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Meet the North East’s Digital Leaders: Decision-makers assembled to help digital sector

A crack team of influential decision-makers has been assembled to help speed growth and close the skills gap in the North East’s digital sector.

The Digital Leaders North East (DLNE) programme, launched in December and backed by major public and private sector organisations, has announced the seven members of the steering group that aims to drive the region’s digital transformation.

The group will use its collective knowledge and expertise to help influence and shape new thinking around the various digital transformation programmes in the region.

DLNE was launched by Chi Onwurah, MP for Newcastle Central, and aims to raise awareness of the ongoing digital transformation of the region as well as giving business owners and leaders a forum in which to share ideas.

The seven members, which are spread across the public and private sector, alongside a number of academic fields, are: Charles Sellers, managing director, Vantage Point Technologies;  David Jeffries, head of DigitalCity and graduate enterprise at Teesside University; Bob Paton, managing director, Accenture; Dr Rob Wilson, director of the KITE University Research Centre at Newcastle University; Simon Hanson, North East development manager at the Federation of Small Businesses; Marianne Whitfield, managing director, Cobweb Information and Adrian Hancock, chief executive, Socitm.

Gary Coyle, chairman of DLNE, said: “Attracting such creative and visionary people to drive DLNE is a major coup for the North East. Each member was chosen because they share the same goal; to make a real difference to the region.  Choosing these members was difficult as there are so many talented people currently working in the Region’s public, academic and business sector. However, we believe that we have found the right mix of people, with the right mix of skills and experience, to take our vision forward.

“The North East has enormous potential to grow as a region but it needs key stakeholders to start talking to each other and collaborate, with more joined up thinking between all sectors. By strengthening DLNE through these appointments, we believe we can be an important means of bridging that gap.”


David Jeffries, head of DigitalCity and graduate enterprise, Teesside University

As well as heading up business support organisation and hatchery DigitalCity at Teesside University, Jeffries also runs his own small business, digital media firm Ministry of Doing. David has been a pivotal force in the North East’s digital sector, having set up a series of digital media businesses over the past 15 years, including Newcastle-based Mere Mortals, which has worked on several major films including 28 Weeks Later, Sunshine and Slumdog Millionaire as well as several leading computer games for clients including Sony and Ubisoft.

He said: “I believe DLNE can become an authoritative voice in the North East and indeed an ear to capture the collective thoughts of those that are digitally engaged, giving us a chance to make a difference to the direction we take in the future and hopefully address some of the real issues along the way.”


Simon Hanson, North East development manager, the Federation of Small Businesses

Hanson’s role at the FSB is to ensure that the voice of small business is heard locally, regionally and nationally, putting him in an optimum position to aid DLNE’s cause. His role involves lobbying government on the key issues hindering business growth, as well as protecting and promoting the interests of small businesses across the North East.

He is delighted to be part of DLNE and believes the digital sector should be placed at the heart of the North East’s future economy.

He said: “The North East has an opportunity to be a European top ten destination for start-ups. Digital skills are at the very heart of this. As market opportunities continually develop the importance of digital skills can’t be underestimated.

“The DLNE provides the opportunity to get the voice of the small and micro businesses heard and can use our local, regional and national networks to help achieve something unique for the North East. Through the collective experience and influence of the new steering group, the DLNE can encourage greater collaboration and communication around key regional topics to help shape new thinking, future funding and local and central government policy.”


Marianne Whitfield, managing director, Cobweb Information

In her role at Gateshead-based Cobweb, Marianne is responsible for the financial, operational, technical and publishing aspects of the business, as well as the development of strategic commercial relationships. Cobweb publishes guides, factsheets and reports covering the opportunities, risks and trading issues faced by start-ups and SMEs. Marianne is also acting editor of Better Business magazine – a position which gives her additional expertise in the rigours of running start-ups, including those in the digital sector.

She said: “Digital technologies are now embedded in all aspects of society and it’s important that people know how to use technology for creativity and innovation, rather than just being consumers of technology. I think it’s vital that people from across the region understand the benefits of using all aspects digital technology to increase their awareness and understanding of the opportunities available to them for personal and career development.

I have known [the DLNE’s chairman] Gary Coyle for a number of years and when he mentioned the ethos behind the programme I knew it was something people in the North East would embrace. I haven’t been disappointed.”


Adrian Hancock, chief executive, Socitm

Hancock plays an influential role in driving the digital agenda on a national scale, with Socitm the professional body for the leadership and management of IT and digitally-enabled public services.

With Socitm having links to over 1,400 public, third sector and private organisations, Hancock is well placed to engage government and local policy makers in supporting the North East’s digital businesses.

Hancock’s previous roles include business development manager for the Improvement and Development Agency.

He said: “The world has moved on, and will continue moving, to a place in which digital media, digital communication and digital channels are the chosen methods of communicating and transacting with organisations and service providers. It stands to reason that the skills to effectively use, navigate and exploit these digital opportunities as well as the skills to design and develop them are critical and that a skills gap will result in lost opportunities and less effective services.

“The DLNE brings together a group of people who are not only interested in the issues, but are in a position to influence the outcomes within their respective areas of work. As a result, the region will begin to see and experience the practical benefits and new opportunities afforded by digital.”


Dr Rob Wilson, lecturer in Information Systems Management at Newcastle University Business School and director of the research centre for Knowledge, Innovation, Technology and Enterprise (KITE).

As part of DLNE, Dr Wilson will play an important role in forging ties between public and private sector organisations.

Much of his work involves the research of innovation and information systems and their ability to transform relationships with, or between, organisations.

He also lectures about research methods to business school students, better enabling them to understand and use data.

He said: “One of the challenges the region faces is remaking itself in light of the social, environmental and economic changes ahead. The engagement of citizens, communities and businesses in the response to these changes is crucial. Digital information will play a part in this. People need the knowledge and skills to be able to participate constructively.

“I want DLNE to help improve collaboration in the digital sector and support the creation of citizens and communities capable for action.”


Charles Sellers, managing director of Vantage Point Technologies and chief executive of Innovation & Technology Group.

Through the Innovation & Technology Group, Sellers identifies and works with new and existing hi-growth businesses specialising in digital technology. This is in conjunction with his work in developing a Digital Economy Programme for Northumberland and working with White Space broadband technology.

After nearly three years of research and development with Malcolm Fourie, founder and technical director of Vantage Point Technologies, his focus in 2014 is in taking the North East business onto the global stage with its innovative remote monitoring technology to international customers within the property management, rail, air and water industries. Sellers’ work is already leading to telemetry and asbestos fibre air remote monitoring opportunities.

He said: “I personally intend to continue embracing the knowledge, experience and expertise of the many talented people currently working in the North East’s digital sector and to pass this learning on to the apprenticeships, graduates and personnel of tomorrow that are working to create a digital North East economy that befits the 21st Century.

“DLNE will bring together influencers and senior decision makers representing academia, public and third sector and private business from across the North East. There is some fantastic work going on in the North East, whether this be R&D or innovation, but no one single entity attempts to join this up. It’s time for a change.”


Bob Paton, managing director, Accenture

With 34 years of experience within the IT sector, Paton is involved in all aspects of IT delivery, implementation and live service support as part of his role at Accenture.

He also has a number of additional roles within the North East digital sector, including vice chairman of Dynamo, the North East IT Forum, which allows him to focus on driving the digital agenda among young people in the region.

He is passionate about engaging young people in IT and is keen to help DLNE work closely with schools and colleges to bridge the skills gap and grow the region’s supply of digital apprentices.

He said: “In the North East we have a fast-growing digital and technology sector, and it is vitally important that we work with schools, colleges and universities to develop the relevant skills to support our industry. At Accenture we support a number of after school Code Clubs and have plans to further increase these from the next school term.

“Through DLNE I will continue to help ensure that the region has the right skills to support the growing North East digital and technology sector.”

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