Sue Rees in conversation with Sebastian Johnson
Sebastian is a stalwart of the Oxfordshire business and innovation scene. With over 35 years of experience running his own businesses and working in the voluntary and public sectors (including local and national government) there’s very little he doesn’t know about economic development, business management, and strategy and policy development.
Just a few of his notable achievements include being the co-founder of Smart Oxford and part of the Smart Oxford Partnership Board, where he led and oversaw the delivery of the Oxford Super Connected City Programme that delivered ultrafast broadband and wireless infrastructure across Oxford. He has also developed the first Internationalisation Plan working with local partners and Government to deliver projects and initiatives that increase international investment into Oxfordshire which has seen year on year increases in the number of investments made into Oxfordshire.
His current role is Head of Innovation and Investment for Oxfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership (OxLEP) where he leads the Inward Investment team, working with Government and local partners to promote Oxfordshire’s innovation and investment and trade opportunities.
Sebastian kindly agreed to talk to me about his views on the current state of innovation in Oxfordshire generally, and in the Biotech, Life Sciences and Pharma sectors in particular. I was also very interested to find out what his opinion is of innovation and investment in a post-COVID world, and what advice he would give to the CEOs and senior leaders of Oxfordshire businesses now.
Sue Rees: Sebastian, you’ve had a fantastic career; I’d love to know what inspired you to take on your current role at OxLEP, and what the best parts of the job are?
Sebastian Johnson: After many years running my own business in the marketing and business support space I then shifted into the charitable and non-profit sectors, working in areas such as homelessness and with youth projects. I had also worked in local government, both in London and here in Oxfordshire. It was while working for the City Council that I became involved in its “Smart City” programme. This role really showed to me the synergy between the strength of innovation we have here in Oxfordshire and the investments that innovation drives. That excited me, and being part of a great team that is helping to promote and develop this was an opportunity I couldn’t pass.
There are so many great things about my job, that it’s hard to choose the “best”. But without a doubt, one of the fantastic aspects of what I do is being able to work with some of the most talented, clever, and focused people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. Before lockdown, I was lucky enough to spend time at Harwell and Culham. These remarkable science and research campuses have some of the best facilities and best talent in the world. Being in those environments is unendingly stimulating – every time I go there I learn something new about some cutting edge research, or a new spin-out, or a start-up that’s doing amazing things.
I’m not an academic, but I just love the buzz you feel from all the great innovation, R&D and commercialisation that’s going on in areas like Space technologies and Health and Life Sciences. When you combine the cutting edge science here with the “soft side” of what Oxfordshire has to offer, like its location, its people, its culture, beautiful countryside, and great transport links… Well, let’s just say the whole “package” is something I’m very proud to promote.
SR: There’s no doubt that it has been a challenging time for business, but I’m also seeing some entrepreneurs and also established business leaders using it as a platform for trying something new. What great examples of corporate innovation have you seen?
SJ: Where do I begin? There are so many! Without exaggeration, I could spend all day talking to you about innovation in Oxfordshire. One example that comes to mind given their recent work with COVID-19 would be Oxford Nanopore Technologies. Here’s a company that spun out of Oxford University and has moved at such a pace with its groundbreaking technology for DNA sequencing that it has changed the way the whole world now does things and for the benefit of everyone.
Another fantastic Oxfordshire story is Arrival, the electric vehicle company. They have had phenomenal growth, including recent major investments from Hyundai and BlackRock, and their global R&D base is in Banbury. Just before lockdown, I had the pleasure of visiting them and seeing the cutting edge work they are doing. What surprised me was just how much innovation goes on electric vehicles and ambitions for zero-emission vehicles – it’s not just batteries and motors, but also cutting edge composites and aerodynamic design… so much great engineering development.
There are many others… it’s a massive perk of my job that I can visit companies like this and feel the excitement and passion that the people behind them have. It’s infectious!
SR: I can certainly see your passion when you champion Oxfordshire and great Oxfordshire innovators like these and others! Obviously, we’re not in a “normal” situation at the moment, so what are the challenges businesses you work with are facing and how can OxLEP help with these?
SJ: You’re right – you only have to take your local exercise through any Oxfordshire town or city centre to clearly see the impact that businesses face. And it’s across many sectors that are important here in the county.
One key area that has been heavily impacted is the tourism and hospitality sector. Now that’s true for many areas, but I think Oxfordshire has taken quite a big hit. Not only because of the lack of tourists to the City itself, but also our many other attractions like Blenheim Palace, the Cotswolds area of the county, the River Thames, the loss of festivals and cultural events, and more. This also has a knock-on effect on the non-essential retail sector, and of course many others.
I have to praise the work that has been done by the district councils. Many of them have partnered with great initiatives like the Meanwhile Project to create socio-economic value from empty commercial properties by being creative. I know that City and Town Centre Managers are working hard to promote the fact that, despite all the challenges, leases are still being signed, and plans are being made for the future. I think it’s really important that we all remember that we can play an important role in driving sentiment and positivity.
In terms of concrete support from OxLEP, we’ve got a dedicated Business Support and Growth Hub. We’ve put a significant amount of resource to support business, as well as giving parallel support in relation to Brexit and the end of the transition period alongside COVID-19 support. We’re also supporting a range of initiatives around the recovery and supporting growth again as we come out of the pandemic. That involves bringing together businesses, academics, research partnerships, local authorities, and other stakeholders to look at how we bounce back quickly from the impacts of COVID-19, and that’s something OxLEP is already facilitating. We need to look at how we can support sectors where jobs have been lost as well as promoting growth in businesses that have been less affected.
SR: The Biotech, Life Sciences and Pharma sectors are well represented in Oxfordshire. How do you see these sectors developing over the next few years?
SJ: These are sectors where we’ve seen some resilience during the economic shocks from COVID-19. As we have many successful life science businesses in the county it does put us in a fortunate position in terms of seeing these companies lead the charge back into growth for our local economy. Not only have these businesses shown good resilience, but where they have been directly involved in the pandemic response many have grown.
Given the talent and facilities available to us, I think these sectors are well-placed to hit the ground running in terms of attracting new investment and new people. There’s also a strong track record from Oxford University of spin-outs in these fields and there is still a significant pipeline of these. When you couple this with the growth of the Harwell health sector hub and other facilities around the county it’s looking like a strong near-term picture for this sector.
SR: What do the investors you are working with look for when making investment decisions in Oxfordshire?
SJ: For sectors like healthcare, life sciences, and space, for example, we’ve seen great success in attracting foreign direct investment. This has been linked to the clustering, research facilities and capabilities, and of course, the great talent we have here. There’s no doubt that Oxfordshire has an international reputation for excellence in these areas. Our fantastic mix of publicly and privately funded research assets across the county are certainly a huge attraction.
But we shouldn’t underestimate the “soft” attractions that Oxfordshire has for investors, particularly if they are looking to send C-Suite executives to join boards as part of their investment. It really helps that Oxfordshire is a very nice place to live! There’s great green spaces, excellent schools, fantastic culture, and superb links to Heathrow and Birmingham airports as well as transport links to other parts of the UK.
There’s also a really strong entrepreneurial culture here, alongside a lot of collaborations, co-working, and sharing of ideas. New startups can find great places all over the county as well as access to a fantastic talent pool of people across all business sectors. It’s factors like these that I think makes us really attractive to investors and entrepreneurs.
SR: If an Oxfordshire company wants to attract the best talent, how important do you think team and company culture is in achieving this?
SJ: I think it’s very important. Whether you’re a new spin-out from the universities or an established life sciences company I think your culture is a huge part of the package when looking to attract some of the world’s best talent. That’s something that “UK plc” as a whole needs to keep firmly in mind, not just here.
The culture of a company, its aims, vision, and values, are key. When you look at those businesses in Oxfordshire that are growing rapidly they are often looking at some of the world’s biggest challenges – healthcare, clean energy, the future of mobility, and more. Increasingly, people are looking to make a difference, for their work to have an impact, and Oxfordshire can provide them with many opportunities to join organisations where they can do just that.
SR: British business has faced two of its biggest ever challenges simultaneously – COVID-19 and Brexit. How have these impacted the work you are doing at OxLEP?
SJ: Our focus over the last 12 months has been how can we support businesses that have been hit by COVID-19 and the end of the EU Transition Period. We wanted to help businesses be as prepared as they can be for the latter, not only in terms of impacts on their imports and exports but also around employment, intellectual property financing, VAT, and other areas. That project will continue until the end of March to support businesses that need it.
In terms of the pandemic, we’ve also been working with our public sector and private sector partners across the county on an Economic Recovery Plan to identify where support needs to be focused to allow our economy to bounce back and on building business resilience. That includes working with the councils, landlords in science parks and campuses, business support services, and more. And alongside the financial support coming from central and local government, we’ve been working to offer business support – talking directly to them, signposting help they can receive, sharing best practice for business resilience, and more. It’s been a real partnership approach among all the stakeholders.
SR: How can Oxfordshire and the surrounding area make the most from the worldwide coverage that our area is getting thanks to the Oxford/Astra Zeneca vaccine?
SJ: In January 2020, when COVID-19 was still unknown to much of the world, Oxfordshire’s scientists were already working on a response. The county’s well-established life sciences ecosystem – which includes pioneering academic and medical institutions, unique research establishments, and hundreds of biomedical companies – was able to mobilise immediately.
Our region is rightly world-renowned for its work in medical research and diagnostics and has longheld expertise in vaccinology and immunology. Throughout 2020, our area’s collaborative, innovative and pioneering approach really did lead the way in the fight against the pandemic. Our county’s contributions to this global effort have included: virology, genomics and structural biology research; vaccine and treatment research; clinical trials and manufacturing; diagnostics development; data, digital services and shared information; and medical devices.
You’re right that the amazing work on vaccine development here in Oxford has led to a global spotlight being shone on our fantastic life sciences and healthcare sector. We’ve been working with Government (through the Department for International Trade) and our partners locally – including the universities, research institutes and businesses – to promote the sector and the research, collaboration, investment and trade opportunities here, as well as promoting Oxfordshire as a global hub of excellence for life sciences.
The work led by University of Oxford colleagues and the research institutes and companies across Oxfordshire, and the recognition by the Government of Harwell as a Life Sciences Opportunity Zone, illustrates how important our ecosystem is to life sciences – not just here in the UK but around the world.
SR: What insights or advice would you give to CEOs or C-suite executives of Oxfordshire companies at this moment?
The first thing I’d say is “You’re doing an amazing job – keep going. Thank you, and well done for all you have done and will do.” It’s been a difficult year for us all, and I never cease to be amazed and inspired by the resilience, creativity and commitment of businesses and our business leaders to do all they can to survive – and in many cases grow – during such challenging times. I think we need to recognise that a lot of business leaders have been working incredibly hard to keep their companies going and in a place to be able to begin to grow again, supporting jobs, suppliers and customers as we begin to recover.
It’s heartbreaking that there are businesses that haven’t survived and that people have lost jobs. Here at OxLEP, we and our partners in the local authorities are doing all we can to prevent that wherever possible by support organisations through the funding initiatives being provided by Government and the business support programmes that we are running. An example is the Business Investment Fund being launched on 3rd March – a £2.1m capital fund that aims to support scalable businesses from across the county through a variety of matched grants, ranging from £25,000 through to £100,000 per business. Funding will be used by businesses to accelerate investment plans, rebuild operations and develop market opportunities as we emerge from the pandemic.
Lots of information about this programme and other support available on our website at https://www.oxfordshirelep.com/ I’d encourage any Oxfordshire CEO to see if we can help you. As OxLEP, we are ready to support you and champion what you are doing here in Oxfordshire and keep promoting to the world why this is a great place to invest in and to do business.