Innovation blog: Science parks set a trend by breaking the mould

Malcolm Parry, Director, Surrey Research Park

The science park template not only delivers image and reputation in a cost effective way, but also it matches the growth aspirations of many technology businesses with limited property related obligations – and beyond physical space, provides support for companies in trying to secure funding, business education and access to networks which link them into centres of technology.

If imitation is the highest form of flattery then what has emerged is an evolution of the early model created by science parks into an estimated 2,700 co-working programmes across the world over the last 10 years. Closer to home, more than 70 private sector co-working initiatives can be found in London alone. Mapping of these centres by GoCoWo (GoCOWo.com) shows how widespread these centres are across London and this interest has also spawned international brands such as Betahaus.

Many of these business development venues are joined through a membership fee rather than an occupancy contract. Benefits include: Shared working areas; hang-out space that includes a café; informal open plan and formal meeting rooms that provide privacy; team rooms supported by Wi-Fi, electronic labs and workshops with shared broadband. In some instances Skype booths, job and technology ‘Looking for’ and ‘Wanting to give’ notice boards are supplemented with ‘Events’. Next steps in the evolution of co-working might well include offering 3D printing while centres such as the Surrey Technology Centre has gone further and established an Angel Fund which has raised leveraged funds in excess of £30m for some of the 161 companies that have pitched to the group since it was first launched in 2007. This is supported by two entrepreneurs in residence on the site.

There is also an emerging informal relationship between universities and the commercially run co-working spaces. Any look at the programmes offered in Silicon Alley New York or Tech City in London will show the scale of these initiatives and the role being played by organisations such as the pop-up “unrulyversity” offering from City University London, and the plans for the minute MBA now on offer from the University of Surrey.

The Government also continues to shape the market through the work of its agency Innovation UK which focuses on business education, funding innovation and knowledge transfer as part of its long term strategy of putting in place policies to support innovation and education.

To help to drive this the Government has also extended R&D tax credits which now brings value to pre-revenue companies with its cash back arrangement for those in an early stage of building a business on novel technology.

The structure for funding research has a greater focus on exploitation and there are many programmes to pay for driving technology up the value chain and help with the transition from public sector funding to investor led capitalisation. And many universities today are committing more resources to offering courses in entrepreneurship at both under and post graduate levels.

Work being trialled at the University of Surrey has created a vision to inculcate PhD students with the idea of impact awareness in PhD delivery. Other programmes include linking MBA students focussing on entrepreneurship with projects that science park tenants may have in mind but for which they have no time to explore. This is to try to build extra levels of innovation into both the education programme for students and the businesses that participate.

What’s clear is that this bottom-up approach to incubator development has been an acceptable model for the last 20 years or so, but more recently, as public authority financial support for subsidised incubators and incubation has dwindled, the question of targeting resources more effectively to both capital projects and incubation programmes has to be urgently addressed.

Letting the market decide will no doubt drive incubator projects to focus on a limited number of high quality proposals with the potential for high growth. However, the high volume of pre-start-up to early stage firms currently with access to subsidised stand-alone incubation programmes and subsidised incubation space will rapidly dry up as the financial model is not sustainable in the longer term. Is this what the UK economy wants and needs? Surely not.

We need to remember that it is not enough to just educate young people; we must give those with the inclination to use that education the space and programmes to build upon it.