Not many people know that, at one time, the widest single steel span structure in Europe stood in the corner of a quiet Oxfordshire business park. Or that one of the world’s most realistic tsunami simulators has been created here. Or that this was where scientists became fish detectives to identify the Thames breeding ground of the common spelt. Matt Wright sat down with Dr Bruce Tomlinson (pictured) to discover what else goes on beneath the surface at HR Wallingford.
HR Wallingford was set up as a public body in 1947, the same year in which Alan Turing invented artificial intelligence, which seems rather apt given the extent of research still undertaken here today, in what will be its 70th anniversary this month. HR Wallingford currently employs about 270 people, around 85% of them located in Howbery Park, the remainder based in offices spread around the globe – Perth, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Abu Dhabi, Houston, and Shanghai, and with representation in Johannesburg, Milan and Mumbai.
After having been privatised in the 1980s, HR Wallingford secured Scientific Research Association (SRA) status; this means that at least 75% of its profit must be used for R&D-related activities in order to qualify for exemption from corporation tax.
“We’re experts at working with water – and we aim, where possible, to get water to work for us rather than against us.”
HR Wallingford operates in three core business areas – water security, natural hazards, and water-related infrastructure.
This encompasses a huge array of expertise, comprising probably ‘the most advanced physical modelling facilities in the world’ at the Howbery headquarters, which extends to three purpose-built halls measuring 14,400 square metres, including six wave basins, various wave flumes, free-standing hydraulic modelling structures, and 10 real-time ship simulators (Wallingford and Perth).
“Investing in R&D is an expensive process, and we need to make this work commercially, ensuring that the research we undertake delivers the tools and skills needed to solve our customers’ global water-related challenges.
“Any projects we undertake have to be useful, not just interesting.”
Tomlinson was recruited as chief executive in 2014 and has spent the past two years ‘getting to grips’ with the organisation, following structural management changes.
Given its SRA status and highly-academic workforce, Tomlinson (who is a civil engineer by training, but with a commercial background, having led various MBOs in his time) has a vision for the company which includes ensuring that its R&D makes commercial sense, especially in a post-Brexit world.
“We’re in a great position to benefit from Brexit – around 60% of our fees are non-UK in terms of project location. In addition, we’re looking to expand our international workforce so as to improve our ability to deliver locally.”
Tomlinson is excited by the opportunities presented by Brexit, being firmly of the opinion that UK companies need to actively seek out international trade. However, he cautions that the UK Government must get fully behind this export expansion.
“Within the next five years, I would like to see us established as the global centre for excellence in water resilience.”
Tomlinson has big plans for HR Wallingford, viewing it as a sweet spot for both proprietorial research and commercial collaboration. He is keen to attract other institutions, both commercial and academic, into Howbery (which has planning permission to create 70,000 sq ft of further office space), so as to learn from each other and grow together – this image of UK plc working together is a recurring image in this conversation.
Although HR Wallingford is a technology company which specialises in water, Tomlinson employs a much wider definition of the word ‘resilience’, using it to encompass other disciplines such as cyber-security, environmental hazards, and contingency planning.
In short, Tomlinson is keen to prepare HR Wallingford for the future, and is looking to make waves, not ripples in the process.