Belfast Telegraph

Catalyst Inc's £100m plan to build on science success

By John Simpson

Catalyst Inc, the new name for the former Northern Ireland Science Park, has an ambitious £100m investment agenda for the next stages of development in units in Belfast, Londonderry and Ballymena. Catalyst Inc plans to further boost an important success story.

The board of directors at Catalyst Inc, chaired by Dick Milliken, is now reporting not just the successful development of the former Science Park sites, but also that the group is trading profitably and hopes to raise substantial investment funds from commercial and philanthropic sources.

Originally known as the Science Park in 1999, it was a creature of the two Northern Ireland universities launched with a modest £11m capital injection from the Government. From an unattractive wooden shed at the far end of Harland & Wolff, today there are modern new buildings in Belfast as well as the redeveloped former Fort George site in Londonderry (also linked to the Letterkenny Institute of Technology) and (more recently) the redevelopment of the Ecos building in Ballymena.

At the end of March 2015, the consolidated balance sheet for the group showed fixed assets worth over £32m, which had increased in value in the last full year by just over £4m. The trading position of the Science Park is now encouraging.

In the most recent year, the companies recorded a pre-tax profit of just under £0.3m. The combination of the strategic ambitions of the Science Park with a profitable outcome has produced a creditworthy base for further expansion.

The success of the existing Science Park units is a welcome surprise and a reassurance that there is a potential combination of talent, ideas and creativeness that can make a major contribution to the local economy.

The financial structure of the Science Park has been creative and the organisation now has a reliable financial base. The current operating profit has been leveraged with support from the release of £1.0m from deferred official grants in 2014-15. A further £23m is held as credit for release in future periods.

Now Catalyst Inc inherits the task of further expanding the number of high quality enterprise developments with minimal reliance on Government support. Capital grants have been overtaken by repayable capital. This change is based on two features.

First, the assessment of the board is that Northern Ireland is creating a sufficiently large number of entrepreneurial well-educated graduates willing to become developers of their own businesses and, second, that if facilities are made available, the investment in the expansion of facilities can be expected to pay its way.

Catalyst Inc now offers a modern image based on bringing together hundreds of associates and licence holders working alongside over 35 leaseholders of whom more than 12 are described as 'flagships', meaning that they each are using over 5,000 sq ft of space.

The directors report for 2014-15 illustrates the wide-ranging supportive agenda linked to the overall ambition. In some detail, they point to the arrangements for the continuing contribution to entrepreneurial education and the several options for interested people to link to business coaching and mentoring.

Also, critical to the overall ambitions, there is a network of programmes for Innovators.

Catalyst Inc does not have funds to directly support the activity of its tenants or licence holders. However, Catalyst Inc is the host to the Northern Ireland Angel network, known as Halo. Halo has linked many young businesses with individuals who have capital to invest. This is paralleled by the NISP Connect programme.

The success of Catalyst Inc is now reflected in the new NI Knowledge Economy index, which is evolving to assess the progress of the local economy in catching up with other regions in the application of technology and knowledge based projects.

Catalyst Inc is offering an optimistic assessment of its potential to build a high-tech knowledge economy. It is ready to test the market to back further major capital initiatives.

Belfast Telegraph