Monday Interview: Ian Reid, Censis

Ian Reid's role is to help extract those profitable nuggets from academia for the benefit of industrial growth. Picture: John Devlin
Ian Reid's role is to help extract those profitable nuggets from academia for the benefit of industrial growth. Picture: John Devlin
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NOW at the half-way stage of its initial five-year funding life, Censis is into what chief executive Ian Reid describes as the organisation’s “teenage years” – moving beyond the start-up phase into the full flow of driving economic activity in Scotland’s £2.5 billion sensor and imaging systems industry.

For the majority of adolescents, coming of age entails increased self- sufficiency, and Censis is no different in this respect. With an initial £10 million of funding from the public purse due to run out early in 2018, discussions about what happens after that are getting under way.

“We are now starting to build models of sustainability,” says Reid, who took over at Censis in May of last year.

This will most certainly involve some variation of the so-called “Fraunhofer Model”, where one-third of the organisation’s budget is publicly funded through existing backers such as the Government’s Scottish Funding Council, Scottish Enterprise and Highlands & Islands Enterprise. The remainder comes from a roughly equal split of private sector work and competitively-won contracts for government- sponsored research.

“Nothing is off the table,” Reid says. “There is a debate to be had with our current funders, and perhaps other funders, but we are very keen to have an industrial element.

“The ultimate acid test of whether what we are doing is valuable is whether industry buys into it.”

With a successful international career spanning research, engineering, operations and business development already under his belt, Reid should know what the private sector values. His role as the head of Censis – the Scottish Centre for Sensors and Imaging Systems – is to help extract those profitable nuggets from the realms of academia for the benefit of industrial growth. A native of Wales, Reid spent a brief period as a research assistant after earning his MSc in physics at Aberystwyth University. He then landed a job in the semiconductor unit of the former Hirst Research Centre run by GEC.

The Hirst closed down in the early 1990s after GEC largely withdrew from serious industrial research, but Reid was long gone by that time, having worked his way through various positions with Marconi, Pulse Engineering, Rood Technology and QinetiQ, the defence technology company privatised by the UK government in 2001. He spent nearly a decade at the latter, where he finished as head of the aerospace division employing nearly 800 people with £90m in turnover.

With a background in science, Reid grew accustomed during his career to understanding every aspect of the technology he works with. That changed at QinetiQ, where most of the scientific staff “had forgotten more than I will ever know”.

“One of the big challenges is to respect their knowledge, but also get them to respect what you are doing,” he says. “It is really about appreciating what people bring to the party in any situation.”

He eventually decided to take a break from the full-time executive treadmill, and spent nearly four years as a consultant interim manager within companies facing hurdles such as a new product launch or succession issues. The chance to head up Censis lured Reid back into full-time management, in large part because of the “exciting opportunities” within Scotland’s sensor and imaging sector.

“The Scottish community is sort of a funny size,” he says. “It is large enough to contain a good deal of variety, but is small enough that you can just about get your hands around it.”

There are about 170 companies in Scotland with a focus on sensors and imaging systems, a key area of technology for sectors ranging from agriculture, food and drink to defence, life sciences and transport. Censis acts a single point of contact for these firms when accessing academic research and innovation across Scottish universities and institutions.

In an effort to maximise its impact, the organisation is targeting its efforts on specific high-growth sub-sectors in which Scotland is well-represented and has distinct advantages.

These include sub-sea applications for the new wave of renewable energy devices; environmental monitoring in sparsely-populated rural areas; the oil and gas sector; bio-monitoring for medical devices; and general manufacturing applications, with a particular focus on the food and drink industry.

Censis is also looking to assist small and medium-sized firms in the field of the “internet of things” (IoT) through next month’s launch of the Connected Device Development Centre (CDDC).

Operating as a “lending library” of internet-connected devices, the CDDC, located in the Censis offices in Glasgow, aims to cut the time from product concept to prototype to “a fraction” of what is normally required.

The global IoT market is expected to double between now and 2018, as everything from home appliances and cars to farm animals and offshore oil rigs become wirelessly linked for remote data exchange, improving the efficiency and accuracy of their management.

“What we are looking for is developers to come in and try out new technologies, but that is only the tip of the iceberg,” Reid says.

“One of the biggest challenges facing SMEs is the lack of suitable space in which to demonstrate their prototypes to potential investors who can help take a product to market, but the CDDC will provide that space. We’re really excited about its potential, and this is only the beginning – this is a phased introduction, and there will be more to come.”

30-second CV

Born: 1959, Neath, South Wales

Raised: Bishopston, South Wales

Education: Gowerton Boys’ School, Imperial College London, Aberystwyth University

Ambition at School: I was born in 1959. All I ever wanted to be was an astronaut

Can’t live without: I have to have something to occupy me

Kindle or book: I do both

Favourite city: London, and San Francisco comes pretty close

Favourite mode of transport: I like ships

Favourite music: Zydeco

What car do you drive: I don’t drive up here – I think it would be a liability in Glasgow. In Hampshire, I have a Ford Cougar

What makes you angry: People not trying, and talented people squandering their talent.

What inspires you: People going the extra mile, and doing somethingthat is quite difficult for them

The best thing about your job: The sheer variety of it is absolutely fascinating