With five-minutes of career advice under her belt, Sarah Allison left school with no real plans or aspirations.

Like many of her generation, the Cockermouth kid had coasted on a rudderless craft. It was the bright ones at the local grammar that did well and she considered herself out of their league.

When her master’s science degree was confirmed with distinction this summer, she pledged to carry on using hard-earned skills to benefit the county she loves.

Working on pioneering £5.7m business growth booster, Cumbria Innovations Platform (CUSP II), Sarah says she wants it to play a big part in breaking down barriers to springboard leading-edge ideas and products.

Opportunities and successes are her watchwords, she has lived and breathed them all her working life. That Cumbria should have a plentiful supply of both is not so much a pipedream as an all-embracing mission.

She knows about hard-graft, how starting at the bottom and pulling yourself up by your fingertips leads to a clarity of vision, aspiration and achievement.

There have been spells working away from Cumbria, but she knows this is where she needs to be. It’s her lifeblood, the beating heart and soul. More than that, the county should have the UK and international recognition it deserves for ‘extraordinary business and innovation’, she argues.

Home is still Cockermouth, just as it has been for her family for the last 150-years or more. Her dad worked in the shoe industry there, her mum at fluid-sealing company James Walker, before moving to the health service.

Accepted on to an apprenticeship programme with British Steel in Workington, Sarah landed her first job as a service receptionist at Lloyd Motors in Cockermouth. While working with a confidence-boosting team of mechanics, she figured she needed to do something more challenging to prove herself.

Clinching her first management role at the age of 19 with Next Retail, the cogs of business and people started to turn, propelling her into the travel industry, where she worked as a resort rep in the Balearics, Lanzarote and Cyprus.

“It was certainly a character-building time. You were the first port of call and had to deal with a whole raft of issues – and find the solutions. I came home knowing I wanted to get on and to do that I needed higher-level qualifications.

“Like many young people, school hadn’t brought out the best in me and by then I knew I was capable of more, driven to get on in life and make the best of myself.”

Two weeks into a BTEC national diploma at West Cumbria College, tutors recognised Sarah’s potential and moved her into the higher national diploma course in business and finance.

“I knew I had a good head for the subject and paid my way through college working at Boots, Argos, the Body Shop and Cumberland Building Society, before moving into training and development.

“I became an NVQ assessor and internal verifier for a national training provider, moving to London in 1997 to become training centre manager for a large FE college.”

Progressing quickly up the ladder, she was promoted to senior enterprise manager, responsible annually for around £3 million worth of external and community-based learning across the capital.

However, the lure of bright lights began to fade. Tiring of the necessity of A to Z and underground maps, she craved the clean air, light quality, diversity of landscapes and even the worst weather of home.

“Most of all, I missed the Cumbrian people and the strong sense of community we share. I didn’t really appreciate all of this beauty when I was younger, but I now know that I will never live or work anywhere else.”

Sarah returned to take up a similar training role at Carlisle College and continued to provide training programmes for assessors and verifiers. Resisting a teaching career, it was business development and management for her, subsequently enrolling on a BA course to further qualifications – and knowledge.

Studying evenings, she continued the day job, a regime which has been mirrored in the master’s degree in coaching and mentoring completed at University of Cumbria.

Her pathway to university came via a management role with People First where she took charge of HealthWatch Cumbria. Gathering feedback from service users of heath and adult social care to push for change and improvement brought enormous responsibility.

“We had the opportunity to challenge and make real and lasting differences that would ultimately impact on people’s lives. It was the perfect stepping-stone to managing Cumbria Innovations Platform.

“People, processes, communication, transactions, and transformation interest me and makes me tick.

“In business, there's always an exchange of some description, negotiations and the potential for evolution. Processes and operations are key, as are people and the way in which we communicate.

“Management is exciting, dynamic and ever-changing. It’s as challenging as it is rewarding. From my perspective of supporting businesses, it’s particularly gratifying to see them flourish and grow.

“Being part of that growth, however small the input, is incredible. Whether we’re supporting innovation or goal setting, it’s equally exciting and satisfying. Along with continuous change comes the chance to explore.”

Sarah is managing innovative CUSP II on behalf of University of Cumbria and working with SMEs to turn ambitious ideas into reality in a seminal research and development package, led by Lancaster University.

Part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund, the project includes masterclasses and events, research projects, a peer-to-peer catalyst network and digital product development.

Up to 20 days of work from student interns is on offer, while master’s placements can span four months. Technical and digital rescources, as well as access to science and technology facilities, are all included.

Running until mid-2023, the uptake has been enormous, says Sarah, adding there were just 14 internships left and urged businesses to grasp a golden opportunity.

CUSP II, just like its first phase, brings together education, knowledge exchange, people and innovation, everything that matters to Sarah.

She said: “Innovation for me is vital because that’s where the magic happens. A world without it would be inconceivable. We couldn’t manufacture goods, have healthcare with lifesaving drugs and equipment, put people in space and make groundbreaking discoveries without the concepts and technology that had to start somewhere.”

She describes herself as a lifelong learner, always looking for the next qualifications to help others reach their full potential.

“What is important to me is that we need to be shouting – and doing it loudly – to establish Cumbria’s place on an international map for business and innovation.

“Great things are happening here, but we don’t self-promote enough. We operate nationally and globally, but need to challenge the current narrative and get the message out that we are a force to be reckoned with.

“We have it all. Nuclear and energy sectors provide vital supply chains, the World Heritage status Lake District supports a vast visitor economy, elsewhere we manufacture and have truly remarkable AI and robotic industries.

“Increasingly, there are more digital, design and marketing companies, demonstrating our considerable reach and all this sits cheek by jowl with extensive agricultural interests. We are skillful, resourceful and incredibly diverse.

“Even through Covid, while some organisations struggled, a lot have taken the opportunity to reset and restart. New enterprises have been explored, with emerging businesses seizing their chance in developing or existing markets. They’ve absolutely gone for it; it’s been amazing to watch.

“But, despite all this, I don’t think we get the recognition we deserve and are too frequently missed off the map. When you look at innovation research over the last three years, we are often at the bottom of the league and this not an accurate picture.”

Innovation is a risky business and can be resource intensive, said Sarah, adding: “Inevitably, there are obstacles to overcome. We can help access widespread expert skills and know-how, taking great concepts right up to the market place.

“The different strands of CUSP II are providing original and exciting opportunities. In phase one, which finished last year, we assisted around 140 enterprises, helped generate 63 collaborative research projects and saw companies develop 41 new products.

“I’m particularly pleased that we are including a Women in Innovation forum to explore the perception that females are not featuring prominently enough in the county’s business landscape.”

Sarah said a recent national Innovate UK/KTN Women in Innovation conference had shared statistics showing a map of red dots marking where females were making a difference. Cumbria had none.

“We looked like an innovation wilderness – and I absolutely know that is not true. We have fabulous women leaders the length and breadth of this remarkable place who are transformational and doing amazing things, but they are not being recognised.

“Possibly, it’s down to the metrics used to measure innovation, or that we’re too modest about sharing our successes. We do what we do, we make great things happen and we quietly get on with it.”

“Whether you are Cumbrian born and bred, or have settled here to live and work, there is no doubt that we are significant axis of business. Our growth hubs, LEP, regeneration schemes and development plans are vibrant and exciting.

“As a collective force, let’s be proud of what has been achieved, while always looking for the next venture to further our reputation and standing.”