working the way we’ve always intended i.e. companies seeing the value of knowledge created within the regional research base and effectively commercialising something that may have remained unused and unloved in a research journal.

The company won a couple of highly prestigious awards for the work, and have invested heavily in the R&D including a couple more PhDs with The Innovatory which is paying dividends.  Cai Bird, their original PhD student, was taken on as a KTP associate and is now a director of the company.  In 2020 he won the rising star prize at the Mersey Maritime Awards, so for him The Innovatory PhD has been absolutely integral to his career.

The second is Farm Urban which was set up by Paul Myers following his PhD.   The company developed a modular hydroponic system with SoES and has worked with us since 2015, with 3 PhD projects developing vertical growing systems that can supply urban areas with fresh food, reducing food miles significantly. It has an aquaponic system on the roof of the Guild, as well as one in Alder Hey Hospital and another business, Greens for Good, growing fresh food under the Baltic Triangle.  As well as the obvious benefits of carbon neutral farming techniques, growing food on edible walls within businesses, schools and hospitals the company is researching its impact on wellbeing, food choices and pro-environmental behaviour.

The company has been featured on BBC’s Countryfile for growing food within cities and is now looking at the opportunities within the Maritime sector of growing fresh food at sea. Innovation and research is at the heart of the company’s ethos which is quite literally helping it to grow… (sorry!!).

Having helped more than 700 companies over the past ten years, is there anything you now know that you wish you knew when you started in 2012?

There hasn’t been too many shocks over the years, or unexpected outcomes. I was already aware of the difficulties faced by SMEs having ran my own following my PhD, which involved working closely with lots of other small companies, as well as some large ones in the supply chain. I think that’s been fundamental in the success of our projects over the years.   You have to have empathy and understand that research isn’t necessarily going to be their number one priority especially given the market conditions over the past couple of years. At the same time, it is the number one priority for the researchers so that can be a delicate balancing act.

What have you found are the main benefits that PhD students on the programme have gained?

The fact that they’re working on real-life issues that need sensible and actionable solutions is a great benefit.  We’re working with issues that are close to the market and really want to be able to make a tangible benefit. Our funding puts targets on the number of new or improved products created, so for us commercialisation of some of the ideas is essential.  This helps the students to gain experience in not only the research but also the commercial realities of the projects.  The best idea or optimum scientific solution may not be the most commercial or feasible.  Supply chains, availability of components or chemicals, costs, logistics and even a sector’s perception or innovation readiness needs to be taken into consideration.   Because of this the projects have a higher likelihood of becoming more complex overall, project plans may fluctuate, goals and milestones may change.

But this is all great from an employer’s perspective. We’ve had students tell us that they were selected for jobs purely on the basis that their PhD was industry-led and commercially focussed.

What have you found are the key challenges of working with businesses, and how do you deal with these?

I find working with businesses very rewarding. I think SMEs in particular can be misunderstood or misrepresented.  Of course they are susceptible to market forces and their focus has to change from time to time, but in general I find we’re working with highly focused and intelligent people.  They know their business, and have managed to create something that now employs 10, 20 or 30 people. I think that’s a really impressive achievement in its own right and would challenge anyone to do the same.  I can remember meeting Phil Carol at LPW when he had a total of 5 full-time employees.  I suggested he apply for one of our PhDs and there was some discussion from the project board at the time about the size of the business. But he knew exactly what the advanced manufacturing sector needed and we persuaded the board that this was a viable project.  A few years later he sold the business for $81M.  It’s quite a unique example, but it I think it demonstrates that we shouldn’t underestimate the potential we have in the region.

Are there any common issues that businesses come to you for help with?

One issue we often encounter, especially when it comes to low carbon, net zero, clean growth or eco-innovation, however we want to badge it, is where to start the journey.  There are so many people that would like to have a positive impact on the environment, want to reduce emissions and want to be more efficient but are daunted by the apparent complexity of the issues.

Smaller businesses in particular can’t afford to undertake ISO, PAS or any other standard assessment, and even free carbon calculator tools appear to speak a different language.  They need assistance to break their processes down into manageable chunks and identify the easy wins.  These tend not to be our PhD projects, which concentrate on a certain product or process, but we can assist via our internships. We pay undergraduates or postgraduates to research specific activities, aspects or take a holistic approach to lowering emissions, reducing waste etc.  These are a great way of identifying what the companies can do in the short-term to reduce their carbon footprint and can signpost longer-term solutions.

What sectors have you worked with the most, and are there any sectors you wish to target?

This is an interesting question as there used to be a perception that lowering carbon or researching low carbon themes was limited to what were traditionally seen as the ‘green’ sector; wind-turbine or solar panel manufacturers and their supply chains for example.  It is, however, becoming much easier to explain that lowering carbon emissions is an imperative for everyone, especially following the IPCC report on climate change and COP26.

We always promote ourselves as being sector agnostic. We’ll help any company within any sector which involves us working with academics across the university.  We’ve had projects in Engineering, Chemistry, Engineering, Electronics, Computer Science, Architecture, Integrative Biology and Psychology.  The range and diversity of topics is huge.

Climate action has moved up everyone’s agenda since 2012, have you seen increased interest from companies who are looking to develop innovative low carbon goods, processes or services?

We’ve always been over subscribed for our PhD projects.  We could have had double the funding and still filled the spaces. We’ve funded 67 so far and that could easily have been over 150. The appetite in the business community is huge and always has been.   I think the big difference is now businesses are more likely to understand that lowering carbon goes hand in hand with efficiency and cost savings as well as seeing it as a commercial opportunity.

Maybe 10 years ago more people saw eco-innovation or low carbon as coming with a large price tag; the business would have to take a financial hit to implement new measures or develop new products.  Now I think more people understand that without taking measures to reduce their carbon impact they are more likely to either lose business or waste money.

As the climate crisis becomes more serious and more obvious, with the most extreme effects becoming more frequent and longer, climate action has become a global imperative.  If you weren’t talking about it 10 years ago, your children certainly are now.  These are the consumers, business leaders and politicians of the future, and hiding your head in the sand is no longer an option.

What does the future look like for low carbon business support? 

We’ve always had funding from the European Regional Development Fund, which is now coming to an end.  It’s been really helpful to the region and has funded over £25m worth of low carbon research at the University.  We’re currently working closely with the Maritime Sector to create a Net Zero Maritime Innovation Ecosystem in the region.  The City has a unique offering and Maritime heritage.  With the city region’s focus on the benefits of Freeport status coupled with an imperative for clean Maritime technologies we are looking for opportunities to build on The Innovatory’s success through industry-led collaborative research partnerships. We’re also looking hard to find a timely replacement to continue reducing carbon across the board.  –  Levelling Up Funds, Build Back Better and Strength in Places are all potential candidates but we don’t have any firm details yet and we’ve no idea how these will be distributed, what the focus will be, the size of the funds, or when they will be available.

As climate action becomes a higher priority around the world programmes like The Innovatory, that has a proven track record at supporting the green economy, are exactly the type of initiative that is needed to deliver a greener, cleaner and better future.

To find out more about ten years of low carbon business support at the University visit this webpage.

For further information on The Innovatory and the support available to businesses, please visit this webpage.