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Celebrating 20 years: How CPI is helping to change the face of the manufacturing industry in the UK

High Value Manufacturing Catapult

7 min read Partner content

CPI, a founding member of the government’s High Value Manufacturing Catapult, has worked with thousands of businesses, enabling them to drive innovation forward and bring new products to market

From helping businesses and universities to turn bright ideas and innovative research into marketable products to generating investment from government, investors and academia, CPI has made a huge impact over the last two decades.

The organisation has helped to create billions for the UK economy and played a major role in transforming the industrial landscape in the North East and beyond. It has been levelling up the region for years – long before most of us had ever heard of the term.

CPI is also a founding member of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, a network of elite technology innovation centres tasked with accelerating the growth and success of UK manufacturing. It does this by linking customers to the right experts, equipment, networks and funding – in other words, it “connects the dots for effective innovation”.

Based in the North East, with headquarters in Wilton, near Redcar, and 12 innovation hubs across Darlington, Newcastle, Sedgefield, the North West and Scotland, CPI now employs nearly 750 people, including scientists, engineers and business specialists.

Over the last 20 years it has collaborated with more than 1,300 businesses (60 per cent of them SMEs), helping them to drive their innovations forward and reduce the risk and costs that product development entails.

An independent and impartial organisation, CPI has led and partnered on nearly £400 million worth of collaborative research and development projects, tackled major industrial and societal challenges, created high-value jobs of the future and helped to bring new products and processes to market.

CPI also supports local economic regeneration by attracting inward investment and developing infrastructure. It now hosts three national centres – the National Formulation Centre, the National Centre for Healthcare Photonics and the National Centre for Printable Electronics – at NETPark in County Durham, a brownfield site next to an old coking works that has been transformed into a high-tech science park.

CPI’s areas of specialism include pharmaceutical innovation, medical technologies, agri-food tech, energy storage and sustainable materials.

It recently helped the electronic waste recycling firm DEScycle to take its ground-breaking clean technology (which transforms old electronics into raw material for new technologies) from proof of concept and move towards economically viable process.

Other CPI projects include the development of a new process to recycle polyester workwear garments and a trial that involved taking the carbon dioxide produced from factory chimneys and recycling it into washing product ingredients.

As CPI celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, CEO Frank Millar is hugely proud of the way in which the organisation is helping to change the face of the manufacturing industry in the UK. 

When CPI launched in 2004, the global chemical giant ICI, which once employed 30,000 people in the Tees Valley, was in the process of being broken up and sold. However, CPI was determined to “keep hold of the region’s innovation mindset” and ensure that the North East remained competitive in the global marketplace.

“That’s what CPI was set up to do – to bring knowledge and expertise about emerging technology to industry,” says Mr Millar, a chartered engineer and chartered director with a wealth of experience in UK engineering and project management.

Portrait of Frank Millar
Mr Frank Millar 

He believes that in the ensuing years CPI has shown what “constancy of purpose, strategic patience and investment in innovation” can deliver in terms of economic impact. 

“The regional economic strategy was very much around mitigating the impact of the loss of ICI by creating a fertile environment for companies to adopt new technology, to grow and innovate and to see the true economic benefit,” he says. “It was a matter of saying to academics and businesses: ‘If your idea is going to become a real commercial product or a real business then it will have to go on a journey of development and innovation in order for it to become a reality.’”

CPI is all about impact, whether it’s helping to develop products and processes to improve people’s lives, working to transform regions, collaborating on projects that address climate change, creating high-value jobs and next-generation skills or driving national economic growth through manufacturing.  

With its strong partnerships with academia, industry, investors, other Catapults and government, CPI plays a key role in the innovation eco-system. 

In addition to working with SMEs, building networks and helping companies to access the support they need, CPI partners with universities like Durham, Newcastle, Manchester, Liverpool, Strathclyde and Imperial College London. It also has a strong local relationship with Teesside University in Middlesbrough.

“We’ve picked universities where there is common ground in terms of the technologies and capabilities we have – and where there’s a lot we can do together in advancing research and development,” says Mr Millar.

“As well as being places of teaching and learning universities have a great interest in the economic development in their regions. So partnering with academia opens up a network of businesses, entrepreneurs, investors and spinouts from universities, all of which helps us to form that innovation ecosystem.”

When CPI partners with SMEs and larger corporations it builds cross-functional teams, providing suitable support, facilities, guidance and funding advice to guide projects through to commercialisation.

CPI’s offer to SMEs is wide-ranging and transformational, ranging from equipment, state-of-the-art labs and expertise to access to funding and experience.

“We’ve got plenty of case studies where clients say ‘you have saved us over a million pounds in things that we didn’t have to buy in order to be able to prove our idea was viable,’” says Mr Millar.

“When it comes to access to funding, be that public funding or bidding for grants in partnership, it’s quite an onerous business for an SME. They don’t carry a lot of spare capacity, if any, and a public grant mechanism can look quite daunting – whereas if they partner with CPI or any part of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult network we’ve got enough of a track record to be able to steer them.”

Looking to the future, he believes three aspects will be crucial when it comes to innovation – regional capability, sustainability and data.

“Some regions could find themselves aligning with others to form a super-cluster of capability and that will massively shift our national competitiveness because we will be able to connect genuine areas of excellence across the region,” he says.

“Over the last 20 years we’ve largely used economic impact as our language and talked about outputs and outcomes. That’s been fine but in the next 20 years I think we’re going to shift to evaluation through sustainability. There will be a whole range of new metrics that concentrates on things like climate and biodiversity recovery. Innovation is increasingly going to be measured against those things.

“The third aspect is that the pace at which we innovate is going to be determined by the rate at which we can develop, capture and harness very large sets of data. These will feed the artificial intelligence and machine learning models that we are increasingly using to gain pieces of technological or industrial insight that say ‘that’s a really attractive area for us to go and explore.’”

CPI plans to mark its 20th anniversary with a range of community engagement events and STEM activities in local schools and FE colleges.

The organisation clearly has a lot to be proud of – “but we know how much there still is to do,” says Mr Millar.

“We’ve proven a model, we’ve shown it can work, but it needs to be continued. I don’t think any of us are precious about its structure. We’re very open to new ideas and new models but I think that drawing private investment ever more closely into this network is really important.

“We are constantly evolving to make sure we have the skills and expertise to respond to societal and economic changes, bridging the gap between what manufacturing businesses are today and what they will need to achieve tomorrow.

“Our social enterprise model means businesses can take advantage of cutting-edge research and development to ensure their new product, process or service has the best chance of reaching the open market, while we reinvest to create further cutting-edge facilities and expertise.”

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