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Gary Burnett meets… Sir John McCanny

  • Sir John McCanny has made a major contribution to both academic life and the high-tech industry in Northern Ireland and beyond.

    Widely published, he is an international authority on special purpose silicon architectures for Digital Signal and Video Processing and Cryptography. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), the Irish Academy of Engineering, the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), the Institute of Physics and Engineers Ireland.

    His many honours and awards include a CBE, a UK Royal Academy of Engineering Silver Medal and  an IEEE Millennium Medal. He has co-founded two successful high technology companies, Amphion Semiconductor and Audio Processing Technology Ltd. Sir John was responsible for developing the vision that led to the creation of the Northern Ireland Science Park (now Catalyst Inc.) and its ECIT research flagship.

    He also led the initiative that in 2009 created Centre for Secure Information Technology, CSIT, now a world-renown Centre for Cybersecurity. He was awarded a Knighthood in the 2017 New Year's Honours list for services to Higher Education and Economic Development.

    Gary: John, you’ve got this stellar career in academia and indeed in business. And your academic work has spilled over into the work of business and industry. Looking back, what would you say you are you most proud of achieving?

    Sir John: Well I suppose it has to be the creation of ECIT research institute and the wider impact on economic development it has had. And that goes back many years ago, many trips to Silicon Valley and trips to south-east Asia. Places like Hsinchu science park where I started to get fascinated by the whole interplay between advanced technology and technology research, and how that can help drive   innovation in business. From that, I guess bringing that back here and getting ECIT established in 2004.

    Gary: Sure!

    Sir John: When we look back at the late 80s and the 90s, although there was interest in the connection between research and business innovation, there was an awful lot of scepticism about what might be realistic within Northern Ireland. But now I think we have 175 companies here [i.e. Catalyst Inc], 2,600 people employed, and about £100 million a year in salaries alone for the local economy. And now  there’s a strong momentum to take this to another level - how could we accelerate this and take things much further, much more quickly? So I guess, that’s one of the things I’m proud of. The other thing I’m glad to have been able to do, was work with younger people and see their careers develop, with them going on to have stellar careers in their own right. So we’ve now created a whole generation of people who think much more like the way folks think at Stanford by comparison with the traditional academic mode. Many of these people have gone on to build their own successful start-up companies, or become CEOs of tech companies both here and around the world. So there has been a transformation.

    Gary: When you look at your own career, you’ve been successful not only in academia but also in business. And there are companies that you founded and have seen flourish. So you’ve straddled those two worlds of academia and business - and you’re saying you ought to instil that sort of approach with other people coming through?

    John: Looking back over the years, there has been something of a sea change at the national level. Traditionally it was research, writing papers and then moving on - and of course that discovery-based research is really, really important – but we now see more and more emphasis given to translation. So for example, the UK’s industrial strategy has just been published and you see much more emphasis on that; and you’re thinking, we were trying to do this 20-30 years ago! Perhaps in those days that wasn’t really seen as important to the extent that it is today. That’s good.

    Gary: Yes. So thinking about that sort of academic approach, and the translation into business and so on – you are probably somewhat of a pioneer, looking back 20 or more years now. What drove you to do that, when maybe some of your colleagues were more interested in simply writing the journal papers and so on? And what sort of qualities do you think you need to be able to do that?

    Sir John: What drove it initially was being at the lab I worked in before I came here. My background was a physics Ph.D., but I ended up working in a completely different area, digital signal processing. In those days, everything was analog, and digital was really just an aspiration. Anyway, the problem we had was that although micro processers were developing, when we did the sums we realized that these were still orders of magnitude too slow for most real-time digital signal processing. A colleague (Professor John McWhirter) and I, we were able to invent new computational methods that were up to a thousand times higher in performance, and that led to important breakthroughs. This research was undertaken at a government research lab, and there was a need to try to transfer this into industry.  We were able to be successful in that. So, I suppose that was a part of where I got the bug. The other bug was visiting places like Stanford and MIT, and just getting that whole ethos of how, particularly in the area of advanced technology electronics, you could do research and it would make a big difference economically and societally.

    I suppose in those days, I thought every academic in California was a budding entrepreneur, but I later discovered that there was only a relatively small number of them. The other influence back then was going to Taiwan with IDB [the forerunner to Invest NI] just after Taiwan had opened up internationally, and visiting the Hsinchu science park. I remember us driving on what were small country roads, then turning a corner and all of a sudden, it just looks like Silicon Valley. An important aspect of that Science Park was the presence of two universities on that site. I remember remarking to the guys that were with me about the way small indigenous companies sited there were working closely with the universities, and I said, “Why can’t we do that?” Two of those “small companies” were TSMC and UMC, which are now amongst the biggest silicon microelectronics companies in the world. So, it was a case of bringing that back and discussing it with people and trying to see how we could do something, at a sensible scale, here in Belfast.

    And I have to pay tribute, first of all, to Gordon Beveridge who was the vice chancellor here at that time. Gordon was an engineer; he got it and was interested. George Bain was next, and he came from the London Business School, and was very encouraging and supportive. As were subsequent VCs like Peter Grigson and particularly Paddy Johnson, who was really an inspirational person and a good friend. So to answer your question, it was a whole combination of things.  It really was a question of saying, “I’ve got this idea that I want to take out of the ivory tower and create what in those days I called a research and enterprise park.” Which I still think is a much better description than “Science Park” – the strong interplay between business and research. Needless to say, there was a degree of concern and indeed scepticism, but, we worked hard, and one thing has led to another.

    Gary: So when you say that there was considerable scepticism and so on along the way, in terms of what you’ve done and achieved here, John, that required a lot of leadership qualities presumably?

    Sir John: Just commitment, determination to do it! But you don’t do these things without a really, really strong group of people who are all pumped up and motivated to do it. And, as I said to those people, look, don’t worry about it – we’ll get knocked back, but every time you come up against an obstacle, you can either go over it or find a way around it. If you're passionate about what you think is the right thing to do, you find a way to do it.

    Gary: So that’s one of the qualities of a good leader? Passion?

    Sir John: Well, I think that you have to have that. A, you need the vision; B, you need the passion, the drive, determination; and C, most importantly, is that you actually deliver on that. It is not just pie-in-the-sky, it’s connecting the practical down-to-earth implementation of the bigger ideas and having the vision to go with that.

    Gary: As you look around Northern Ireland, John, at the technology companies, life sciences, software, whatever, do you see a lot of that good leadership?

    Sir John: I think it is something that we probably don't sell hard enough, or appreciate; but it’s really interesting to see it through the eyes of the foreign direct investment community that has come in. You know, if you talk to them, they will reflect on the qualities we have, those qualities of loyalty and professionalism and also the quality of education. And it is interesting also to see that there is a new generation coming through who have much more awareness of entrepreneurial activities and high-tech activities than in my day. Then it was really all about having a job for life.

    We’re seeing a lot of the younger engineers and commercial people now creating and leading their own companies. So, I think there’s a lot to be proud of – although there’s still a long way to go on a world stage. But Steve [Orr, of Catalyst Inc.] and his colleagues now do an annual analysis, and this tries to measure the depth of what’s going on, the rate of change of activity, and it shows that we are number two in the UK with respect to that, and have been consistently for a number of years.

    In absolute terms, we still have a fair way to go, but in terms of our rate of advance, it’s pretty much been consistently at number one or two. I think it is not only just what’s inCatalyst Inc. but it is the whole interaction and engagement which takes place and which Steve has helped facilitate.

    Gary: So, as you look around here and elsewhere, obviously there’s been a sea change from 25 years ago and the amount of innovation and entrepreneurship that has taken place is very heartening. What could we be doing better do you think? How do we make it even better?

    Sir John: At ECIT and Catalyst,we have been working with Belfast City Council, which is developing a so-called “City Deal”. That’s something that is still at an early stage, but it is being worked on and developed. Within government circles, there is also strong encouragement along the lines of “it is great what has been achieved to date; now how do we accelerate that?” There are exciting plans to develop things here at Catalyst Inc., with several new buildings being planned. We have also been discussing with them the possibilities of bringing other themes down here. At ECIT, our strengths are obviously electronics, communication, ICT, cyber, but we’re also trying to link those things up, with things like health analytics for example.

    I mean there’s a Fintech sector here, and again there are overlaps, possible engagements that are still very much in the early stages. We did the original ECIT and the Science Park and it was a case of “build it and they will come.” You do have to have a certain degree of, you know, desire in order to do that. It seemed difficult to communicate what we wanted to do 20 odd years ago, but actually the response we get these days is very much the opposite, it’s very enthusiastic. And people are asking that question; this is great - how do we take this to another level? And the more we have younger people coming through with their own expertise, they create their own aspirations, their own vision. And there's acres of space round here as well.

    Gary: And so obviously, infrastructure is one thing. The other thing that's needed to fuel all of this is people.

    Sir John: With regard to infrastructure, if you talk to Norman Apsley [CEO of Catalyst Inc], he’ll tell you we need £50 million straightaway for core infrastructure before new buildings and facilities here can be further developed, but in terms of people, that’s always a challenge.

    Of course, at every juncture people tend to say that, but the more we can grow clusters and themes, then the more that attracts people. So you don’t necessarily have to recruit all your people straight out of university here - we can do our best to do that - but equally if there are the right attractive jobs, those attract people from all over. So, it’s a combination of things. Skills is an important thing, though, and I think we do need proper coordinated thinking on that - it’s not just skills at the university level, but also in Further Education Colleges and so on. What would be useful is a more coherent approach. People like David Crozier here at ECIT, as you know, is involved with various Departments in the Executive to stimulate the whole cyber activity, and again the skills issue is one that has clearly been identified. So, there is an exciting strategic plan. However, I think coherence, rather than fragmentation in these things is always very important for success.

    Gary: John – thanks very much.

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