Innovation and Cyber Security in Greater Manchester

By Saskia Coplans

As a lead sponsor at this year’s Digital City Festival, HOST, the Home of Skills & Technology, brought together an expert panel to discuss how the last 12 months have accelerated digital transformation at a scale never seen before and what this has meant for research and innovation in the Greater Manchester region.

The panel included Bev McGowan, director of cyber security at HOST and CEO of The Specialists Hub and CyberPRO Security Services and Training; Keith Miller, academic director of the Greater Manchester Cyber Foundry and Greater Manchester AI Foundry; and David Taylor, senior SOC manager at HOST.

Accelerating digital transformation

The pandemic changed how the UK could do business, but according to Innovate UK, great challenges come with great innovation.

Throughout 2020, organisations developed multiple disruptive innovations to help the UK navigate its way through the pandemic and into the future, firmly cementing its place to lead the world of science and innovation in 2021.

Greater Manchester is home to the nation’s fastest-growing cyber ecosystem. It is a top 20 European digital city and is now a base for GCHQ, making it a world leader in cyber security and innovation.

Collaborative working is key to the region’s success in cyber and AI innovation, and there are already many great examples of how these partnerships are supporting this growing sector.

For instance, the Manchester Digital Security Innovation Hub, a collaboration between academia, businesses of all sizes from the largest corporations to SMEs and start-ups, public sector organisations and the voluntary sector, aims to develop ideas and solutions with real-world applications and enhance public and private sector cyber resilience and digital security.

The Greater Manchester Cyber Security Advisory Group provides strategic oversight and a force for inclusive economic growth, taking an ecosystem approach to build capability and economic resilience. While the cyber and AI foundries are already supporting and protecting operations and assets alongside cyber defences.

HOST brings together both the cyber and innovation ecosystems with a state-of-the-art Innovation Lab that houses a 24/7 Security Operations Centre (SOC) cyber support as a service.

The centre provides public sector organisations, enterprises and SMEs with a secure, tailored and scalable cyber solution. HOST supports the skills and growth of innovation throughout the region and the wider digital blueprint, with the UK’s first Unity Centre of Excellence.

Cyber crime

During the pandemic, digital transformation has accelerated at a rapid rate, but there has also been around a 31 per cent increase in cyber crime.

Bev McGowan, director of cyber security at HOST, explained that this was largely due to two reasons. The first being the increase in digital technologies, which has given cyber criminals a greater opportunity to exploit vulnerabilities.

Many organisations have not fully considered their security threats and controls when they have been quickly implementing new digital technologies.

Secondly, cyber criminals have used the period of disruption at the beginning of the pandemic to their advantage by exploiting vulnerabilities during the first lockdown when people changed technologies, processes and working practices.

Common types of attacks have included hacking into social media accounts and 365 email accounts, and then subsequently committing invoice fraud in a lot of cases. Once hackers have access, they can then send out invoices from legitimate email accounts with fraudulent bank details.

There has also been a significant rise in phishing scams and some cases have involved the stealing of credentials for future attacks.

There are basic measures that can be put in place to prevent these types of attacks from happening such as two-factor authentication, virtual private networks (VPNs), user training, threat monitoring and penetration testing for example.

The national infrastructure in the UK is also at risk of increased cyber attacks and in response, the government has announced its biggest spending hike in almost two years to boost military defences.

The UK government’s recent Cyber Security Breaches Survey found that nearly four in 10 businesses (39 per cent) have reported a cyber attack, while the average cost to companies that have been hit by cyber attacks in the last 12 months is estimated to be £8,460.

David Taylor, senior SOC manager at HOST, previously worked for the military where he served 10 years managing the communications and information systems on nuclear submarines.

He explained that spending will mainly be focused on creating more jobs in the areas of AI and cyber technology, including £5.8 billion on research and development.

“I think this increase in funding and also innovation is key to really tackling global security threats and improving the UK’s cyber capacity,” David added.

Innovation in Greater Manchester

Greater Manchester’s strength lies in the ability to collaborate and coordinate across public and private partnerships. For example, the Greater Manchester Cyber Security Advisory Group brings together these different bodies and can develop ideas from an initial proposal stage to a concrete project.

Keith Miller, academic director of the Greater Manchester Cyber Foundry and Greater Manchester AI Foundry, believes Greater Manchester’s vibrant tech sector has a great opportunity to secure a substantial slice of central government funding that can be used to innovate in cyber and AI.

Keith highlighted the importance of Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTP) and the benefits of the cyber foundries, “one of the things that’s given us the edge is that we’re actually working very closely with business schools, so that we not only have the scientific expertise around cyber, but we’ve got the right sort of innovation practice to work with SMEs to create the right set of projects.”

KTPs, particularly in the region, are a great way of leveraging expertise within universities while supporting companies on specific projects built around business growth.

Skills and talent

The skills required in the cyber security sector change quite quickly and it can be difficult to retain people in the industry. There seems to be a growing skills gap in AI and machine learning as well as cyber security, with around 25% of all data science jobs advertised in 2019 requiring an AI skill.

HOST’s Skills City will be looking to close the digital skills gap in the AI, machine learning and cyber security sector, by training new talent with the experience and skills they need to forge a successful career in cyber and digital industries.

Skills City comprises leading digital technology bootcamp academies, working in collaboration with employers at all levels to create a clear pathway to jobs and diverse talent recruitment. 

It aims to provide fairer access to digital and technology career starts, creating the most diverse technology talent pool while also being a magnet for technology businesses to move into the region.

HOST will also deliver the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) CyberFirst programme, inspiring girls at secondary schools to pursue careers in STEM, and it will also provide an 8-week placement for CyberFirst bursary students.

Bev emphasised the importance of cyber security apprenticeships to support young people into entry-level roles at the start of their tech careers. And with businesses able to benefit from the financial incentives of hiring new apprentices, it also presents a win-win situation for both employers and job seekers.

The Security Operations Centre

There are several programmes already in place in Greater Manchester and HOST is working in partnership with Salford City Council to bring to market its unique SOC, which will offer an affordable cyber security subscription-based support service to SMEs innovating and adopting digital and cloud technologies. 

As part of this, it is partnering with the Cyber Resilience Centre for Greater Manchester (CRCGM) to offer Cyber MOTs, which will include security awareness training and a cyber security assessment.

The Cyber MOTs will be fully funded and initially available to businesses based in Salford. The package also offers exclusive membership to businesses based or located near Media City.

The HOST SOC is also partnering with Siemens to support manufacturing and engineering businesses with an Industrial Cyber MOT, offered exclusively to SME manufacturers that are members of the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce as part of their membership benefits.

The Cyber MOTs will help scaling businesses and their teams to understand the risks of cyber crime and identify and prevent potential security issues through a comprehensive assessment, with recommendations on how to integrate security best practice.

The SOC comprises a Cyber Innovation Exchange, an open-source technology exchange that will also include a Cyber Innovation Sandbox, allowing for incubated start-ups to accelerate and validate their IP across a real-world commercial environment.

This will allow companies to use real anonymised data to build, develop and test ideas in a safe sandbox environment, to get new technologies ready to take to market.

David explained that organisations will be able to test products in real-world scenarios from an immersive perspective, so they can see how people will use their products and how they can be improved.

This kind of insight will be invaluable to businesses, particularly smaller ones, that may not necessarily have had the ability to make their products completely market-ready.

In the coming months, HOST will start to recruit up to 10 start-ups and scale-ups, looking to rapidly develop and commercialise disruptive cyber security solutions with AI and machine learning capabilities.

Businesses that are interested in finding out more about the Cyber MOTs can contact Claire Bennett for further details: