Once a neglected corner of east Belfast, the industrial zone of Queen’s Island is undergoing a renaissance, and the clank and grind of heavy machinery is being replaced with the whizzing and whirring of the world’s most modern technology.
At the helm of the regeneration is the 81 company-strong Northern Ireland Science Park (NISP), currently bucking the downward financial trend and making huge strides forward in innovation and employment.
Its chairman, Frank Hewitt, spoke to Business Telegraph ahead of Thursday’s NISP Connect 25k Awards, an annual competition supported by NISP rewarding the vision and perseverance which can transform ideas and technologies into products or services.
This year’s competition has attracted a record 85 entrants, with diverse innovations, from an anti-counterfeiting solution for medicines to wind turbine blades made from recycled materials.
Tactility Factory, founded by Ruth Morrow and Trish Belford, won last year’s top prize for their patented technology combining textile design with hard building materials.
The roots of the awards go back to 1998, when NISP was conceived under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. It was established in March 1999 with the eventual aim of creating a network of science park facilities throughout Northern Ireland.
From humble beginnings in a temporary structure at the Harland and Wolff plant, the Belfast park is planning for the opening of Concourse II, the second of a three-building complex.
Each building will have five storeys with over 10,000 square foot of space to let on each floor.
NISP chairman Frank Hewitt has spent his working life specialising in economic development in Northern Ireland, Germany, and the USA. He worked in Northern Ireland’s Industrial Development Board, which eventually became Invest Northern Ireland.
In his present science park role, he remains hugely optimistic despite gloomy economic forecasts. He attributes the park’s continuing success to a combination of location, the networking opportunities it offers and its adaptability.
The total 150,000 square footage of the park is now just over 90% full, and 1,300 people are working there.
“It’s something we’re very proud of — to be doing so well in this financial climate,” said Mr Hewitt.
“We currently have 81 companies represented here, from a really wide range of technologies — everything from aeronautical firms, business services, financial services, clean technology, IT skills companies, health, and life sciences.
“We have eight key tenants who are big multi-nationals like Citibank and German software company SAP, right down to people who rent a desk in the innovation centre.
“We have companies employing hundreds of people and we also have one or two guys with a computer who are just starting out — but they have access to a wide range of development services through the park. These are all jobs for talented young people in Northern Ireland, who otherwise would be lost to the community.
“We like to think of the park as being a magnet for Northern Ireland’s brightest and best.”
The park offers a number of |programmes for those trying to get on their feet in what can be a competitive market.
“We have the CONNECT programme, which helps prepare companies to move to the next phase of their development. We help protect ideas, intellectual property and innovation. We can source and protect funding opportunities and help them on the next stage of the ladder.
“We help provide networking opportunities with other businesses, and indeed with other businesses in other countries. And when those people who rent a desk or two, when it is time for them to move on, they get priority for allocation of space in the park for their new offices.”
Another project is Halo, which is a network of ‘business angels’ — business people with disposable income prepared to fund relevant projects — who meet every other month to hear pitches from small developing businesses and consider offering support.
The comparisons to hit BBC show Dragons’ Den are hard to avoid.
Mr Hewitt said: “We get 60 to 80 ‘angels’ in a room, and they hear the pitches, then afterwards over tea or coffee, they have a chat with each other and with the people pitching their ideas and they decide whether or not to offer support.
“It’s different from Dragons’ Den in terms of nobody says ‘I’m out!’, there is not so much drama and no humiliation! However, what it does, and what programmes like CONNECT do, is enable people to ask and answer the difficult questions.
“So many people come to grief on Dragons’ Den because they don’t have all the facts and figures to hand, they haven’t mapped out their business plan or what they predict will happen in the future — that doesn’t happen at the Halo sessions. Nobody falls flat on their faces.
“In fact Halo was voted the best business angel network in the UK.”
Physical development is a key part of the park’s future success too.
“We do need and want to expand. We’re 90% full in our existing space of 150,000 square feet and we have finished the building of Concourse I, which is our most modern building of 50,000 square feet.
“We have outline planning permission for Concourse II, and in early 2011 we hope to be pouring the concrete and starting the new building.
“But while we are a not-for-profit organisation, we are a not-for loss-organisation too. None of our rents are subsidised, our rent costs are fully covered and we are proud to be almost full to capacity in this economic climate.” Mr Hewitt said that location — and intelligent planning — is a big part of the park’s appeal.
“We estimate that there is half a million square feet of commercial space vacant in Belfast at the moment,” he said.
“The main problem is that all these buildings contain suites of offices. The design we used for Concourse I means that we can have an IT company on one floor and a wet lab on another — we can accommodate a wider range of activities.
“The magic of this place is that you can walk into the canteen at lunch time and see it full of young people from all different companies swapping notes, exchanging business cards. This is not just a roof over people’s heads — it is a real business, economic, and developmental eco-system.”
The positioning of the park, next to the Titanic Quarter, in an area once left to ruin following the decline of the manufacturing and shipbuilding industries, seems to drive Mr Hewitt’s infectious |enthusiasm.
“Where we are is terrific. I’m a great believer in economic development having a momentum and that momentum needs to be kept going.
“The Titanic Quarter and the Paint Hall studios, which are just across the road, make it feel like we’re working in an environment where something very special and exciting is happening.
“The science park is one of the signal successes for Northern Ireland over the last 10 years, is one of the most successful science parks in the UK and is a jewel in Belfast’s crown. The more development and regeneration there is in this area, the more will come.”
And not even the threat of spending cuts in the public sector — which accounts for up to 70% of Northern Ireland’s GDP — dampens Mr Hewitt’s optimism.
“Yes, there is a recession, and yes, companies have left us in the past. But a recession does not hit every business.
“We do have a churn of companies and we do not discourage that. Some ideas fail, some succeed and want to go elsewhere, but the important thing is there has always been another company lined up waiting for that chance to open an office in the park.
“We always need to expand and the right kinds of companies will look for innovation and adaptability. There will, of course, be cuts in terms of employment and expenditure. However, everybody has to realise that Northern Ireland cannot be immune. But you can talk yourself into a worse recession rather than look to see what the opportunities are — and there will always be opportunities in business. We just have to look and work that bit harder.”
With an investment conference taking place in Washington in the USA next month, opportunities may yet still abound for Northern Ireland.
Mr Hewitt said: “The support of Declan Kelly, the US economic envoy to Northern Ireland, has been invaluable. Steve Orr from the CONNECT programme will be over there this year for us.
“We are currently working on an initiative to take 40 young graduates from Northern Ireland to be seconded in top US corporations, and hopefully they will be able to bring their newly-learned management skills back to Northern Ireland.
“Yes, we are in bleak times but the park still has a lot to offer, there are always businesses ready to expand and we are a very attractive prospect as a location to the right kind of company.”
Turning his attention to the 25k Awards, Mr Hewitt said he was very excited about the announcement of winners on Thursday evening at a ceremony at the Titanic Dock and Pumphouse.
The purpose of the contest is to identify, qualify, prepare and present the intellectual property from the publicly-funded research base in Northern Ireland with the most commercial potential. There are categories for hi-tech, bio-tech, clean-tech, and digital media and software ideas.
Previous winners have included Proboscis, which developed medical devices which diagnose disease through analysis of a patient's breath, and Rewop, which pioneered new fault locating tools for overhead power lines
“At 85 we have had the biggest number of applicants ever and whittled those down to 10 finalists, which was a very difficult process,” he said.
“I never fail to be amazed by some of the products that people come up with.
“With the entrepreneurial skill of those who apply, it gets better and better every year. Most of the entries begin with one person, one idea, but can often lead to life-changing circumstances both to the innovators and to those who their inventions can help.
“Everybody involved is so positive and enthusiastic and I love the idea that this awards scheme can be the difference between someone sitting at home with an idea in their head and not doing anything about it, to getting out there and making something of that idea.
“The fact that our sponsors keep coming back, year after year, shows that we are doing something right.”