Written by Joff Alexander-Frye / Photos by Steven Haywood ( )

In every organisation, there are ‘big-picture’ and ‘frontline’ people, and both are as valuable and important as each other. To remove one from the equation would leave a business hugely lopsided; proof that vision and execution need to be closely married for any organisations to succeed.

When I recently met with Robert McIlwraith – the Chairman of ExIST (Exeter Initiative for Science & Technology), a lecturer at INTO University of Exeter and a board member of Exeter Science Park, amongst other things – I was excited to spend some time with a man with a reputation of being a true ‘blue sky thinker’. He also has a reputation for being self-deprecating and humble – both of which I found to be true (although I don’t imagine he’ll thank me for pointing that out!).

Born and brought up in Swansea, Robert has decades of experience working as an Engineer within the Aerospace industry. In the run up to moving to Exeter in 2011, Robert ran a global rope and net-making company, based in Bridport but with sites in the U.K, America, China, India and Sri Lanka. The company manufacture most of the of the cargo restraint netting that you would find under your seat on a plane as well as much of the netting used in military aircraft too. This role saw him travelling the globe regularly and undertaking the ultimate plate-spinning exercise in modern business – running operations across multiple continents and time-zones.

In 2011, after running that very successful company for twelve and a half years, Robert decided that, at the age of 56, he wanted to explore a dream of his that he was yet to explore – teaching. So, he started lecturing in Operations Management and Management Studies at INTO University of Exeter. Alongside his lecturing, Robert built a complimentary portfolio of roles elsewhere – a Director of NYSE listed Ardmore Shipping Corporation, a Director of the Exeter Chamber of Commerce and, more recently, the Exeter Science Park as well as becoming a Trustee for Sidmouth Hospiscare.

You’ll see a pattern emerging here; that Robert is a man who knows how to spin a lot of plates.

It was with Exeter Chamber of Commerce that Robert started discussing the need for a Science and Technology forum in Exeter which would capture and communicate some of the exciting work that was starting to be done in those industries. There was a general sense that not many people were aware of the variety of positive projects and initiatives which were being undertaken in Exeter, so ExIST was born.

With a calendar of quarterly events, each centred around a relevant topic, ExIST has positioned itself as one of the primary sources of education and networking around STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine) in Exeter. The group also publish a regular STEMM magazine, Insight, sharing news and providing a view into Exeter’s science and technology businesses and innovators.

It wouldn’t be going too far to say that ExIST have played their part in the wider growth and success story of Exeter – a city that is now positioned as one of the leading lights in Science and Technology in the U.K. For example, as the home of the MET Office and their new supercomputer (Europe’s largest operational High-Performance Computer), Exeter has also attracted a variety of other ‘big-data’ companies and organisations. With the development of Exeter Science Park, many of these companies are also now finding a home for themselves and, with a Russell Group University and consistently high-performing college providing students with excellent qualifications, the local infrastructure is now permanently primed for candidates and entrepreneurs of the highest quality.

Robert himself drove this point home when he pointed out that, between the University and the MET Office, Exeter contributed more authors to the 2010 UN Report on Climate Change than any other city in the world. That’s right… In. The. World.

Robert expanded,

Exeter is a city of dots just waiting to be joined. Some of the most successful organisations in the city have been those who are able to join up those dots. We have found that, in many cases, people in Exeter are doing truly world-leading work, but it feels normal to them, so they don’t tell anyone else about it. Our job is to help to shine a spotlight on the worthy and incredible work being done in Science and Technology in our city.”

And this theme of enabling and resourcing others came up frequently in our time together. It is clear that Robert derives great satisfaction from passing on the knowledge and experience that he has garnered over the years – both to the next generations through his teaching but also to the emerging industries and entrepreneurs through his leadership and management portfolio.

As well as having a personal value for mentoring and handing the baton over to the next generations, Robert also has a pragmatic approach to why this is important. He summed this up, saying

“If you manage to attract more companies in the science and technology community to Exeter, you bring really talented people into the business community who add value to the city and the region. Plus, as they come up with innovative and valuable ideas, we get to retain that value within our city, our region and our country rather than seeing it disappear to other parts of the world.”

At this point, our conversation turned to why and how Exeter should be staking its claim not only on a regional level but, increasingly, on the national and global map too. We talked at length about the necessity for Exeter to have confidence in itself and wear the badge of being ‘a city that punches above its weight’ with pride. I found myself feeling deeply inspired, asking myself questions like “Why not us?”, “why not here?” and “why not now?”.

Robert and I continued to chat about how dangerously easy it is for us as a city to become de-sensitised to just how exciting and unique the developing story of Exeter is. If you travel to other parts of the U.K at all, you will rarely see such momentum, initiative and collaboration within the business community and civil infrastructure. Sometimes, we need to take a step back and take stock of just how positive a time it is to live and work in our beautiful city.

And as part of the Exeter Chamber, ExIST as an organisation desires to build strong and collaborative relationships with education providers and businesses alike. After all, students currently in the education system are the first truly technology-immersed generation, meaning that inspiring confidence in them that they can explore careers in the fields of Science or Technology right here in Exeter is hugely important to the future growth of the city.

As our time together drew to a close, I found myself impressed with Robert’s down-to-earth nature, pragmatism and matter-of-fact approach to playing his part in the unfolding story of our city. I also felt a tangible sense of pride and relief (a strange mixture of emotions) that the future of our city is in the hands of organisations like ExIST and the Science Park.

He finished our conversation by saying,

“My mantra in business is that there is always a solution. It might not be the one you want or had expected, but there is always a solution.”

So, along with me and Robert, join us in celebrating Exeter’s progress so far, taking stock of the challenges at hand and doing our parts to realise a better, more innovative future.

To find out more about the fantastic work of ExIST, please visit

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