Fifteen to One | Martin Stow

We put fifteen questions to Dr Martin Stow, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Business Engagement and Enterprise.

Fifteen to One with Martin Stow, December 2023

Following his appointment to the new position of Pro Vice-Chancellor for Business Engagement and Enterprise earlier this year, we caught up with Dr Martin Stow to hear more about his role and his collaborative vision to help the University make a positive impact on society, the economy and the world.

Keen to break down walls and facilitate new business engagement and enterprise opportunities, the former Director of Nexus also reflects on passionate leadership, the importance of balancing a career with family life, and the lessons that can come from failing.

Can you describe your role in 100 words?

My new role is all about how the University works externally with businesses to really drive impact and value for faculties, schools and academics. I have high ambitions for the University of Leeds to be recognised as one of the most business engaged and entrepreneurial in the UK. We've got so much amazing research and innovation expertise within the University, which is nationally or internationally leading, and I’m looking at how that research can make even more of an impact in the real world. It’s a broad role, spanning everything from enterprise and entrepreneurship, corporate partnerships, regional investment programmes and professional learning. It also aims to tackle the big question how can we create a culture of Business Engagement and Enterprise within the University? And how do we ensure our processes and systems are designed to encourage and support our staff, making it easier for them to work with businesses. Within faculties and schools we already have a lot of strong relationships with business and this role is about sharing best practice and maximising the value for these. We’ve built a really good reputation around Nexus, and we’ve done a lot of work with fast growing start-ups and innovative companies, but how do we start to scale that up for the benefit of the University and the region?

What impresses you most about Leeds?

I've lived in Skipton, so within the region, for the best part of 30 years and to be honest, I knew very little about the University of Leeds until I actually joined and researched it for my interview just over six years ago. What impresses me is the breadth and the depth of the expertise that we have; within the University there are a lot of areas which are nationally or internationally leading. I’m especially excited by the opportunities presented by some of our inter-disciplinary centres/institutes and schools. I’m a strong advocate of a ‘University without walls’ and see great potential for how the University can engage with industry. I think there's so much potential at Leeds to change people's lives and to make an impact in terms of the city and the region as well.

In what ways do you think the University can benefit the most from business engagement and enterprise?

I think the University can benefit in multiple ways working with businesses and being more entrepreneurial. Working with industry and external partners can add value to everything we do, whether that’s developing our degree programmes to be more industry relevant, creating opportunities for our students, funding innovative research, or supporting the creation of new business ventures. Starting with benefits for students, which include teaching entrepreneurial skills and giving them real life experiences, we can help them to develop ideas and concepts. Internships and placements are becoming more and more relevant, so giving students the opportunities to work and experience particular jobs, sectors and industries is really powerful to help them decide what sort of future career direction they want to take. 

More and more public funding is now available but only accessible if we can demonstrate collaboration with industry and businesses. So the more connections and links we have, the more impact, influence and income we can generate for faculties and schools.

The University also has a role as an anchor institute and works really closely with Leeds City Council and West Yorkshire Combined Authority, but we need to continue to think about how we can address inequalities, how we can support entrepreneurs from a diverse range of backgrounds, how we can drive economic growth, and how we can attract more inward investment. We’ve seen this to some degree with Nexus and have had some success attracting a dozen or so international start-up businesses who come to Leeds because they want to work with the University. As they grow, they can be confident that they can attract talent (from the University) and gain access to research expertise and capability in particular areas.

What question have you most frequently been asked in your role so far?

What does your role actually mean and how can it help me? There's a lot of misunderstanding about what this role actually is and faculties and schools naturally want to know how I can help them work with businesses, what that means and where the income goes. I want to work in collaboration with colleagues and look at how we can take away the barriers, build the capability that makes it easier for faculties and schools to work with businesses, and ultimately generate more impact, influence and income in their area. 

What are you looking forward to working on?

We create entrepreneurial journeys really well for undergraduates and graduates through Spark and we're doing some piloting around postgraduate and early career researchers. 

We also have some big opportunities to increase impact and diversify income, by looking at how we can grow the delivery of things like professional learning, CPD and executive education, contract research, and consultancy. 

We have great relationships across schools and faculties and I’m looking forward to developing mutually beneficial strategic partnerships with businesses across the University.

Do you have a standout memory from your time as Director of Nexus?

The final of a national entrepreneurial competition that KPMG ran was held in Nexus in August 2022 and it was actually the first time it had been held outside London it its seven year history. There were several hundred people there and it was being streamed to several thousand across the world. As I was giving the introduction and welcoming everyone, my standout memory was just feeling really, really proud. I was so proud that this was being held in Nexus at the University of Leeds and I was so proud of what the team had achieved in a fairly short space of time, bearing in mind the disruptions around COVID-19 over the best part of two years. Just being able to stand on that stage to introduce the event was a real highlight. The other standout memory was the actual opening of Nexus because again that represented so much work from a team within the University to get to that point. Nexus is a phenomenal space; you've got Nexus the physical building, but Nexus is really a community of innovative companies and the building facilitates or enables that. The success of Nexus is down to attracting the right companies, companies that are innovative, have high-growth and international potential, and that the University will benefit the most from working with as they scale.

Is there something, or someone, that has inspired you in your career?

When I worked for Johnson and Johnson, the President of that company really inspired me. He was able to create and articulate a vision but he was able to do it in a really passionate and compelling way. His vision was clearly about the customers and the difference that the products we sold and were developing could make to their lives. I learnt so much from him in terms of leadership and the importance of passion and energy. We are all only on this world for a short period of time. We want to make an impact but we should be able to enjoy what we’re doing.

What’s your biggest achievement or something you’re really proud of?

From a work perspective, I am really proud of the development of the Nexus community, which is now over 130 innovative companies, many of which are working with multiple schools/faculties at the University in a number of ways across student education and R&I. The University has supported the acceleration of the growth of many of these companies and in return as they scale (and attract significant investment), the University is gaining more value from them directly for our students, PGRs and researchers.  

From a more personal perspective, the biggest achievement and what I'm most proud of are my children, no question at all about that. I'm proud about the way they've grown up, the jobs they've got and their perspective on life as well. They’ve both got a really good, well-balanced perspective around family and work, thinking about sustainability and the environment too. They both recognise that life is more than just work and actually question what they want from life, which makes me proud because life is not just about working and it's not just about money or material possessions. 

In terms of a career achievement, I think that would be the start-up business I was involved with before this, which was a personalised skin care business. We took something from a concept, from a lab at Imperial College, through to a commercial viable business in the space of about two and a half years so I was very proud of the team.

What do you wish you’d known at the start of your career that you know now?

I really believe putting family and friends first is great for your career as it gives you a much more balanced perspective and you don't become a workaholic. As you get older, your priorities change. I was very driven from a career perspective, perhaps too driven, when I was younger. It was always about the next stage and what do I want to do next as opposed to having that much more rounded approach and seeing the importance of loved ones. 

What was your dream job when you were a child?

I was very keen to enter the medical profession and to be a medical doctor. I applied to medical school but I didn’t get in because I failed one of my A levels the first time around. I look at that now and actually think that was the best possible thing that could have happened because I think I would have been a terrible doctor! I became a biochemist instead but actually failing something early in my life was a really great lesson. I got a D or an E for A level Chemistry but that gave me real determination. A few months later I got an A. I learnt that if you work hard, you can achieve all kinds of things.

Do you have a favourite spot on campus?

My immediate response would be Nexus because I love the building; not only does it look great but it also drives serendipitous conversations and connections which are so valuable. In fact the whole campus is an amazing place. I enjoy going to St. George's Field but I also love the diversity of the buildings. I’ve even grown to like EC Stoner and the Brutalist architecture!

What’s still on your ‘to do’ list to visit?

I haven't visited HELIX yet but I think I've got that booked into my calendar and I'm really looking forward to that.

What do you do to relax away from work?

I enjoy walking, and living in Skipton is a great place for walking in the Dales. So fell walking and mountain biking is how I really, really relax. We love the Lake District so we always have at least one holiday every year in the Lakes. The other thing I love to do, although I don't have that much time for it, is photography. When I'm on holiday, I always spend a lot of time taking photographs and that's one of the nice things about the modern phones – they have such good cameras now. So those are the two things I really enjoy doing in my spare time as well as spending time with family.

Where’s your favourite travel destination and why?

That’s very timely because I came back from Canada in the autumn. We had a week on Vancouver Island, which is just amazing, and then travelled across to the Rockies and spent some time around Jasper and Banff. We did a lot of wildlife kayaking and hiking so I got a real flavour for Canada and I'd definitely like to go back. I did a lot of business travel when I was working for Johnson and Johnson so I've been to a lot of places in Asia and America but I haven't really seen them. I would very much like to go back as a tourist and truly explore cities like Shanghai and Tokyo. The list goes on actually.

What’s your random claim to fame?

I was on Tomorrow's World, a weekly programme on the BBC which used to give previews about inventions and what the future would be like. The CD was first shown on Tomorrow’s World for example, and they did a demonstration where they literally plastered a CD with jam or marmalade and it still played – I’m not sure whether that actually was a fact or not! The first start-up company I worked for demoed an antibody-based technology on Tomorrow's World so I basically spent the best part of a day in a studio making sure that the demonstration would work and it would be fine for the cameras. 

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