The Big Interview: Paul Winstanley, CEO of Censis

Chief executive of Censis, Paul Winstanley, is determined Scotland will master the internet of things, piece by piece.

To get those small companies to work together  I look at it like a jigsaw,' says Winstanley. Picture: Contributed
To get those small companies to work together I look at it like a jigsaw,' says Winstanley. Picture: Contributed

The market for Internet of Things (IoT) technology, which allows devices to collect and exchange data with one another, is booming, and it’s only in its infancy: wearable tech devices, industrial automation and driverless vehicles are just a handful of examples of the smart technologies it enables.

Hand in hand with this is a rising demand for sophisticated sensing and imaging systems which gather and process information for these connected devices. Applications for this technology appear endless, covering everything from transport and defence to healthcare and renewable energy. It’s perhaps not surprising that one of Paul Winstanley’s favourite sayings deals with precisely this diversity: “My biggest strength is that I work in a technology area which is ubiquitous; that’s also my biggest weakness.”

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As chief executive of Censis, the Glasgow-based innovation centre for sensing, imaging systems and IoT technologies, Winstanley’s role is to find how to generate the most value from this field: where do we apply these innovations and how do Scottish businesses scale them? His over-arching goal is to help create a Scottish tech sector that is greater than the sum of its parts by fostering collaborative efforts to increase the rate at which companies can innovate and, in turn, add value to the economy.

Mirage, a Censis project which completed earlier this year, has created more than 40 high-skilled jobs and has “established Scotland as a global market leader” in the global sensors and imaging systems market, currently valued at £70 billion. Backed by almost £6 million from Censis, Scottish Enterprise and four industry partners, Mirage is expected to deliver a £56m boost to the Scottish economy over a ten-year spell, as well as giving its participants a competitive edge in the global mid-wave infrared (mid-IR) sensors market. These sensors gauge sense temperature, distance, presence, motion and texture in products ranging from asthma inhalers to infrared cameras.

“Collaboration is something we need to do more of,” says Winstanley. “A lot of innovation comes out of small companies but you’ve got a commercial landscape that’s dominated by big companies. In many ways you’ve got a complete clash of cultures between those two entities so it’s really hard to bring innovation from a small company into a big one.”

This is what Censis is tasked with doing in the sensing arena – working to help SMEs scale once they have got to the point that a product or service is ready for market. “Can we facilitate – or enhance – a relationship with a larger company as a pathway to generate value and economic impact?” asks Winstanley. “Or, and this is the one I have quite an intense personal curiosity about, can you begin to get those small companies to work together in a more collaborative manner. I look at it like a jigsaw. A small company, as a piece of a jigsaw, their job is to make the best ever jigsaw piece, but it doesn’t allow you to build the full picture. By getting a couple of them to join pieces together and collaborate more effectively you get a fuller picture, a fuller capability, a fuller product set.”

Close-quarters working is an arena in which Scotland, because of its size and accessibility, has the upper hand on other countries. Winstanley cites initiatives such as the Scottish Government’s Can Do programme, which has used public sector organisations to demonstrate the viability of collaborative working models. He feels that now its efficacy has been proven, Censis can scale the model and apply it in a commercial sense.

The industry-led organisation works to find the most valuable applications for IoT, sensing and imaging technologies across Scottish industrial sectors, but it also looks to facilitate export growth. Livingston-based Sensor-Works, an industrial IoT specialist, collaborated with Censis for research and development support. Sensor-Work’s technology detects when machinery is starting to fail, allowing firms to carry out predictive maintenance rather than repairs, boosting productivity. It has also been working with KPMG to access opportunities in the German market, which has led to Censis working with the accounting group to introduce other companies to the same marketplace, where it sees a burgeoning potential.

Censis also runs a series of outreach programmes, with its flagship event being the tech summit in November. Last year’s summit welcomed 580 attendees – its largest cohort yet – and securing key speakers who can address both a technical and non-technical audience has kept Winstanley busy this summer. As the demand and potential applications for the IoT and sensing and imaging sectors grow, so does the need to communicate its uses more widely. To achieve this, the group is running a series of workshops to highlight opportunities in five sectors where IoT could have a “transformative” effect. Some of these are relatively well established, such as smart transport, but they also include emerging subsectors like smart tourism.

Winstanley cites the benefits IoT could bring to, for instance, a national park. Currently park authorities do not know how many people visit, where they enter or exit, or which services they access. “As a consequence, we don’t know how we can enhance their visitor experience, or perhaps maximise economic value,” he says. “We also don’t know what the impact of those tourists is – what’s the environmental damage? It’s one of the conundrums you have: your most popular attraction will probably be your most vulnerable one as well.”

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The solution? Build the first digital national park. “Aspects of this probably sound quite creepy and a bit Big Brother-ish, so clearly the important thing is that we’re not looking for attributable data to a person. This can all be done on anonymous data via, for example, an app.” The IoT-enabled park could teach us how to enhance Scotland’s reputation as a tourist location, while learning how to best protect its valued assets.

It’s about choice, with the app-user relationship best thought of as a transaction, says Winstanley. If there is a benefit to the customer, they will want to use the service. “That becomes a balance between opportunity and privacy, and we give the individual the choice over whether they wish to take that or not.”

The national park example is a scaled version of what is already happening on our day-to-day mobile apps. Personally, commuting from south-east England to Glasgow in the first months of his role with Censis, Winstanley became a frequent user of an airline app. “I manage my entire journey on that app. From buying flights to checking in, to when I get to the airport – it tells me which gate and where my luggage is. We’ve become hugely dependent on things like this in other areas, which make our lives easier and allow us to make better decisions. It’s starting to happen – this is about scale.”

Winstanley, who has a background in the defence and security sectors, took up the role in January and has been steering Censis through the early stages of its second five-year phase of funding, for which it has been awarded almost £9.3m from partners the Scottish Funding Council, Scottish Enterprise and Highlands and Islands Enterprise. The innovation centre generated a gross value added of just under £130m in its initial five years up to July 2018, so the bar is high for next half-decade.

Winstanley is “paying particularly close attention” to the Scottish Government’s thoughts on 5G, which he feels has the power to transform the health and social care arena, with the advent of devices such as self-diagnostic tools and home testing. Rolling out 5G connectivity could allow for delivery of “a very high quality of care into remote locations”, such as rural Scotland.

A former research scientist with the Ministry of Defence, Winstanley has served as chief executive and president of multinational defence tech company QinetiQ’s North American operation. Cybersecurity is high on his list of priorities, and an area in which he is keen for Censis to build a strong voice. Skills and employment, particularly in the tech sector, is another key focus, as he feels Scotland is underperforming when it comes to graduate employment.

“One of the factors is there is a much greater dependency on SMEs and those smaller companies are quite reluctant to take the risk of graduate employment. Larger corporations tend to be happier running graduate recruitment programmes to hire young people with more general skills and mould them into what they aspire to.” There’s potential for Censis to create a parallel programme to support graduate apprenticeships, he says.

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Despite being relatively fresh in the role, it didn’t take him long to settle in his new adoptive city. He says: “I grew up in Sheffield so I’ve got a deep affection for an industrial city. It feels very comfortable. Professionally, the thing that’s created the most beneficial surprise is that it’s a really small community. The closeness is useful. It’s small enough to personal but big enough to be impactful.”