It is 10 years since Larne born Norman Apsley started the daunting task of bringing about the reality of a Northern Ireland science park.
The eminent physicist gave up a post as director of the electronics division within the Worcestershire-based Defence and Research Evaluation Agency, then the UK’s largest science and technology organisation, to return to the province.
In August 2000, when Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment Sir Reg Empey announced Mr Apsley as the first chief executive of the Northern Ireland Science Park (NISP), he went from heading up a large team of scientists to being responsible for himself and a secretary.
His mission, as Sir Reg stated, was “the commercial exploitation of the knowledge base in our universities and centres of excellence, which is vital to the creation of a strong local economy”.
Although the early days of NISP were operated from a temporary structure at Harland and Wolff, it was apt that its creation commenced in the shadows of such a globally renowned company.
The goal, Mr Apsley explained, was to “create a place that gets identified with Northern Ireland translating science and technology into business and a place where people will meet and fuel off each other”. In 2007 he was joined in that quest by Northern Ireland-born Steve Orr who returned from San Diego to take up the post of NISP Connect director and together they have made a formidable duo.
Also a non-profit organisation, NISP Connect fosters entrepreneurship by accelerating the growth of promising technologies and early stage companies.
As its title suggests, its core purpose is to connect people, technology and capital to drive innovation and create wealth through building high value IP-based companies in Northern Ireland.
Almost a decade later, NISP is firmly embedded in the fabric of Northern Ireland. Today it sits on 25 acres, 10% of Queen’s Island in the Titanic Quarter. It also boasts:
- 150,000 sq ft in occupancy
- 74 tenant companies
- A £2m profit per annum for the last four years, which is invested back into the NISP — a non-profit organisation
- 1,500 people working in the NISP
- A hub for high-skilled and high-paid jobs which contribute £50m a year to the Northern Ireland economy.
NISP has 30 large leasehold companies that occupy two-thirds of the space and a balance of much smaller companies, some which have no desk space at all.
Those big companies include Microsoft, SAP and Citibank and Indian-based Polaris Software Labs and L&T Infotech.
Mr Apsley explained: “We have a growing list of companies in other markets. We have seven companies in health and life sciences and connected health. We have others in energy, low carbon engineering and telecoms.”
Other successful tenant companies include Broadsoft International, which has just gone public on AIM, the London Stock Exchange’s international market for smaller growing companies and Intelliden, recently bought by IBM and Autonomy-Meridio, a merger of two university spin-out companies from Queen’s and Cambridge.
One major achievement of NISP has been its ability to attract foreign direct investment (FDI).
“What happens is they see a skills base, they start small and they let it grow,” said Mr Apsley. “For example the likes of Citi started out with 2,000 sq ft and it now has 100,000 sq ft. We have the fibres and we have the people.
“Meridio, the biggest spin-out from Queen’s, has been here the longest. It grew here and was acquired by Cambridge spin-out Autonomy to become Autonomy-Meridio. It recently just moved from four units into the top floor in the new building so it is now a FTSE 100 flagship tenant.”
He added: “As the vice-president of another company, SAP, said to our chairman Frank Hewitt ‘how big this can grow is up to Northern Ireland’.”
The other side of NISP’s business is to work with promising smaller start-up companies, who benefit from the network. NISP provides them with a telephone number, an address, meeting space and a host of programs but it also gives them access to a wealth of experienced entrepreneurs, executives, investors etc.
“For example we have Medevol, a company that we inherited from Investment Belfast.
“It is a locally- formed company for medical trials but we introduced it to one or two pharmacy companies and they now do business together,” explained Mr Apsley.
Although NISP was initially public sector capitalised, more and more of its financial support is coming from the private sector.
And as a result of that financial independence it has evolved with further expansion on the cards. How it is improved is down to an illustrious board which includes its chairman Frank Hewitt, the vice-chancellors of Queen’s and Ulster universities and Professor John Allen, who was the founder of Manchester Science Park and the UK Science Park Association.
But no one can deny the success of NISP. As Mr Apsley explained: “Making an allowance for deadweight, work that was done for DETI in terms of our 10-year review, means we produce a yield of 30% of GDP.
“So for every pound of capital DETI gave us we put 30p into GDP each year, which is a pretty good return I would say.”
He continued: “We have planning permission for two more concourse buildings, one of which we hope to have built in 2011.
“For the Science Park it’s more of the same. The model works, we have not anywhere near tapped the potential of both our universities and the high tech companies to spin out.
“In some ways it is only just the beginning. Steve and I are gobsmacked by the qualities of some of the existing companies.”
Mr Orr believes the Science Park has a key responsibility to be an independent central platform of commercialisation in research.
NISP hopes to achieve that by its adoption of the San Diego Connect model. The program, which has been successfully piloted in Northern Ireland, has given NISP:
- 450 different stage ventures engaged in NISP Connect programs
- A volunteer network of the most experienced and connected people working in the private sector at home and abroad including professional service firms and entrepreneurs and executives from science/technology companies, the investment community and the research community who work with the most promising start-ups pro bono
- The development of NISP Connect programs including £25k, Frameworks, Springboard, The Evening Series and Venture Capital Forums.
“Companies here need to launch products, compete and win with the other three or four that are being launched around the world,” said Mr Orr.
He continued: “What the Connect model in San Diego recognised was that the local private sector has got to take ownership of this challenge and has to play a very involved role in helping to make the region a much stronger place and to provide much more support for entrepreneurs.
“It managed to make that transformation and create one of the strongest areas of commercialisation for science technology in a period of about 15 years.”
“The basic proposition to the local private sector is that if the most experienced people here and abroad give a little bit of their time pro bono and it’s channelled in a really effective way towards the most promising early start-up companies, it gives us an advantage over out of stage companies from elsewhere.”
Following the launch of the NISP Connect pilot two years ago, Mr Orr and Mr Apsley were both stunned by the quantity and quality of high potential science, technology and intellectual property candidates in Northern Ireland that could be commercialised.
Mr Orr explained: “NISP Connect is a independent, non-profit and is a platform to enable facilitation — the people at the centre of this can never profit from it. The real prize is that we hope everybody else will really benefit from it.”
And there have been no problems in recruiting leading lights from the private sector that are prepared to commit one day a week for a period of three to six months to a promising start-up company. The goal is to build a volunteer network of 1,000 people.
Such has been the success of NISP Connect that it is ready to move into phase two.
“Over the coming months we will be transitioning into a more evolved model,” said Mr Orr.
That will include an expansion of programs to facilitate more engagement between experienced people and the most promising and a geographical expansion to be less Belfast centric.
Mr Orr said: “This kind of change and success does not come overnight, it takes years and we have to unlock an awful lot of people to help and for them to get real value from the experience.
“The more people we can get involved to help, the faster we can do this.
“It’s the holy grail but very few regions manage to make that transition.”
Mr Apsley added: “When I came back to Northern Ireland that is when I learned just how powerful it had been in the 19th century and so the ambition really became to do our best here to develop entrepreneurial skills and use the modern channels of trade to get the value to reside here.”