Scaling is one of the biggest challenges any company faces, requiring founders and leaders to set aside their science and innovation skills, and become experts in finance, recruitment, networking and administration. Finding the right people and organisations can help bridge that knowledge – and that’s easier when you’re based in an innovation district.
Research from Bruntwood SciTech has revealed that access to talent, the NHS, universities and the public sector are key needs for science and technology businesses – along with being part of a sector-specific community. Bruntwood SciTech’s innovation districts can be found in Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and Birmingham – but there’s more to it than just a convenient location. Alongside a community of like-minded companies, such innovation districts bring access to business support, financial assistance and a deep-rooted understanding of the challenges and opportunities in the science and tech sector.
Help with all of those aspects is key to scaling successfully – more so in a pandemic — and it’s a challenge that was faced by Yourgene Health. While seven in ten British businesses furloughed staff in 2020, and half of British employees were sent home to work, this molecular diagnostics company was busy expanding.
Before the pandemic, Yourgene Health designed, developed, manufactured and processed genetic screening tests for pregnancies, cystic fibrosis, cancer treatment and more. When Covid-19 hit, the company developed its own coronavirus test, quickly scaling its production and processing. “We had to expand because there are so many samples,” says Joanne Cross, director of marketing, adding that the company hired 30 new staff. “We’ve taken on additional lab space and invested heavily in refitting the labs to accommodate additional services.”
That sudden growth was possible amid lockdown because Yourgene Health is based at Citylabs 1.0 in Manchester, located on the campus of the UK’s largest NHS Trust and part of the Bruntwood SciTech network. Being located at Citylabs made scaling up much easier, thanks to a location only metres from two world-class universities and the support for direct connections into them that simplified recruitment, says Cross. “It’s been a massive help.”
Yourgene Health isn’t alone: despite the pandemic, 40 per cent of businesses at Bruntwood SciTech locations have grown employment in the last 12 months, while more than half have grown revenue and a quarter have raised investment. Because of such success, nine in ten businesses at their campuses are confident of their future prospects.
That’s because Bruntwood SciTech gets that innovation districts and science parks aren’t only about providing office and lab space — though location, security and broadband are, of course, all important to science and tech companies: 60 per cent reported their Bruntwood SciTech location has the necessary infrastructure to help them scale.
Instead, the real benefits come from providing the networking and collaboration opportunities with like-minded companies, direct connections into crucial partnerships with government, academia and the NHS, and access to financial support. “People often think we’re in real estate, because we provide infrastructure,” says Tom Renn, managing director at Bruntwood SciTech – Manchester. “What we do is deeply understand our companies — what their mission is and what it means from a scientific perspective — and we take very mature views on the support that we can provide to them, not only when they’re scaling, but also when they hit challenging times.”
There’s no single tool to help companies scale: they need the right infrastructure in locations which are convenient to would-be employees, as well as help accessing funding and business rate reductions, and support to build networks with key partners.
“As we started to move away from research and development and into the commercialisation stages with the business, Manchester Science Park provided a bigger hub in terms of transport links, easier access to finance in the form of local grant funding and access to the University of Manchester and NHS,” says Sameer Kothari of diagnostics company Zilico. “We have been able to tap into collaboration opportunities with the University of Manchester and Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust, where our flagship product ZedScan is now in routine use.”
Such partnerships are built-in by design, as universities, local governments and industry all take great interest in supporting the businesses located at Bruntwood SciTech’s campuses across the country, ensuring deep connections to help benefit the science and technology companies based there. And that helps benefit everyone: universities find the right companies to work with for knowledge transfer, helping their innovations make it to market, while startups find the intellectual property they need to level up their proposition.
That’s key for the UK economy, as the life sciences sector was worth £74 billion in revenue last year, employing close to 250,000 people. That’s one reason why it’s a priority for the government, which has committed to increasing spending on R&D to 2.4 per cent of GDP by 2027 in the hopes of growing this burgeoning sector – even more important in the current economic situation.
And that’s good news for cities looking to refocus their efforts on new businesses. “Birmingham was once known as the workshop of the world and I’d like to think that we’re returning to a similar ethos: where talented and passionate people can take ideas and turn them into something innovative and extraordinary,” says Will Flint, CEO and founder of Energym, a clean-tech engineering startup that captures energy from workout equipment to reduce energy costs and carbon footprint – and incentivise fitness. “I don’t think you’d get that outside something like an innovation district.”
Navigating academic, government and industry networks is difficult for companies large and small, but Bruntwood SciTech’s expertise and connections make it easier to connect with universities for knowledge transfer. “There’s an element of validation we can provide,” Renn says. “We’re not going to introduce a partner university to someone that’s not serious about engaging, and conversely, the company gets a route to meet the right people.”
But not all networking is deep – some connections come from chance opportunities waiting in line at the same cafe, or taking part in a local event. Renn says Bruntwood SciTech looks to the serendipitous connections built into Pixar’s headquarters by Steve Jobs. “That was the blueprint for it,” he says. “We refer to that as creating a human collider.” Campuses are designed to create opportunities for employees across companies to interact and connect meaningfully, be it through business support services or curated events. “You’re always fusing different people and players together.”
And it works: Yourgene Health acquired a company after getting to know them at Citylabs. “You bump into someone from a different company, have a chat about what you’re doing, and all of a sudden there’s a potential collaboration or partnership,” Cross says. Beyond business support, Bruntwood SciTech also took its events calendar virtual over the past few months: the Friday bar turned into an online cocktail club and workshops, while training and investor meetings went digital.
Plus, working alongside like minded people helps spark inspiration, according to Flint. After taking part in Bruntwood SciTech’s Serendip corporate innovation programme, Energym set up shop at its Innovation Birmingham campus. “The atmosphere of an innovation district is electric – no pun intended,” Flint says. “You’re working alongside people who are as passionate about problem solving as you are. There’s a sense of community and it provides a great pool of experience for you to tap into and to collaborate with. We’ve been fortunate to form several key partnerships to help deliver the technology and gain valuable market insight.”
That’s why being situated in an innovation district also helped Energym as its business grew. “Being located at Innovation Birmingham has also given us the flexibility to grow,” says Flint. “With a fast growing team, we are now transitioning into a much larger office while we continue to scale up.”
And when they do scale, potential employees are just around the corner. “Manchester, for example, has two universities with world-class research strength in things like advanced materials, data and digital technology, biotechnology and health innovation,” Renn says. “You’ve got great universities anchoring a huge amount of research talent, and that can flow through from an education pathway into companies.”
That helped Yourgene Health when it needed more staff. “If you’re trying to hire recent graduates with a science degree, they’re often living in the city centre and don’t have cars, so they need to be close,” Cross says. “It’s really helped. Plus, working in a building full of medical technology companies means there’s plenty of people to ask for advice on who to hire,” she adds.
To scale, science and tech startups also need help with finance. Renn reveals that Bruntwood SciTech supported several companies that were struggling during lockdown by helping them navigate furlough, lockdown grants and other aspects of the government stimulus packages.
“We spent a lot of time doing the hard graft of reading up on what these stimulus packages could do and who would be eligible… and provided seminars and webinars to our customers,” he says. “Not everyone has the HR team or tax team to do it, so we leveraged our own business assets to help our community.”
And that striving for common success is at the core of how companies can scale with the help of innovation districts. “Bruntwood SciTech has always had a mantra of ‘if you succeed, we succeed’ – and that’s probably what sets us apart: a strong shared endeavour with our companies,” Renn says.
–For more information, visit bruntwood.co.uk/scitech