Exploring (and Creating) Opportunities

When Mike Herd started chatting with the technician who was fixing his parents’ heating system, he had no idea that the conversation would set him on a convoluted path to becoming a petroleum engineer—and eventually the head of a technology incubator. It was 1977 and, having just completed his A-levels in history, English, and economics, he was about to start a job in a local bank. “The technician was telling me how all his mates had gone to university and that deciding not to go was the worst decision of his life.”

“That conversation changed my life,” Herd recalls. He resigned from the bank and enrolled in a B.Sc. degree program in industrial studies at Sheffield City Polytechnic (now Sheffield Hallam University). Although the degree, which focused on applied physics and business skills, was not an obvious fit for the professional aspirations he developed later, every aspect of his formal training was useful to him at one time or another in his career, he says. He taught himself everything else he needed to know.

“I wasn’t afraid to try something different and make it work for me.”—Mike Herd

A love of history and science

As a child growing up in Wilmslow, in Cheshire, Herd had equal passion for economics, history, physics, and biology. In retrospect, he says, his elder brother, who was reading English at the University of Oxford, may have unduly influenced his choice of A-levels. The younger Herd’s scientific interest rekindled during his B.Sc. degree, when he studied physics, polymer chemistry, and computing.

During his first industrial placement, at a company near Newcastle that produced paint additives, Herd spent 7 months in the human resources department, learning how to hire staff, deal with industrial accidents, and serve as liaison between management and trade unions in a science-based industry. In a second placement, he wrote computer programs to help implement a system to improve productivity at a large bread and bakery products manufacturer in Bolton. The idea, he explains, was to “build a management information system modeled on the human nervous system, allowing, for example, daily orders from the delivery vans to be processed automatically, like a human reflex response, leaving senior management (the brain) to concentrate on strategic decisions and spotting trends that require a change in behavior.”

Teaching himself

A 2-month summer job in 1979, as an administrator on a ship that serviced platforms in the Thistle oil field in the North Sea, set Herd on the path to becoming a petroleum engineer. His father, an engineer then working in the oil industry, arranged the job.  

During Herd’s time on the North Sea, a tragedy occurred. Two people were killed in a diving accident. Yet, experiencing the camaraderie and teamwork of working under life-threatening conditions had a profound, positive effect on Herd. “Being able to get on with people in that environment is such a challenge and so invigorating,” he says. His desire to continue working on a team, combined with his interest in the cutting-edge science and the excitement surrounding oil production in the North Sea at that time, inspired him to enter the oil industry, which he did upon finishing his degree in 1981.

Lacking the standard engineering qualifications, Herd landed a position as a tape librarian at Britoil (later bought by BP), indexing and archiving records of the scientific measurements taken from oil wells. “Measurements of radioactivity of the rock, its hydrogen content, density, acoustic properties, and resistivity are combined with seismic data to work out the rock … composition of the oil field,” Herd explains. He taught himself a programming language so that he could create a computer database to replace the card index system. “I saw an opportunity to make things better, and by doing that you start earning the respect of the people around you.”

In order to continue improving things, Herd realized, he “needed to understand what the engineers were trying to do with the data,” he says. So he began learning everything he could about petrophysics and geophysics by questioning his engineer colleagues—most of whom had master’s degrees or Ph.D.s—and borrowing their science books.

Colleagues started “pushing for me to get the chance to go offshore and become a petroleum engineer,” says Herd, who was working at the company’s bases in Aberdeen, Shetland, and the North Sea. However, “it took a further two-and-a-half years for the organization to accept that I should be a petroleum engineer.” In 1984, Britoil finally offered him the opportunity to study part time to gain a master’s degree, and, later that year, a promotion. Herd turned down both offers because he had already decided to move on.

Herd never earned an engineering degree, but he secured a job as a petroleum engineer at Exploration Consultants, an oil-and-gas-industry consultancy and software company based in Henley-on-Thames. He traveled around the world working on scientific problems, such as creating three-dimensional numerical simulation models of oil fields from physical data, and on science management issues, such as resolving industrial disputes between oil companies.

“My confidence shot up, because people accepted me with the experience I’d had,” he says. “I became not just qualified but seen as a problem solver who could bring all sorts of ideas and concepts together.” Andrew Stocks, former manager of the Reservoir Geology and Petrophysics Group at Exploration Consultants and now an independent consultant petrophysicist, writes in an e-mail to Science Careers that Herd “was not hesitant in exploring and proposing different solutions to both technical and non-technical aspects of studies and projects.”

Taking on management

Over time, Herd, who married after moving to Henley-on-Thames and then had two kids, found that traveling was beginning to take a toll on his family life. When the chance arose to run a software-consulting group within Exploration Consultants, he welcomed the change. “I wasn’t afraid to try something different and make it work for me,” he says.

There were early signs that he would be an effective manager. Herd had long been interested in both methodology and efficiency in studies conducted for clients, Stocks writes, and his readiness to teach himself whatever he needed to know helped him to excel. “He was enthusiastic to learn on the job, engage in discussion and readily sought advice and input from his colleagues.”

Supporting entrepreneurship

Herd moved on to other business-development roles, eventually joining industry giant Schlumberger in 1995. In 1996, he was sitting on a plane between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, feeling fed up with so much travel, when an opportunity arose from an unexpected source. In a newspaper left on a neighboring seat, he spotted an advertisement seeking a person with commercial experience to head the new Sussex Innovation Centre (SInC), a technology hub that supports the creation and growth of businesses in emerging sectors, based at the University of Sussex.

Herd applied and stepped into his current position, as the SInC’s executive director, in February 1997. In this role, he advises commercialization efforts that grow out of academic projects at the University of Sussex, provides input to the university’s business courses, and selects unaffiliated start-ups for entry into the SInC. He also develops networks of investors, helps SInC-based businesses broker investment deals, and creates new business models for emerging technologies.

To date, more than 500 companies have been launched through the SInC. Ninety percent of the companies that have emerged from the SInC were still trading after 3 years, and an estimated 15-20% have grown to have revenues in the millions of pounds.

“What’s made the SInC a success is that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing when I got there. I had no knowledge of start-up businesses, so I went to the initial five companies in the center and asked them what problems were stopping them … then built a network of contacts to try and find a solution,” he says. “That became the whole ethos of the centre—supporting people rather than telling them what to do. It’s about bringing in the skills or information to help them run their business.” His science background has also provided a solid basis from which to explain the new technologies to the 15 business-support specialists in the SInC.

In July, Herd made the short trip from Sussex to Buckingham Palace to collect the Queen’s Award for Enterprise Promotion, for encouraging entrepreneurship via his innovative approach to mentoring young companies.

Andy Newell, managing director of IRIS Connect, a company incubated in the SInC, writes in an e-mail to Science Careers that Herd “helped us understand how to create the right commercial environment to enable innovation. He … encouraged us to build our technologies in house, and [introduced] an Angel investor who wanted to contribute his time and expertise alongside funding.” Herd’s scientific approach also helped IRIS Connect, now based in Brighton, deal with its technical and business challenges. “He understood complexity and cut through it in a very rational and scientific way,” Newell writes.

His job “is the sort … you never stop thinking about,” Herd says. “I love the excitement of spotting a new market opportunity for a technology created by someone I’ve never met before.”

“There are plenty of ways of using the research base to help the economy, and I want to grow the team while maintaining the original ethos, so [that] the SInC becomes a strong brand that can continue after I retire.”

Elsewhere in Science, 6 September 2013

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