It’s five years since the independent research house, SQW, published the report that revealed the Silverstone Technology Cluster (STC).
The report confirmed the earlier suspicions of MEPC and Barclays who then became the prime movers behind the STC organisation that now represents the high-tech business activity in the region.
MEPC’s Roz Bird, the STC Chair, recalls how her vision for the Silverstone Park project sparked the idea of a high-tech cluster and the steps that were required to bring the STC organisation to life.
A fresh pair of eyes
“I’d previously worked with the high-tech cluster organisations in Cambridge, UK, when I was Estate Director at Grant Park, for MEPC, and saw then how beneficial the networking and support was to the high-tech business community. Before Granta Park I had worked for five years at the UK Science Park Association which is focused on helping science parks become successful innovation communities.
“When I came to Silverstone I was actually up for a change; people had teased me that all I knew was lab buildings and people thought I was a biochemist! I’m not a biochemist; I’m just someone who believes that it makes good business sense to make a genuine effort to understand the customer. At Granta Park my customers were chemists and biologists.
“When I came to Silverstone Park, I looked at it with a fresh pair of eyes, ready to learn new things and, I thought, work with mechanics fixing racing cars.
“I started to get to know the businesses on the park, and in the local area, and quickly realised that there was a lot of high-tech activity in advanced engineering, electronics and software development, and that this was being applied, not just to motorsport, but that these skills and expertise were being transferred in to many other sectors.
“It became clear that a high-tech cluster organisation was needed, for the Silverstone area, to help the companies to grow by offering support, high-tech networking opportunities and promoting the skills and expertise in the area.
“However, to do this I knew the first step would be to approach SQW, the research house that wrote the Cambridge Phenomenon report, to see if they would review the business activity, in the local area, interview the businesses, and run their test to confirm whether companies had to be in the area to do what they do or whether it was just co-location in a central area of the country.
“I talked with Stephen Henson and Jon Corbett, at Barclays, about this, and shared my thoughts regarding the presence of over 4,000 advanced engineering companies, within a one-hour drive time radius of Silverstone Park, and the need for SQW to look into the potential high-tech cluster that existed but had not yet been revealed. They agreed that we should try to raise the funds and approach SQW to carry out the research.
“Barclays talked with EMW, Grant Thornton and PwC and brought them on board, whilst I spoke with the MIA and the local authorities and, together, we raised the funds to commission SQW to carry out the research.
“SQW’s research took about six months. Their research activity was intense and each month they were feeding back to an advisory group we had set up – often in rooms at Silverstone Park. It was important they maintained full independence, no matter what we hoped they might find: this had to be done objectively.”
The Cluster revealed…
“Eventually we got the news that confirmed our suspicions – the region was a high-tech cluster. SQW found that businesses had to be in the area to do what they do.
“They came back to the area to set up their businesses because of the relationships they already had with other business leaders in the area, and they relied on others’ skills and expertise when they took on new, challenging work.
“SQW identified companies like Cosworth, who played a key part in the development of the cluster, in the early days, by offering a new graduate training programme to individuals who then went on to F1, where they continued to develop their engineering skills, and then they came back to the area to either join a company or start a business.
“It was this confirmation that enabled us to propose a new high-tech cluster organisation to support the high-tech businesses in the area. The SQW report was launched at Barclays, Canary Wharf, in London, in May 2016.
“With the high-tech cluster confirmed we knew companies, in the local area, would say ‘great, thanks for revealing the cluster, so what’s in it for us?’ And this is when we were able to propose a new high-tech cluster organisation for the community, with a website and phone number to call, a Chief Executive able to provide presentations, to promote the area, and to help the businesses to network and collaborate.”
How do we help those companies grow?
“The objectives right from the start were:
• Promotion of the region and its high-tech credentials
• Support by helping members to grow and develop new business opportunities
• Thought leadership, to demonstrate the STC was home to people at the pinnacle of innovation, from F1 to aerospace, marine, defence and medical devices
Scepticism in the room
“Although SQW had confirmed a high-tech cluster and we had support, to set up the cluster organisation, from Silverstone Park, Barclays, Grant Thornton, EMW, Hexagon Manufacturing Intelligence and the local authorities, the one issue we still had to solve was how to convince local businesses that STC membership would be worthwhile.
“There was a great moment when we invited the companies, that had taken part in the research, to lunch, and a drive, at the Porsche Experience, as a thank you.
“At first there was scepticism in the room. A number of the business leaders said to me that they already went to a number of events each year and did not have time for any more.
“But then I started to introduce the individuals to each other and gave each a bit of an insight about what the other was working on. There were a few in the room that had heard of each other, or worked with each other in the past, but they had not had the chance to meet and talk business in this way.
“By the end of the event everyone was talking and, as they left, people said: ‘If this is what you mean then we’d like more of this!’
“It’s high-level, high-tech networking, giving people permission to talk, and share ideas, that brings new business opportunities and develops the high-tech community.”
The right people, the right stuff
“Appointing Pim van Baarsen, as CEO, was a really good moment. He is so well connected and knowledgeable about the industry.
“He’s hard working, understands quickly what is needed and is tenacious in delivering on all our objectives each year. That’s a very good CEO in anyone’s book!
“Ensuring we got Stirling Essex, of Cambridge Wireless, as a mentor for Pim was key – when Board members were discussing important issues, he was able to draw on that resource to get their guidance. Stirling certainly helped steer us through those critical first few years as we grew up as a membership-based organisation.”
The vision has become a reality – where next?
“Being Chair has been great. It has given me the chance to steer, to help prioritise, and to keep our focus on what’s really important.
“We now host many great high-tech networking events (customer feedback says so), but we’re clear that we don’t just want to be an event organisation.
“When we’re thinking about our brand essence, and what we exist for, it is about creating a sense of ‘community’ – for the companies to feel part of something where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; where they can get inspiration from each other and where there’s a chance to collaborate and win new business.
“We’re a trailblazer project for Be the Business this year, we’re just starting to work with the other high-tech cluster organisations across the Oxford to Cambridge Arc, as a ‘super cluster’, our membership is growing, and members say that they are winning business through connections made by being a member. The vision has become a reality.
“The plan for the future is to continue to deliver new business opportunities to our members. We have set up an Industry Advisory Board, made up of STC members, to advise the STC Board, and we are excited about supporting, and maximising, the opportunity for our businesses, as part of the new ‘Super Cluster’.”