Advanced processing and exploiting new materials are among the tasks of the Centre of Excellence for Process Innovation. In the third interview with bosses of the regional centres of excellence, Business Correspondent Jonathan Jones met Nigel Perry.

ADVANCED processing and exploiting the properties of new materials are the twin tasks underpinning the work of the new Centre of Excellence for the Process Industry.

Based at the Wilton Centre, on Teesside, the Centre for Process Innovation's (CPI's) role is to bring together partners to deliver research and development projects to the industry, helped by the expertise available in the region's universities.

Nigel Perry, 46, is the man with the task of leading the centre.

Originally from Wallasey on Merseyside, he has lived in the North-East for the past 25 years, describing it as "one of the greatest places on the planet". He has also spent time in Malaysia.

He said: "The North-East has put up with its fair share of problems and the new centres of excellence are about rebuilding confidence and showing that the region has the ability to succeed."

He believes the region's long experience in the chemical industry, matched with the world-class facilities at the University of Durham and Newcastle, alongside Sunderland and Teesside, can create tremendous opportunities for job and wealth creation.

Mr Perry said: "The process industries are the biggest single generator of wealth in the North-East and one of its major employers.

"There is real potential to make this region a centre of excellence for the process industry within the next three to four years.

"We want international companies in the process sector to make the North-East their first port of call when they come to the UK."

He added: "The UK remains at the forefront of the world's process industry, and there is a large chunk of that industry based in the North-East, particularly on Teesside.

"In fact the North, including the North-East, North-West and Humberside, remain the UK's biggest areas of operation for the process industry.

"Process innovation is about finding new ways of doing things, finding better, quicker and more efficient ways of responding to customer needs in the process sector.

"The CPI has been established to respond to those needs.

"For instance, we are looking at new ways of making molecules using supercritical fluids, how to make polymers capable of conducting electricity, and how to make better use of fuel cells to heat and power the buildings of the future."

The process industry has long been associated with large volume manufacturers of chemicals, such as ICI, for which Mr Perry, a chartered engineer who graduated from Oxford University and London Business School, worked for more than 22 years, in its agricultural division.

Now the process industry is far bigger than just chemicals, taking in pharmaceuticals, the food and drink industry and electronics.

Mr Perry, who most recently worked with IBM and PwC Consulting as a management consultant, said: "The chemical industry is a diverse and fragmented one nowadays.

"What we have got to do is focus outside the North-East and attract companies from elsewhere in the UK and overseas to the region to make the most of our excellent research and development facilities.

"We want international companies to think of the UK as the first port of call when thinking about establishing themselves in the process industry. And we want them to think of the North-East first when they're thinking about which region has the most expertise in the field.

"Basically, if companies want to carry out research and development in the process industry, wherever they are in the world, then they should come to the North-East to do it."

Although the new CPI is based on Teesside, Mr Perry is quick to stress that there are companies across the region which are involved in and will benefit from it.

They include organisations such as Procter and Gamble, in Newcastle, Thomas Swan, in Consett, County Durham, Avecia in Billingham, on Teesside, and Glaxo Smithkline, in Barnard Castle, County Durham.

Mr Perry says the region is therefore well placed to benefit from any associated boom in jobs as a result of the work of the CPI. Already, more than 20,000 people are employed in the sector.

Mr Perry said: "The success of the CPI will be measured in three different ways. How many jobs we create and sustain, how many new companies we help and how many new ideas we generate for the industry as a whole.

"At the moment there are currently only two people working for the CPI, myself and one other. Within the next six to 12 months, I hope to have a staff of around 35 in place. Hopefully that kind of growth will be replicated by companies working in the sector."

That, he believes, will be achieved by building on the region's strengths.

"We have to set up world-class capabilities in advanced manufacturing and processing and in exploiting the properties of compounds and turning them into new products," said Mr Perry.

"This is about the future. We must get on and prove that the areas we have identified have great potential and can be made to work.

"Success, for me, will have been achieved when we have world-class people working in world-class jobs in a world-class industry, based here in the North-East."

He added: "I believe that the CPI is a truly outstanding opportunity to reinforce the region as a global force in the process industry.

"Judging by the interest people have been showing since the CPI was established, we have hit on something that can work very well.

"People want to engage with the centre and there is a real excitement about the things we might be able to achieve."