Paul Mason is Director of Innovation Policy at Innovate UK, the UK’s innovation agency. The role gives him a key role in determining the future of technology across the nation.
It could have been different. An enthusiastic jazz player in his teens, he almost became a professional musician. But decided instead to study chemistry. The income prospects for a scientist were more reliable than for a freelance jazz player, he says. “Career choice has to be a compromise between what you love, what you do well and what people are prepared to pay for.”
Paul acknowledges the huge educational opportunities he has experienced, first at his local comprehensive then at Balliol College, Oxford. “The quality of staff at school and university, and the time they invested in their students’ education, was huge,” he says.
Graduating in 1984, he rejected merchant banking and took up a full-time job at Courtaulds, which had sponsored his degree. It was there that he first used a networked computer, which the company had installed for its researchers to share their work and exchange reports.
During 25 years in the chemical industry, Paul worked on a wide range of technologies and markets. At Courtaulds, he worked on industrial and apparel fibres, high-tech and packaging films, separation technologies, polymers for a range of applications including LCD polarising filters and sunglasses frames, dyeing technologies, anti-fouling coatings for shipping, and in many other areas including spells in Europe, the US and Japan. He went on to hold change management, manufacturing, and commercial roles in Akzo Nobel and CVC/Acordis.
In 2007, Paul became Head of Development at the newly-formed Technology Strategy Board, which later morphed into Innovate UK. He is responsible for corporate strategy and the programmes that support its development and implementation.
Over the years, Paul has set up and launched national innovation programmes in areas such as agriculture and food, stratified medicine, disease diagnosis and creative industries. In many of these, the UK is world-leading, he says.
Not every idea that gains funding can be expected to succeed. “We’ve invested in some individual projects that went nowhere, but that would happen in industry and with venture capital too – but the programmes overall have been successful.” In innovation the UK is punching well above its weight in many areas, he says, including in offshore renewable energy, creative and digital industries, automotive, aerospace, advanced manufacturing and service industries, and in pharmaceutical and medical industries. For instance, in advanced therapies “about 38% of all European clinical trials are being conducted in the UK.”