Sarah Slaven, Interim Managing Director of Business Durham and the North East Technology Park, on what makes a successful science park.

Moving an idea from concept to commercialisation is one of the biggest challenges a business can face. There will inevitably be failures this is how we learn, but it’s those failures that often spark off new ideas that solve problems and lead to ground-breaking developments that can ultimately improve lives and change the world we live in. 

Having managed a globally successful science park for over fifteen years we outline the three most common challenges that we see facing early stage science, tech and engineering businesses. 

Challenge 1: Gaining access to the specialist equipment, technical expertise and funding to get an innovation through proof of concept. It takes time and perseverance no matter how simple or brilliant an idea whether it solves a problem or fulfils a market need. 

Challenge 2: Companies at any stage of development can often expand and contract frequently so flexible space is vital. Having the flexibility to grow or downsize your space as and when required is something that NETPark tenants have found incredibly beneficial. 

Challenge 3: The third challenge is often overlooked. Business development is essential to ensure a product moves successfully from a lab environment into commercial production. It’s critical to get ideas in front of the right people, to make the right connections in order to get the support and demonstrable evidence that helps secure the funding needed to push an innovative product or service through the necessary steps to commercialisation and profitability. 

The role of NETPark 

NETPark was founded with the vision to make a lasting investment in science, technology and engineering businesses to help fuel the future success of Durham and the North East of England’s economy for generations to come. Durham County Council’s ultimate goal is to raise the aspirations of residents, create more high value jobs, and provide greater opportunities in the local supply chain. 

We’ve come a long way in little over 15 years. Thirty-five businesses and counting, employing over 500 people and more in the supply chain. We are the only UK science park with two UK catapult centres: The Advanced Manufacturing Catapult and the North East Centre of Excellence for Satellite Applications, in addition to three national innovation centres in printable electronics, formulations and healthcare photonics. 

Part of NETPark’s success is recognising and appreciating that businesses working in these sectors have a unique set of challenges. We think ahead, anticipate opportunities, make things easier, we signpost, support and facilitate collaborations. We encourage a collaborative environment that excites and stimulates but we also understand that research and commercialisation takes time.

We know businesses need flexible space to support growth and we are able to provide grow-on space as and when its needed. We facilitate a collaborative working environment with regular networking events enabling businesses on the park to share experience, advice and knowledge to mutual benefit.

NETPark enjoys the unique benefit of working with strategic partners CPI and world leading  Durham University, both on site at NETPark. CPI offers easy access to state-of-the-art equipment, expertise and experience to help businesses get their innovations through proof of concept. Durham University provides access to a wealth of academic expertise, PHD students and a library of research. We provide the right environment to transform challenges into opportunities, with a plethora of success stories to prove that this formula works.

The importance of long-term support

Since NETPark’s inception, Durham County Council recognised that success doesn’t come easy and it certainly doesn’t come overnight. Independent economic analysis commissioned by Durham County Council found that businesses in County Durham working in advanced manufacturing and knowledge intensive industries, such as the businesses found at NETPark, are a key driver of the County’s economy. Oxford Economics predict the GVA for high technology and knowledge-intensive sectors will grow by 5% by 2025, driven by productivity improvements which will help to boost wages in these sectors and make County Durham more attractive to skilled individuals, as well as contributing to overall economic performance. Proof that long term investment strategy is working.

But we can’t stand still. Looking to the future, plans to develop NETPark Phase Three will be submitted in the next few months to create bigger and better spaces for companies expanding on the park and for businesses looking to locate into the area from elsewhere. We used a £5m grant from the North East Local Enterprise Partnership to complete infrastructure works providing access to the 26 acres of land upon which we are set to build. 

We need the continued long-term support from government both locally and centrally to continue to capitalise on our achievements. But that support is not just financial, we’d like to see greater awareness and recognition nationally of the value that’s been created at NETPark so that when investment opportunities do arrive within certain sectors, NETPark is at the top of the list of potential locations for these, building on our strong track record of developing collaborative clusters of businesses and catalysing future growth.

The success of NETPark is a long-term commitment. We need to continue investing in infrastructure, people and the businesses of the future. We need to learn from the successes of the last fifteen years in order to fuel the next fifty.