THE chairman of Highland and Islands Enterprise (HIE) believes the region is on the cusp of a major economic boom fuelled by faster broadband connections and renewable energy.

Lorne Crerar also expects the creation of an Inverness campus for the University of the Highlands and Islands to boost education as well as creating a further hub for the growing life sciences sector in the area, which already has around 80 companies.

The faster broadband in the region – which will see 84% of households and business premises having access to fibre cable by 2016 – is also expected to enhance industries such as food and drink, leisure and contact centres.

Already this year Inverness has seen major investments with US firm Daktari creating more than 100 jobs to build blood scanners in the city and CapGemini announcing plans for 500 employees at an advanced IT centre.

However Mr Crerar, also chairman of law firm Harper Macleod, says the potential for the Highlands and islands region is greatest in renewable energy and characterised it as being similar to the opportunity offered by the North Sea oil and gas sector in the 1960s.

He highlighted investments in port infrastructure at Ardersier, Nigg, Cromarty, Thurso, Wick, Kishorn and Arnish, Stornoway and pointed out more wave and tidal energy devices were being tested at the European Marine Energy Centre in Orkney than anywhere else in the world.

He said: "First, the money is being spent because there are opportunities in oil and gas because of the booming industry currently and Aberdeen can only cope with so much.

"Secondly, the design is around offshore wind, wave and tide. All these are in the throes of completion to enable us to be equipped to deal with the hoped-for demand.

"We don't just want to barge turbines or devices offshore. We want to build them onshore then barge them away, so that infrastructure is very significant."

The unique geography around the Highlands and islands is a boon for wave, tidal and offshore wind, but is also having spin-offs into other areas such as academic research.

Mr Crerar highlighted one study being done to find out whether Atlantic salmon go around Orkney or travel closer to the island's shore and the top of Scotland.

He said: "There's a lot of [academic] research being done in the Pentland Firth. The water goes at 12 knots and the tidal range can be 5.5 metres while in the Mediterranean it is an inch.

"We obviously need to know what way the [salmon] go before we start putting turbines and things down there.

"So there are all these opportunities being created around these [renewable energy] industries."

The broadband upgrade, being delivered by BT, involves 800 kilometres of fibre cable being laid on land and a further 400 kilometres of subsea cables.

Mr Crerar said the benefits will range from better digital health provsision – including remote diagnosis – through to areas such as home-working and greater opportunity to export products.

He said: "With a well-educated workforce, home networking through broadband could be enormous for the Highlands and islands.

"There are many nascent smaller [food and drink] brands that, if they get access to larger markets, could really grow.

"To go along with that, we are trying to educate our businesses on things like sales portals and buying through the internet."

Mr Crerar expects the £25 million Inverness campus to help keep young people in the Highlands and also attract many other people to the area.

The annual economic impact of the campus has been estimated at £38m and Mr Crerar said: "The campus is a fascinating possibility. There is so much spin-out from a university in terms of research and [job] opportunity."

Access to finance and changing long-held perceptions of the Highlands and islands remain areas where Mr Crerar can see a need for improvement.

He added: "There is an access-to-finance issue not just to Highlands and Islands, but also the rest of Scotland.

"There are industries which have real difficulty in obtaining funding with tourism among them and it is important ahead of 2014 that tourism is well-funded. A lot is being done to prepare the Highlands and islands for an anticipated increase in visitor numbers [next year].

"Some people still regard the Highlands and islands as still being behind the central belt but it is actually a place of great opportunity."

HIE spent £65m on business, community and infrastructure in its most recent financial year. The £23m invested in businesses and social enterprises helped support more than 800 jobs.