Harwell’s Incubator spaces are developing fast

The new European Space Agency Incubator at Harwell has yet to establish itself as a new-business community. It has available outstanding technical support in the shape of a number of world-class scientific organisations on the site; and it provides generous funding for technical support. But its business support is limiting: it provides no business mentoring; it provides little business advice – there is little call for it; and channels to access for venture funding are at present small in scale.

            The European Space Agency Business Incubator is a small shared block of some 55 offices on the Harwell Campus – home to the Synchrotron, the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and at least three other world-class scientific facilities.

The ESA accommodation – now rising to some 30 offices – was refurbished in the last two years ago and is all used for the ESA’s Business Incubator – most of phase one is already let, though the units are not yet all fully occupied. Adjacent are a further 25 offices let to small businesses with related technical expertise. Paul Vernon, Head of Campus Development at STFC says that there is plenty of demand for this incubator accommodation even though there are cheaper rents available locally thanks to the science and the support that is available on the site. He adds also that comparable accommodation built new would not be economically viable without grants, which are of course unlikely to be forthcoming in the present climate. (Two fine communal coffee areas are still in the process of refurbishment.)

There is no formal mentoring scheme, but the managers can readily introduce businesses to experts who can help them, but Paul Vernon says ‘surprisingly few take up this offer’.

Every tenant in the incubator receives a grant of  €50k – for product development, marketing and IP protection, together with 40 hours of free access to STFC expertise – for technical advice and product support. The first port of call for business advice is the staff of STFC Innovations Ltd (at Daresbury, Harwell or even Edinburgh).

The STFC enables a small number of selected private organisations to run workshops on the site for incubatees, which are well attended – the most frequent ones being about IP. (The ESA runs a 3-day investment-readiness workshop once a year and pays for coaches for its incubatees.)

As at Daresbury, there is a regular campus breakfast, here bi-monthly  – open also to external companies – which attracts 70-80 people. Every 3 months, there is a campus coffee morning at which residents can pitch to one another. And now there is a Campus Enterprise Forum held once very two months, where CEOs, CFOs and CTOs brainstorm and relate to one another. And there is also a marketing group, run by participants, which meets every three months, where their own marketing issues are discussed together. So an incubator community is beginning to take on a life of its own.

          OION, the Oxford Innovation Network brings Angel investors to  pitching meetings four times a year for those businesses seeking angel funds, and thanks to links with other investment funds, they are often joined by angels from other geographical areas. Five or six companies will pitch and 50-75% will get offers, though sometimes not completing their funding needs till subsequently.  Paul is seeking to expand this capability, and is looking for a partner investment fund for the campus.

        A large Amenity Centre is planned for the site, hopefully funded by the substantial income from the sale of land – which will include a conference facility, large restaurant and more incubator space.

        The ratio of SMEs on the site to full-time scientists is very small compared with the Daresbury site, and the site is capable of very substantial further development. But there appears to be a campus aspiration that companies should be able to find a home for life on the site, but this would mean that the shortage of accommodation for science-related start-ups on the site is likely to get increasingly worse. Nor does it anticipate the likelihood of fostering hi-growth companies. 

Paul Vernon, working with his boss, has a fairly free hand in the development of the facilities, but feels very tightly constrained by shortage of funds. There is no Advisory Board, but there is a stakeholder group.

There is no clear model to which performance can be compared because of the several different scientific facilities on the site – it is unique.



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