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PARK LIFE
Libbie Hammond speaks to Ian Silverwood-Thompson and Andrew Fursdon about why great facilities mean great science.

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05.jpg Science parks are designed to support the start-up and growth of innovative, knowledge-based companies. They provide an environment where large, international businesses and small start-up companies can carry out research and product development (R&D) using specialist facilities and state-of-the-art equipment. The parks will often provide a range of services on site from reception, meeting rooms and restaurant to business planning advice and support with access to finance issues.

The term ‘science park’ is used to describe a whole range of property-based developments which support innovative, knowledge-based companies-these include research parks, technology parks, technology centres, technopoles, innovation centres and technology-based incubators. What they have in common is their interest in supporting the innovation sector. They differ in their geographic location and the make-up of their development partners. Partners developing a park might include private investors, universities, regional development agencies, local councils and research institutes. It’s the partner’s interests that determine how a park develops, what services it provides, the type of companies it attracts and the policies in place to support the companies.

The United Kingdom Science Park Association (UKSPA) is the authoritative body on the planning, development and creation of science parks. The association’s network consists of over 60 science park members and 20 business affiliates. It is an independent company set up 20 years ago by the first science park managers. The association serves its members by creating a supportive email network, promoting parks through the UKSPA website, directory and periodical, organising three members’ meetings per year, providing bench-marking information, providing professional development opportunities, developing national and international profiles for members, setting up value-adding services for tenants using economies of scale to raise service and lower cost and recently setting up the LabspaceUK website which provides an opportunity for members to advertise their space internationally and attract new companies to their park.

CUH2A is a specialist architectural company and a business affiliate member of UKSPA. Specialising in the design of science and technology facilities, the company has offices in five locations in the US, and one in both London and Paris. Andrew Fursdon is the company’s managing director and Ian Silverwood-Thompson is responsible for business development at the company, and both believe that membership of UKSPA lends credibility to a science park, especially as UKSPA becomes more discerning about the developments it allows to join.

Both men are also keen to see more science parks being developed in the UK, for both the good of their company and also for UK plc as a whole. Ian agreed that a solid definition of ‘science park’ is almost impossible to come by, but that the value companies can gain from locating there is what makes them so attractive. “There is a value to being in a science park,” he said. “You get interaction with other young, innovative and creative companies on the park. Also, if you are located on a science park it is a significant sign for potential investors or banks that you are working among these other scientific organisations, rather than isolated on a trading estate.”

Further benefits of being located on a science park include property, technology and business services. Some parks offer these in-house whilst other park managers have developed a network of external regional experts whom they can rely upon to give good advice. Flexibility of lease terms and property can be very important for a growing company, and science parks usually have terms that meet their needs.

Start-Up Units
Andrew noted that parks can help tenants in a number of ways, highlighting how large corporations are keen to attract start-up units onto their sites, especially if they are spin-off companies run by entrepreneurial former employees. “Rather than lose them completely, if a company can house a start-up somewhere on their campus and provide business and marketing support then partnerships can be readily formed to take the products further more quickly,” he said. Centralised facilities are also popular, as he explained. “In fact, one or two of the parks we have visited regret the fact they haven’t provided centralised facilities, like meeting rooms, restaurants and videoconferencing rooms, at an earlier stage as that is a great way to engender a sense of community on that science park.”

Ian continued: “A good example of how things can be made to work is Cranfield. This is a mix of old and new buildings on an old RAF base, which now includes a conference centre with lecture theatres, breakout rooms, meeting areas, a restaurant and a 100-room hotel. This serves the site very well as you have the infrastructure and support for tenants, plus it is commercially viable in its own right, with off-site customers able to use the facilities. I think the mixture of old and new manages to work – although it isn’t ideal, it can be used as a model of how these parks can be successful.”

The demand for flexible, specifically-designed scientific facilities is set to increase in the future, with Ian already identifying a 20,000 position shortfall in available wet lab space. This problem can only be exacerbated by the DTI’s announcement that science, innovation and technology have been highlighted as key to Britain’s future industrial success. Secretary of State for Trade and Industry Patricia Hewitt MP said: “We need greater exploitation of science and technology and a step-change in innovation in our economy, and our workplaces…we’re sending a strong signal to scientists around the world that the UK is the place to come to carry out research in leading edge areas - such as nanotechnology and stem cell research.”

Andrew noted that no-one has entered the market in a big way providing speculative, fully equipped wet lab space, but that this trend is already happening in the States and is sure to arrive here. “This includes flexible space that companies can go into and rent for three months days or three years, on very easy in and out terms,” he explained. “This could be one way to address the shortfall in space and we would like to see the government helping to provide this, or perhaps give incentives to the research companies to engage with such facilities.”

Currently the government offers little in the way of central support to the development of science parks. Some developments are supported locally by organisations such as regional development agencies, as Ian explained. “For example, the NWDA recognised that the north-west is a knowledge based area and has backed a number of projects there, like the new Bio Facility at Speke. This is a research facility where someone with a biological entity that has been developed in wet lab space can be taken to commercialisation.”

Andrew also believes some companies are taking their research business abroad and Patricia Hewitt may be keen to try and stem this brain drain by encouraging top quality science facilities in the UK. Ian gave an example. “The Pfizer facility at Sandwich, which is probably one of the largest pure research sites in Europe, was designed with many criteria in mind, including making it as attractive as possible for the greatest brains in science. These scientists have tunnel vision for their research and the best facility will tempt them in.

“They also have to be designed to encourage interaction between the scientists, so that when they aren’t working they are in an environment where they can bounce ideas off each other, so almost like community research. If you want to suddenly recruit over 500 scientists you have to have something very special to attract them.”

Andrew confirmed that the quality of the building is also being used as a promotion tool for academic institutions. “We are involved in a project at Oxford on a chemistry facility with some other architects and there the building is almost like a signing on attraction to impress the students,” he said. “We are noticing that with other academic institutes; there is such a pressure to get the right people in place that the building is one of the lures to attract the right calibre of person.”

Formulated Strategies
Although the demand is out there, not all science parks are successful and Ian identified that extensive planning and well formulated site strategies are needed before any further progress can be made. “There has to be a need in the area,” he said. “Some cities decide they need a science park, get one built and then wonder why it isn’t successful. They have to research and establish the basis for it, find out their hopes and aspirations for the park and have a vision of what they are doing.

“There are many issues that have to be looked at including location, academic ties, economic viability, the availability of skilled labour, politics, interface with community, the other nearest competition, cost of facilities, transportation and logistics infrastructure. All of these have to be covered and many more and many organisations don’t go into this kind of depth to understand it properly.”

With the demand for lab space increasing and a new focus on encouraging science and technology announced by the DTI, the future looks positive for prospective developers considering a new project. Andrew agreed that larger developers are now looking at building good quality science facilities, especially those of a speculative nature. “The trick will be amortising the cost of providing support space and some expensive equipment as the means of attracting tenants in,” he said. “I can envision science facilities being developed in the way that Regus operates its centres - I think there is a scientific equivalent that is just waiting to happen.”

Ian agreed that the government, science and academia and most businesses recognise the need for rentable, flexible space but admitted that very few of the developers or the government are making any great effort to make this happen. “There are a number of developers looking for a generic option and someone needs to make it happen,” he said. “It doesn’t require a particularly brave investor to see the benefits, everyone is saying it is needed but currently there is little action. People like UKSPA and CUH2A recognise this and would be more than happy to be engaged in helping these parks be established. Good facilities mean good science, and the sooner we start building them, the sooner the UK can achieve the DTI’s aim of making Britain the most attractive place in the world for scientific research.”


If you would like further information regarding the science park association please visit the UKSPA website at www.ukspa.org.uk or call Roz Bird on 01799 532049.

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