Graham Harrison

Doctor of Engineering Graham Harrison

Friday 13 July 2012 at 11 am - Orator: Professor Guy Orpen

Mr Vice-Chancellor,

As an occasional visitor to Clifton might have put it, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a great city in possession of a top university, must be in want of a science park. Since the mid-1980s Bristol has declared just such an ambition – and on September 27 last year, after over 25 years of frustrating delay, David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, opened the Bristol and Bath Science Park at Emerson’s Green.   Along with the assembled press, television, local business, university and research communities he looked out at two major new buildings glinting in the autumn sunshine.

Today we celebrate the contribution of our honorary graduand in bringing this long-cherished ambition to pass.

Science parks are emblematic of the part that research intensive universities play in enabling economic development through technology innovation.   The first such parks were in the US – notably that in Palo Alto set up by Stanford University in the early 1950s, the Park where Hewlett Packard, Facebook and others emerged and are still based.   In the 1970s the concept took hold in the UK – most notably in Cambridge – there at the instigation of Sir Neville Mott (erstwhile Bristol Professor of Physics and a Nobel laureate).  

By the 1980s Bristol had the ambition to follow suit, but it was not until the turn of the millennium that matters started to move and the Universities of Bristol and Bath agreed to partner in the development of the case for a science park.   A key step was taken in 2004 when the South West Regional Development Agency (SWRDA) purchased the land at Emerson’s Green and in 2006 secured the partnership of private developers Quantum.   The next and vital step was to find the anchor tenant needed to launch the Park.   Little did we know that the economy was crashing, and none was to be forthcoming.  

In late 2009 a SWRDA-coordinated bid, led by Graham Harrison, was made to Government to form the National Composites Centre (the NCC) to be hosted by University of Bristol and to lead UK technology and innovation in manufacturing composites products – from planes, trains and automobiles to wind turbines and yachts.   In due course the NCC became the Park’s long awaited anchor tenant – and today it is a £30M facility housing 200 employees, based on the Park.   Mr Vice-Chancellor, the NCC project and the vision and determination to pull it off were Graham Harrison’s.

Graham was born in to a Lancashire family in which commerce and enterprise was an everyday part of life – indeed, he is to this day a non-executive director of the family business originally set up by his grandfather in Accrington in the years following World War One.   After education at Accrington Grammar School he contemplated studying architecture at university, but blinked at the prospect of the seven years required to qualify and instead opted for a business degree.   Aston University was quickest on the uptake in making an offer – and Graham went there and a great time followed.   There was of course academic work but also the great good fortune of meeting Jill Clarke, his future wife, then a student at Birmingham and an international middle distance athlete – and, in 1980, the World Student Cross Country Champion.

Graham’s degree was a sandwich programme – and what a sandwich.   His year in industry featured as a centrepiece the notorious Winter of Discontent, a high-water mark in the wonderful world of industrial unrest that was 1970s Britain.   In those chaotic times he shouldered remarkable levels of responsibility for one so young, coordinating heating fuel distribution from Esso’s giant depot to a huge swathe of the north and west of Britain – wise and brave decisions were made but happily those crazy times came safely to an end and Graham was able to go back to his studies and graduate successfully into Thatcher era Britain.

The year that followed saw him visit North America for the first time – sampling the American dream as a summer camp worker in Cape Cod, and then as an impoverished but entranced traveller from the East Coast to California in a four month saga that started his lifelong love affair with the US.   The travel bug had bitten, and his re-entry into the world of work in the UK was put on hold as he travelled east across East Africa, India, Nepal and beyond to Malaysia – acquiring the usual spectacular range of experiences and diseases before landing up in Australia - picking wild flowers for a living on a dodgy work permit in the outback north of Perth.  

The mid-eighties saw Graham back in Britain and working for a specialty paper company – manufacturer of banknotes and passport paper for the Chinese and US governments alike, as well as for an exciting range of regimes in some of the more challenging parts of the post-Iron Curtain world.   In his role as sales manager, he honed the dry wit, sense of humour and phlegmatic disposition that are today his hallmark, no doubt partly necessitated and developed by travelling to over 60 countries in the process.   In this period he and Jill settled in the West Country – where they were married and their two sons were born - initially living in Bath and later in Devon where they are still based.  

After some 15 years in various arms of the paper industry, the turn of the millennium saw Graham take a management post in the fledgling SWRDA where, over the next decade, he moved through the ranks to become Director of International Business.

Graham’s role saw him develop a number of key projects across the region – notably in support of our high technology industries.   These included setting up the Bristol-based Advanced Simulation Research Centre, a partnership focused on simulation and modelling techniques for industry; a series of Innovation Networks funnelling EU money into programmes linking universities and business; delivering investment of some £30m in aerospace collaborative R&D projects with Airbus, Cobham, GE, Rolls-Royce; and coordinating overseas inward investment securing thousands of jobs in the Bristol region.

By 2009, and in the aftermath of the financial crash, Britain was in need of New Industry, New Jobs, in the words of Peter Mandelson, the then Business Secretary.   Mandelson’s ministry launched the UK Composites Strategy jointly with industry and academic partners – defining how UK industry would be enabled to develop and deploy the emerging composites technologies by building on the world-leading research of our universities.   A National Composites Centre was at the heart of this Strategy, and the Bristol bid to host it was declared successful on 26 November 2009.   It had been won by the team Graham pulled together – including Airbus, Rolls Royce, GKN and this University.   Long time local residents will tell you that this was the first time Bristol had ever won such a major national competition.  

Graham was the first chair of the NCC Interim Steering Board.   Over the next two years he was at the heart of the project to design, build and launch the NCC on the Science Park.   This project triggered the remaining SWRDA investment and the Park’s development started in earnest.   By late 2011 the NCC was operating and was formally opened by the current Business Secretary, Vince Cable. Ironically by this time the same Dr Cable had announced the closure of the RDAs in an early fit of governmental enthusiasm - a decision that he himself termed a “ a little Maoist and chaotic” – and a decision that was made just as SWRDA had really hit its stride in this part of the country.   The Bristol and Bath Science Park was nominated one of exactly three national innovation assets at the closure of the English RDAs – a signal of its importance not just to Bristol but to the nation’s future prosperity.  

In a farewell poll the NCC was voted by SWRDA employees, the Agency’s ‘best project’ – and it was Graham’s project.  

Mr Vice-Chancellor, we have before us today an exemplar that major shifts in a city’s and university’s place in the world can be instigated and led by an individual – and that such leadership is not the sole province of chief executives or mayors.   Graham shows us each and all that we can have a place in leading our colleagues through vision, persuasion and persistence.   We will not all have physical, working reminders of the changes we have wrought in the life of our city and region.   But Graham Harrison does. Mr Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Graham Harrison as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Engineering honoris causa.


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