Rowena Sellens, Chief Executive of Econic Technologies

Values versus skills, hiring in the technology sector.

Recruiting research scientists has its own particular issues, as we learn from Rowena Sellens, Chief Executive of Econic Technologies.

Econic Technologies, based in North Cheshire, develops catalyst technologies to turn the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide into polymers for use in creating common plastics.

The start-up business, which has grown from a handful of scientists to employing 30 people in four years, overcame a major challenge at the beginning of 2017, when it relocated from South Kensington in London to Manchester Science Partnership’s facility at Alderley Park, Cheshire.

Econic was in a business incubator in Imperial College in London, but was outgrowing the space available and made plans for a move. It needed some specific technical facilities and needed them soon, but another key consideration was what the employees wanted.

“I did a bit of a survey and asked what things were important to them,’’ says Sellens. “We had a relatively young team, mostly living in London and they felt they were maturing and had relatively decent jobs, but could still only afford a room somewhere. They are quite an international team, so they wanted to be close to a city and have good transport links but they didn’t like the cost of living in London and the long commute.’’

At that time the business had 16 staff and 13 of them made the move to Cheshire.

An ongoing challenge is in recruiting scientists straight from academic roles into a business where team work is essential to commercial success.

Sellens explains: “When you’ve had an academic career and done a PhD, it’s very much about individual projects and you’re trying to fulfil your own objectives and follow your own path, and success is about being very individual. Also, expertise and knowledge and being right are very important and it’s quite a competitive environment in that sense.

“But, when you’re working in any business and, in particular when you are trying to establish a new business, you really need strong teamwork and the focus is about what has to be done to make this business successful. Being the smartest, or the most knowledgeable or always being right or never admitting you don’t know is not positive if the business isn’t successful.

“Part of what we need to do with new technology is to unpick it to find and resolve it before somebody else finds them and that’s pretty challenging for people to do, particularly when they have come from an academic background, are relatively young and are in an organisation where there aren’t a lot of more experienced role models.’’

The solution is careful recruitment and then an emphasis on workplace culture.

“Over time we have evolved and improved our recruitment processes, so we are looking for people with the right aptitude and the right general skills. It’s a question of knowing the skills you want and also the characteristics of someone. You have to understand what you are trying to do in your organisation to do that. So we have also done some work on our values which all our team have been involved with and that’s useful not only when you are thinking about how people are going to fit into your organisation but also in reinforcing what our expectations are.’’

Eight of the team are EU nationals, two married to UK citizens and six under their own or partners’ citizenship rights. So is Brexit a challenge?

“Given the nature of people’s roles, we would argue that they were specialist and we would protect them in that way. People do feel less secure, not in our business, but overall and that might influence decisions they make,’’ says Sellens.

However, the business plans to continue growing, perhaps recruiting another 10 people in the next four to five years.

And the character of those people will be crucial.

Sellens says: “I think it’s very important that everybody understands what it takes to make a business successful and what their role is in it.’’