BQ Newsletter

Science and nurture

Tuesday 7 February 2012 10:31

Much has changed since the boom years when work began on the region’s most ambitious science park. BQ revisits the facility to see if the plan remains on track.

If North Carolina’s 50-year-old Research Triangle Park (RTP) is the granddaddy of all science parks, then NETPark is its rapidly-sprouting grandson.

It’s hard to imagine, scouring the neat landscaped lawns of the former hospital grounds, that the site in County Durham could one day support 50,000 jobs and be home to hundreds of the world’s most innovative firms.

But that is the aim of its creators who have built much of their inspiration from what has been achieved over the last half a century at RTP.

Just like North Carolina’s 1950s battle to offset the death of some of its biggest industries, like textiles and agricultural manufacturing, County Durham found itself at a crossroads in the new millennium with heavy industry all but gone and an impetus to look to the future for a new economic direction.

When work officially began on the project in 2004, European regeneration funds were flowing freely and the Sedgefield site even had the country’s most powerful politician as its local MP.

A change of government, a global recession and an ongoing squeeze on funding later and the climate looks very different now.

Netpark insetBut, according to Catherine Johns, director of innovation development at County Durham Development Company – the organisation which runs NETPark – the master plan remains on track, although she admits it could take anything from 15 to 60 years to fill the vast site with innovators.

“It’s hard to say how many years it will take to fill the park up because we don’t control the global economy,” she says.

Patience is an important asset for those at the helm of NETPark’s leadership structure. Building a facility to match RTP’s 11 mile-wide sprawling centre of innovation may take many years longer than the careers of Johns and her managing director, Stewart Watkins.

But, if successful, they could leave a legacy with the power to change the dynamic of the North East economy alongside other ambitious knowledge-based projects like Sunderland Software City and Newcastle Science City.

That’s not to say that impressive milestones haven’t already been achieved. When the printable electronics centre PETEC first opened its doors on the site in 2009, save for a few display models – including an illuminated space-age dress – there was little tangible evidence to dispel cynics who may have thought it was the stuff of science fiction and an unlikely future North East employer.

Today, however, critical mass is growing around the centre. Although international competitors exist, particularly in Asia, the centre is already involved in commercial successes and fast becoming a globally recognised facility.

It may be some time before the more mind-boggling possibilities of printable electronics are on the UK high street, like roll-up TV screens and wafer-thin electronic newspapers. But for PETEC, revenue is already being driven in the sector, by providing first class research facilities to companies before they decide to invest in manufacturing facilities for printable technologies such as lighting and screens. And the message is spreading.

Visit the reception of Korea’s printable electronic centre, Johns tells me, and you will see a list of the world leading body’s most trusted international partners. At number one on the list is PETEC.

“The clean room is now full to bursting with kit and PETEC is kept extremely busy with multinational contracts, it’s like a research hotel, although they don’t like me using that phrase.

“Because it’s such a disruptive form of technology, companies don’t want to invest in the kit and expertise upfront, they want to test the products, take them up for prototyping before they invest in big manufacturing plants and this is where they do it. So it de-risks a whole new technology platform.”

Nurturing a global reputation in a game-changing technology is one thing, but what about the here and now. What about jobs? PETEC is not a mass employer and NETPark as a whole only directly employs around 200 people. The aim is not to bring expansive manufacturing plants to the park, but high-value innovation, research and development facilities.

According to CDDC’s research, for every job created at NETPark between 2.5 and 3.6 jobs will be created offsite in retail, services, leisure and other areas. Alongside high value jobs in science and innovation on the site, other well-paid positions such as patent attorneys and lawyers could also be supported indirectly, Johns believes.

It will undoubtedly be several years before these positions are directly or indirectly created in any great number as a result of NETPark’s influence.

Having said that, the park already prides itself for helping to rescue hundreds of jobs in the region in recent years, thanks in part to PETEC and the research happening at NETPark at Durham University’s Sedgefield research centre.

According to Johns, manufacturer Thorn Lighting revealed plans to CDDC in 2006 to shift its Spennymoor, County Durham, operation to Romania – a move which would have seen the loss of around 600 jobs in the town that had been its home since 1952.

“It would have ripped the heart out of Spennymoor had they gone so we told them they really shouldn’t do that because they would lose their market leadership in the UK.

“We told them, ‘if you are in lighting then you will be interested in solid state lighting which is being done at Durham University and commercialised here at PETEC.’ Thorn decided after six months of persuasion and negotiation, that not only would they stay, but they would build a new factory with £24m of their own money.

“This is a whole new type of inward investment. This isn’t us giving big companies millions of pounds to locate here, this is big companies spending millions of pounds to stay here, because they recognise the quality of the research and the opportunities for commercialisation.”

The decision eventually led to Thorn participating in a joint project with Durham University and Sumation UK at Sedgefield’s Printable Electronics Technology Centre, called the TOPLESS project, which aims to create thin panels which can be printed onto walls and ceilings to turn them into lights.

It also opened NETPark’s eyes to a new area of opportunity. “When this happened it sparked off a thought process that NETPark doesn’t stop at these boundaries.”

And so the virtual spin-off NETPark NET was born and has since attracted around 300 members, including a small number from overseas.

Although the area of the park which houses working research facilities is dwarfed by the vast spread of empty land yet to be built on, the likes of security technology firm Kromek, cell culture specialist Reinnervate and valve firm DECON Industries are all flourishing inhabitants of the site.

If more are to follow, Johns and her team are faced with the task of getting to grips with an evolving finance model with an increasingly limited supply of public funding.

“Our strategic direction is really more companies and more jobs. That splits into two areas. One is encouraging indigenous investment, and we’ve linked very strongly with CPI and Durham University to create the business innovation gateway. It’s really easy for companies now to access that.

“Then we have an investment strategy which is very highly targeted around printable electronics, because we haven’t got the money to do absolutely everything as no one has in these austerity days. What we need to do is re-focus and say that’s the message we are sending out at the moment. When our profile is established there, then we can move onto other sectors.”

The road ahead certainly looks challenging for those pushing NETPark towards achieving its full potential. But, given that it took RTP seven years just to persuade five companies onto the site, NETPark looks well on the way to following in the footsteps of its inspirational American ancestor.