Recapture the Tech Start-up Spirit

22 February 2021

To introduce the 13th issue of the University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC)’s quarterly journal, our CEO, Steve Foxley, spoke about why recapturing the tech start-up spirit for the organisation has been his compass throughout 2020:

Earlier this year, as part of our work to define the next strategic direction for the University of Sheffield AMRC, we asked each of our stakeholders what they wanted to see from the organisation in this next decade. The feedback was incredible and fundamental in helping us shape the direction of our Chapter 2 strategy.

There was one comment submitted anonymously by an employee that has stuck in my mind throughout 2020 and into 2021. The message was simple, yet powerful: ‘Consolidate and recapture the tech start-up spirit’.

The plea was for the AMRC to make sure that all this tremendous organisation has achieved over the past 20 years be consolidated and from this position, recreate the tech start-up atmosphere of old.

For me, the essence of a tech start-up spirit is captured by Ranjay Gulati in The Soul of a Start-Up written for Harvard Business Review. Gulati says: “There’s an essential, intangible something in start-ups - an energy, a soul. It inspires enthusiasm and fosters a sense of deep connection and mutual purpose. While this spirit persists, engagement is high and businesses keep their edge.”
With this in mind, the comment made by the anonymous employee has been my compass during what has been an exceptional 2020. So, as I look back over the past 12 months, how have we fared so far?

Well, there has been a huge amount of work done below the waterline to consolidate. We’ve looked back before planning forwards to make sure we’ve captured the code of the AMRC’s success; we’ve defined a transparent and collective strategy for this next decade; we’ve aligned the substantial resources we have at the AMRC behind our Chapter 2 themes; we’ve reorganised to embrace a OneAMRC culture and we’ve revised the underpinning financial model to facilitate even greater collaboration and encourage more of the original start-up spirit.

None of this work wins awards but has been absolutely critical to consolidate and create strength in the foundations. And it is upon these sturdy foundations from which we are recreating the flexibility and agility of the tech start-up.

We now have more than 100 people from the AMRC who are directly involved in project teams that are implementing the Chapter 2 strategy; making sure we are developing innovations to tackle the grand challenges around sustainable manufacturing, future propulsion, digital architectures and solutions and supply chain resilience, while in parallel, ensuring application and impact is delivered by getting our innovations onto the production floor of manufacturers.

We’ve created a ‘FerretWorks’ approach (our Yorkshire slant on SkunkWorks)

to incubate high risk/high reward ideas away from the typical business KPIs and constraints, creating a space where it’s OK to fail, as well as putting money into the groups so they can make space for thinking.

And there’s plenty to think about.

A new industrial strategy is on the way, which is touted to focus on science, technology and green initiatives, while prioritising the UK’s underperforming regions. In 2020 we also heard many ambitious announcements where new innovations in manufacturing will be essential; from Jet Zero and Net Zero to greener, cleaner energy and decarbonisation of heavy industry, through to the promise of infrastructure and innovation to level-up the North.

We know the University of Sheffield AMRC, as part of the High Value Manufacturing (HVM) Catapult, has an important role to play in delivering on these ambitions, turning them into something tangible and real that has a meaningful impact on people’s everyday lives.

Over the past twenty years, we have shown how effective our model of an academic-business partnership can be in delivering meaningful impact; we have become a powerful symbol for what is possible, whether that is regeneration, collaboration or inward investment.

Our strength lies in being part of the fabric of the places we operate, be that in the Sheffield City Region, Lancashire or North Wales. It is vital for us that we play a constructive and forward-looking role and act as a catalyst for bringing the manufacturing sector together across the North and beyond so it becomes greater than the sum of its parts, both in terms of practical development and innovation, and by bringing a strong collective voice to the national policy agenda.

But we also know that to successfully deliver on these goals requires much more than business models, systems, processes and structures. Sitting behind all of this is our people and the collective will we all share to make things better.

It is the people that make the AMRC. We’re far more than the buildings and cutting-edge capabilities that often define us; the lifeblood of the AMRC is the bright and brilliant minds who inhabit these buildings and find novel ways to solve manufacturing problems.

We know our people are our greatest asset. It’s vital we continue to bring in the new skills sets needed to help the AMRC grow and deliver on it’s Chapter 2 strategy; and we must invest in our people if we are to drive forward innovations and industry-transforming solutions that will have real, meaningful impact for businesses. And we want that impact to be felt far beyond the shop floors of Sheffield, Rotherham, Preston and Broughton - it must spill out into their surrounding communities, not only to drive up skills, transform productivity and support sustainable economic growth, but to deliver hope and aspiration.

As Ranjay Gulati says, having the soul and spirit of a tech start-up is not only the secret to growth but also greatness. If we are to live that shared purpose of making things better, the AMRC’s passion, authenticity, agility and personality will be at the heart of our success: the freedom to fail, to disrupt and ultimately, to innovate.

That’s why, as we begin to write these crucial next pages of the AMRC’s remarkable legacy, we must not only recapture the AMRC’s tech start-up spirit, but preserve and safeguard it; we must put it at the front and centre of this next new chapter and make our story a best seller.

Originally published in the 13th issue of the AMRC Journal. Read here:

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