Ralf Nöcker, CEO at ESPG
It only takes a cursory glance at the torrent of innovative products coming out of California’s Silicon Valley to realise that something undeniably special can happen when a group of forward-thinking science and technology companies come together under a common postal code. Silicon Valley can trace its origins back to Stanford Industrial Park – the very first of its kind – which was established as a joint venture between Stanford University and the city of Palo Alto in 1951 to encourage technology-oriented companies to relocate there. The concept has spread like wildfire ever since, sparking the development of many other successful science clusters – such as Kendell Square in Boston, MA, and Cambridge Science Park in the UK. There are now hundreds of similar sites operating in Europe alone, but what exactly is a science park? What makes them such a hotbed of innovation? And what ingredients must come together to transform these research clusters into something bigger than the sum of their parts?
What is a science park?
A science park – also referred to as a technopole or life sciences and technology real estate (LSTRE) – is generally located near a university and managed by a specialist organisation that aims to provide science and technology-driven companies with access to cutting-edge facilities, dedicated support services and a variety of development programmes. Most successful science parks are made up of companies that are involved in the same industry – such as biotech or advanced manufacturing – although these hubs will often include various other ‘feeder’ businesses to provide complementary services. At first glance, the idea of situating potential competitors on each other’s doorsteps may seem like a volatile proposition but, in actual fact, this revolutionary approach generates an environment similar to that of a university campus, where academic and commercial innovators can meet, exchange ideas and network. Furthermore, it is this collaborative atmosphere that gives science parks the edge over traditional industrial estates, and it has been shown that start-ups in close proximity to a university or research centre actually hold a greater number of patents than those located elsewhere.1
Ensuring that innovative technologies successfully make it to the commercialisation stage is tough – even for well-established companies, let alone start-ups – and a large number of fledgling businesses fail within their first year of operation. To combat this trend, many science parks offer incubator, accelerator and spin-out programmes to aid the creation and continued growth of innovative companies. These programmes provide start-ups with everything from legal and logistical support to expert consultancy and financial backing, giving early-stage companies the best chance of surviving the notoriously tricky first few years of trading. These schemes also serve to increase the visibility of innovative new technologies, attracting suitable would-be investors and collaborators that can provide the push which many projects need to reach commercial viability and avoid the so-called technological ‘valley of death’. The support infrastructure offered by science parks also extends to providing access to state-of-the-art facilities and dedicated amenities – like laboratories, clean rooms, offices and meeting spaces – that are managed and maintained by the facility owners.
Even with the very best infrastructure and support in place, finding talented personnel can be extremely challenging – especially when operating in highly specialised scientific areas – but the close proximity of most science parks to academic institutions provides a deep talent pool to recruit from. The variety of business sizes within the cluster ensures that academics wanting to move into the private sector – and existing industrial employees looking for a change – are well catered for, whether they would prefer to work for large companies offering job stability and a clear career progression pathway, or the excitement and dynamism of small enterprises and start-ups.
An innovation ecosystem
Science parks are perfectly placed to act as a conduit for the flow of ideas, technologies and funding needed to ensure that novel research ends up in the hands of companies that can give it the attention – and financial backing – it needs to reach its full potential. The potent mix of academics, entrepreneurs, SMEs and large companies on a single site creates a thriving innovation ecosystem, benefiting not only park tenants, but the local economy too. It is often said that success breeds success, and science parks with a reputation for cutting-edge developments quickly become self-sustaining, with talent driving innovation, and the lure of innovation attracting further talent. And once this critical mass has been reached, there is no telling where the results can lead.
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- Romijn, H, Albu, M. Innovation, Networking and Proximity: Lessons from Small High Technology Firms in the UK. Regional Studies, 2002;36(1) 81-86. 10.1080/00343400120099889