Horizon 2020 is the biggest ever EU research and innovation programme, at the heart of its blueprint for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. Nearly €80bn of funding has been made available from 2014 to 2020 to drive economic growth across the continent.
With its emphasis on excellent science, industrial leadership and tackling societal challenges, its central goal is to ensure Europe produces world-class science, removing barriers to innovation and making it easier for the public and private sectors to work together in delivering innovation.
Given this focus the Manchester Institute of Innovation Research (MIoIR) has been at the forefront of Alliance MBS’ work with Horizon 2020.
For instance MIoIR was previously awarded a Horizon 2020 grant as part of a three-year project titled ERA-LEARN 2020 which aimed to provide an integrated framework to make public-to-public partnerships between national and regional funding organisations more efficient.
The Institute was part of a consortium led by the Austrian Research Promotion Agency (FFG) involving 10 partners across the continent, all of whom are government-run agencies apart from MIOIR which was deliberately chosen to provide independent analysis and policy advice. As part of the programme MIOIR has been monitoring and assessing the impact of joint programming activities set up by EU member states.
ERA-LEARN 2020 specifically supports existing and new joint actions that are built around assisting with research into the EU’s so-called ‘grand challenges’ such as tackling climate change, energy resource issues and dealing with an ageing population.
The web-based platform created under ERA-LEARN 2020 gave people the opportunity to record information and data efficiently, while facilitating the exchange of ideas and experiences. In this era of continued austerity governments are keen to explore how research funding can be spent more efficiently and the programme was about creating a critical mass and exploiting the mutual benefits of knowledge exchange.
Lord Alliance has always believed in the power of education.
Brought up in a small Iranian town, he left school at just 13 and would run his own business in the bazaar in the Iranian capital Tehran before emigrating to Britain in 1950 with just £14 in his pocket.
He recalls how he was first drawn by the bright lights of Manchester’s then booming textile industry. “When I first came to the city I was simply driven by the need to make a living. But as my own business grew, I increasingly saw how important education was.”
Indeed, given the speed at which the textile business he co-founded would grow, it is little surprise that Lord Alliance soon developed a particular interest in the teaching of business education. His business, Coats Viyella, would at its peak go on to become Europe’s biggest textile company, employing more than 80,000 people.
His interest in education also chimes with his wider philanthropic outlook and his strong sense that businesses have a key role to play in communities too, a belief which he held long before the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) movement gained ground.
As he adds: “My father always said that from your pocket money you should spend a third on yourself, give a third to charity, and save the other third. This was the culture I was brought up with and I have always tried to follow it. Businesses are just as responsible to their communities as individuals, regardless of their size.”
Meanwhile, Lord Alliance fervently believes that the best business education is a real-life business education. “I have always seen the great merit of courses whereby students get the opportunity to go into a real business for a year and then later return to university to complete their studies. Getting real life experience is absolutely crucial for business studies students. Having the chance to observe real board meetings, experience how real business decisions are made. I believe there is an opportunity to go further than placements and internships and students could actually be adopted by a business, that’s what creates real entrepreneurship.”
As well as this practical experience, Lord Alliance says students also need to take a creative approach to learning, an approach increasingly needed in today’s fast moving global economy, where the economic gap between developed and emerging nations is disappearing fast. “Business students across the world will invariably read the same books, attend the same lectures. So, if students and aspiring entrepreneurs really want to stand out and succeed, then my advice would be that they need to be creative. They need to explore what is not written in the textbooks. The global economy is changing very, very fast, and it is essential that we educate young people to manage these changes and be able to respond to them.
“Take the example of China which is now home to millions of entrepreneurs, or the Middle East which is rapidly changing too. Until recently, people in these countries and regions had simply not had the opportunity to be truly entrepreneurial. But now the gates are opening up everywhere.”
Lord Alliance’s own career is a perfect example of how being aware of fast-moving global forces is the key to a successful business career. Once the Coats Viyella business was firmly established by the early 1960s, he ventured into the retail market, founding the home shopping empire N Brown.
Looking back, the subsequent growth of the home shopping market can very much be seen as a pre-cursor to today’s online shopping revolution. Lord Alliance himself was instrumental in developing N Brown’s online business alongside its traditional home shopping brands.
To this day he fondly recalls how he first spotted the opportunity to grow a home shopping business 50 years ago when, one evening, he saw his wife reading a shopping catalogue and talking about how she could ‘shop from the armchair’. “At the time, I questioned her when she said it wouldn’t cost any more to buy the goods through the catalogue, but she was right. I asked her where she had got the catalogue from and she said from the cleaner. So the next morning instead of going to work early I hung around until the cleaner arrived and asked her precisely why she liked mail order.”
Fast forward to today, and the lessons that Lord Alliance learnt then in terms of spotting market opportunities and seizing upon them, are just as relevant. “If you take the retail industry it is clear that e-commerce will continue to grow, while it will become far easier and more customer-friendly to buy goods online too. The retail market is changing very fast and the market as we know it today will continue to change. There will always be a place for shops, but there will not be as many in the future.”
It isn’t just the retail market that has changed during Lord Alliance’s lifetime. Indeed, he says the decline of the UK’s manufacturing sector which first drew him to Manchester has been the most profound development he has seen during his career. But Manchester, like other cities, has successfully reinvented itself. “Today the drivers of the Manchester economy are the university and the airport. Manchester has always welcomed and created entrepreneurs.”
Meanwhile, he strongly believes that the UK manufacturing industry still has a future, and that companies are increasingly bringing back production to these shores. “It is now starting to come back due to a number of reasons. If you take clothing, then consumers used to buy clothes just twice a year, in winter and summer. Now they buy clothes whenever they feel hot or cold. Fashion has now changed from two seasons a year to consumers buying five or six times. You cannot easily meet that fast-changing demand by importing your goods from China. Firstly, you don’t know how much of a particular product you are going to sell, and secondly there is the time lag of importing your goods. On top of that, shipping costs have risen while labour costs are also no longer as cheap as they were in the Far East. What it means is that the UK can be competitive again. This isn’t just happening in the textile industry, but we are seeing it in other sectors too such as the automotive industry. Companies are starting to bring production back, and the UK has huge potential.”
Does he think the UK is entrepreneurial enough to seize these opportunities? “Our attitude is changing but still has a way to go, in my view we still don’t create enough entrepreneurs. I think our education system is partly to blame, but I think our wider culture still works against it too. For instance, why should children go to bed at 6pm? Wouldn’t they be better waiting up a little longer to hear their mother or father come home and talk about their working day, and get a feeling for what it is like being in business? It’s that same point about real-life experiences. Rather than just studying business, children should be encouraged to practice it from as early an age as possible. If that means just selling sweets in the school playground, then why not?”
Talking of tomorrow’s generation of entrepreneurs, Lord Alliance has during his distinguished career mentored many start-up businesses. He says he has always seen this as very much a two-way street. “As much as people learn from me, I have also learnt a lot from them too. Indeed, I have often found that the people you are mentoring can often ask the very simple questions that make you sharpen your wits. And you can also learn just as much from a start-up as you can from someone who has been in business a long time.
“But what is also interesting is that however well these young entrepreneurs are doing, they often feel insecure and need someone to talk to just to give them some guidance and assurance. I think there is a certain fear of failure attached to that. In the UK there is still a stigma attached to business failure, unlike somewhere like the US where this is much less the case.”
And the same can be said for students too. “If I had one piece of advice for an aspiring entrepreneur today it would be to know your limits. But if you put your heart and soul into whatever you do then you can make it.”