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Alpamayo Coaching on tour! First stop, Science Creates Incubators with Ashley Brewer

At the end of last year I spent some time reconnecting with the University of Southampton Chemistry alumni with whom I shared some time and space while I was a member of staff, & they were under and/ or postgraduates.  I enjoyed making those connections and getting an up-to-date sense of where they were and what they were doing.  The diversity of career path was exciting to see.

Many people reached out to connect and share an outline of their story, so the obvious next step was to get in touch with them and see where there was interest in meeting up and putting flesh on the bones of that outline.  In my mind it was about connection as the central benefit, with the possibility of some form of mutually beneficial collaboration being another attraction.  For whatever reason I feel a strong sense of motivation towards revisiting the mutual learning experience we shared earlier in our lives, and re-establishing it with an ‘operating system update’ to make it relevant to our present day circumstances.

Another wish was to create some opportunities to meet in person, given that so much of my work is still delivered virtually.  I don’t doubt the value and quality of the work that I do by virtual connection although I am aware of a sense of forgetting how to have a conversation with someone in real life!  I wanted to make my life just a little more 3D!

So it was that I found myself on the train to Bristol Temple Meads on the first leg of what I laughingly thought of as the first gig in my Alpamayo Coaching on Tour programme.  My destination was Science Creates, a Bristol based deep tech ecosystem supporting tech innovators in taking their scientific discoveries to the marketplace.  It is home to Ashley Brewer, Southampton under- and postgraduate, whom I had not seen for more than a decade!  Time to find out what had been going on throughout his journey from doctorate to Chief Executive Officer at Science Creates Incubators.

I remember Ashley as being self-contained as an undergraduate.  Always prepared to contribute, perhaps on his terms.  He remembers being very determined and still remains so today.  A consequence of that determination when he was a student contributed to the fact that our paths only crossed occasionally.  My memory of him was wholly positive, in particular the smile that played on his features that appeared to say ‘thanks for your thoughts, which I will reflect on and then incorporate into whatever I decide is my right way forward’.  It was interesting to note that he already sees his determination showing up in his young son too!

His determination fuels the passion which underpins his work at.  He talked about how he wants to do something to ensure that innovation and creativity is supported in and around his home territory in Somerset.  In his previous two positions at the Universities of Bristol and then Bath he had a growing awareness of the absence of support for the development from fledgling research findings into impactful commercially viable products.  I was surprised by statistics Ashley shared that showed the University of Bristol in 16th place in the 2017 university league table of number of spin out companies created based on its research.  In my non-expert view this seemed at odds with the scale and excellence of the research being done at the University.

The story of one particular spin out company is well known to him from the time he spent as a postdoctoral researcher in Prof Davis’ group at the University of Bristol and his connection with this research group was to have an influence on his later career direction too.  The company was Ziylo, which at the time of its spin out found it difficult to find facilities where it could build the evidence base to support the investment necessary for growth.  It did manage to spin out in 2014 but the challenge of finding facilities prompted Harry Destecroix, himself coping with evolution from scientist to company founder, to address the absence of any local infrastructure for deep tech start ups.  Along with like minded partners, he set up the organisation that has become Science Creates, an organisation that is now home to 40 spinout organisations.  Currently they are hosted across two sites in Bristol, with the organisation opening a third soon.

One of the striking things about Ashley’s narration of this story was the sense of his belonging at Science Creates, and belonging in the story of its development.  I could not help but be energised by Ashley’s description of the present-day organisation, where he came on board in 2017, becoming CEO in 2022.  As we walked the corridors of the more recent Old Market location, his passion for the infrastructure that he helped come into being was so clear, as was his sense of pride in the depth and diversity of science supported under its roof. 

Ashley Brewer (CEO of Science Creates Incubators, left) and Jeremy Hinks (Director, Alpamayo Coaching) at the Old Market Science Creates site in Bristol

How did he come to be there?  After his stint as a postdoc in Bristol he moved to a staff position at the University of Bath.  His HSE and teaching role had operational, educational and facilities management elements.  It was a role he enjoyed yet when Harry Destecroix reached out again to ask if he would become the new Centre Director at Science Creates (then called Unit DX), he didn’t hesitate.  He remembers the mild sense of recklessness in resigning a position and taking another one without so much as a contract, while also recalling that his decision was never in doubt.  Shortly afterwards he found himself presented with the shell of a building in St Philips and a lead role in converting it into the deep tech start up facility it is today.  For a time it was an operation beyond the scale of anything he had experienced.  While there must have been many challenges he can smile about them now.  He also had the benefit of his experience when the Old Market site became available for repurposing into their second incubator in 2021!

Alongside his determination,  Ashley acknowledges how he enjoys the degrees of control that come with leadership.  He enjoys being agile in decision making and working in an organisation where that agility is baked in.  He talked about realising that helping others to make connections with and between others is important to him.  We had a fascinating conversation about the relative merits of being either generalist or specialist, reflecting on some of David Epstein’s thinking in his book Range.  There is something of interest in the need to be able to be both in an environment where specialisation leads to the necessary scientific expertise while elements of being a generalist support leadership, chasing investment, and influencing others.  I notice that he seems to be thriving in an environment where he is an entrepreneur-by-one-remove.  Ashley smiles without committing to liking or disliking it, while noting it is the same for him at home with his wife being an entrepreneur in high end textile design.

Finally, there is a professional sense of fulfilment that we share.  We both see supporting of others as central to what we do, where we add value, and how we derive job satisfaction.  For Ashley, this comes in the form of knowing the scale of the research and innovation ecosystem that Science Creates supports.  Based on most recent data this ecosystem currently includes more that 350 scientific jobs.  For me at Alpamayo Coaching it is about the professional and personal development of hundreds of researchers through coaching partnerships that focus on building self-awareness to leadership, creativity, relationships and wellbeing.

There was so much to enjoy about our conversation which touched on many other topics, including one close to my heart which is the professional and personal development of the people who are investing their time and effort in development of their high impact deep tech products.  For now though, time to draw this to a conclusion with the observation of the impact of Science Creates through the efforts of Ashley and the rest of the team.  In three years since it came into being The University of Bristol moved from 16th to 4th in the league table of successful university spin-outs.  There’s a lot more to come too so if you are interested in deep tech research development get in touch with Ashley and the team at Science Creates.  If you are interested in personal and professional development for researchers and innovators get in touch Jeremy with Alpamayo Coaching.


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