Social Icons

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Science Parks: good or not?

The 1980s saw a surge of activity in the science park movement, with the number of parks rising from just two in 1981 (at Cambridge and Herriot-Watt Universities) to 36 by the end of the decade. Although the concept was born in 1950s America to help academics commercialise their technology, their growth in the UK was driven by the need to revive regions that suffered badly from the collapse of traditional industries and the economic downturn in the early 1980s. Today, with the knowledge economy replacing industrialisation, science parks continue to flourish - they now number over 100, according to the UK Science Park Association (UKSPA).

UKSPA defines a science park as 'a cluster of knowledge-based businesses, where support and advice are supplied to assist in the growth of companies'. To confuse matters, they can also be called research or technology parks, as well as incubators and innovation centres. But there are some important distinctions, says UKSPA. An incubator, for example, typically supports start-ups in their early stages: an innovation centre does the same, but it may also take companies well beyond the incubation phase.

Where they all differ from business parks - which are simply property developments - is that they also offer technology and business support services. These vary from one centre to another, but science parks tend to offer practical help with things like business plans, marketing and funding, as well as standard business support services and research facilities.

'A nice environment, with good security, catering facilities and modern meeting rooms, helps to support companies on a science park,' says Roz Bird, UKSPA's business development manager.

A science park location also helps with access to finance, she says. It gives banks and other lenders a better perception of the company, since they know tenants will have been through a fairly rigorous checking process and will also be operating within a supportive environment. Many science parks also have their own funds. The Nucleus - the London Science Park's science and innovation centre, which is due to open this month - provides access to a �500,000 seed capital fund.

The focus of science parks has tended to remain local or regional - the London Science Park at Dartford, for example, will be part of the Thames Regeneration Scheme - and they often have links to local higher education or research institutes. The Nucleus has ties to Imperial College and the Universities of Kent, Greenwich and East London.

The Nucleus will provide 30,000 square feet of accommodation for start-up and stage two science and technology companies. But in common with other science parks, the Dartford development will eventually accommodate more established organisations alongside newer businesses. This, says Bird, is one of the key attractions of science parks to young companies. 'Most healthy science parks have a mix of large and small organisations. In some sectors where it's possible to share expensive pieces of equipment, this mix is beneficial to the small companies as they're able to borrow equipment that they could never afford to buy.' That also extends to employees. Working among other science and technology companies makes it easier for small companies to share talent when they need help with specific projects.

The mix also benefits large companies, says Bird, enabling them to speed up time to market by outsourcing some product development work to their smaller neighbours.

But it's the flexibility of science park facilities and leases that particularly appeal to occupiers, she says, providing them with the option to scale up to larger premises if things go well, or quit their premises if they don't. Agreements are typically 'easy in, easy out', normally on a month-by-month basis. Occupiers of the Nucleus, for example, will be able to expand into self-contained office and lab space as they grow.

So how does the commercial performance of science park tenants compare to similar businesses located elsewhere? The last available research from UKSPA, published in 2003, shows that the majority of respondents didn't see any perceived benefits of a science park location in terms of access to new markets, technological development and business networking. But intriguingly, the research indicates that companies based in science parks have seen higher growth rates than those elsewhere. The research team surveyed senior managers at 876 companies, of whom 617 were based on science parks. It found that, over a three-year period, a 'significantly higher' number of science park tenants had bigger turnovers than three years previously, compared to those that were off-park. It also found that a higher proportion had 10% more full-time employees than three years earlier.

By Alison Hjul, Webster Buchanan Research