Posted on Tuesday 12 March 2013 by Ulster Business

NISP

NISP chairman Frank Hewitt

A little over a decade ago all that stood on the site now occupied by the Northern Ireland Science Park was the almost derelict Titanic Pump House and the ship's former dry dock, half filled with murky water.

Ten years on, the site is the hub of Belfast's technology community, a modern high tech centre for innovation that houses everyone from bright start-up companies to globally recognised multinational players.

The positioning of the focal point for a sector that's expected to be key to Northern Ireland's economic future on a site synonymous with the city's rich heritage as a powerhouse of the shipping, rope-making and linen industries is no accident.

NISP chairman Frank Hewitt says having a (now restored) reminder of what Belfast achieved in the past should provide inspiration for the Science Park's tenant companies as they seek to translate their engineering, science and innovation potential into commercial success.

"We have proven that Northern Ireland companies can go international – sometimes it is by acquisition, sometimes by organic growth, but Northern Ireland companies have that ability. What we're trying to do here is accelerate the process," he said.

It is clearly working. NISP was recently named one of the top five science parks in the UK by industry body UKSPA, outperforming its peer group of 78 parks across England, Wales and Scotland on a range of benchmarks.

Research showed that with 115 tenants and a 1,900 strong commercial community across its seven buildings, NISP contributes £80m in wages to the economy, has facilitated £10m of risk capital, mobilised 1,000 business volunteers and 110 Business Angels to help 800 new starts, and showcased to 100 plus school visits and 60,000 visitors per annum.

"We take great pride in the achievement," says Frank Hewitt. "What has happened on this site within ten years is pretty phenomenal. We started off with a derelict site and one small building and now we have over a quarter of a million square feet of fully occupied accommodation.

"It has become a bit of a magnet for graduate talent. There are now 2,000 jobs on this park and the vast majority of those people have a degree or masters. You've also got to factor in that there are maybe 1,000 people here who would have been working outside of Northern Ireland in the past because there weren't these kinds of jobs," he adds.

Scaling up the physical footprint of NISP, Hewitt says there's potential for 'two or three times' the economic contribution from Science Park jobs, which on average carry a salary double that of the median annual wage for Northern Ireland of £17,000 to £18,000.

And that doesn't take into account the stimulus provided by Science Park companies' own innovations.

Software, telecoms, financial engineering, digital media, health/bio, gaming, clean tech, aeronautical and business services are all represented at NISP.

New arrivals include Kana, Novosco, Dot Retailer, Dell and Automated Intelligence, while IBM recently doubled its space and moved its acquisition Q1 Labs into the park.

"Part of the challenge we face in communications terms is actually explaining to people that a Science Park isn't a business park where they do a bit of science. It is actually an ecosystem where science based companies, whether they are large multinationals or start-up companies, can get together, share creativity and learn from one another," says Hewitt.

NISP provides a "soft landing" for FDI companies, such as current tenant Dow Chemical, by allowing them to start with a small presence, to rent not buy office space, and taking care of practical issues such as utilities.

Though Hewitt stresses that NISP is not a property company, he says it is crucial it has high quality office space that appeals to science and technology companies – ranging from a start-up entrepreneur renting a desk to a single company requiring a whole building on a 15 year lease.

NISP has just completed its 55,000 sq ft Concourse 2 building and has all the statutory approvals in place for Concourse 3, which its senior team are starting to market.

"This is not cheap property, we are at the top end of the rent spectrum. But people are prepared to pay that premium for buildings that suit science based companies," he adds.

"We have to be able to give companies space or we lose them out of the ecosystem. The challenge always for us is that we have to have the next building on the stocks because tenants want to grow. We've got to keep that momentum going."

NISP's next goal is the North West Regional Science Park in Derry-Londonderry. Pilings have been sunk for the foundations of the £12m project, which includes the construction of a 50,000 sq ft science park facility at Fort George and a 20,000 sq ft extension to the Co-Lab facility at Letterkenny Institute of Technology, with potential added value of £4m and 285 jobs to the local economy.

"The NorthWest is going to be a very important part of what we do in future. It is unique in that it is a cross-border collaboration between ourselves and the Letterkenny Institute of Technology, so there will be an interesting learning dimension," said Hewitt.

NISP also hopes to replicate the successful joined up strategy and university links that have helped make the Belfast site a major success.

"You have to concede that if it hadn't been for the far-sightedness of government ten years ago NISP would never have got off the ground. We now have a unique blend here of government, private sector participation and the universities."

A MATTER OF TRUST

Government money was used to establish NISP and while its buildings generate rental income, core programmes Halo and CONNECT still rely on DETI funding.

NISP CONNECT is the programme which aims to foster entrepreneurship and organises the successful 25k Award, the VC Forum, Frameworks, the Knowledge Economy Index report, Enterprise Forum, Generation Innovation and the US-NI Mentorship Programme.

Halo's role is to match companies with growth potential to high net worth individuals – angels – who may wish to invest in them. It has recorded £5m of investment since 2009.

NISP's board – largely made up of people with extensive private sector experience – want these programmes to be self-funding and to that end have established a charitable Trust which will help support science, technology, engineering and mathematics in education and business.

"The whole idea of the Trust was to go forward on the basis of economic philanthropy – going to successful businesses and business people and asking them for their support to develop a trust fund that would generate enough money itself to keep the CONNECT model going," explains Hewitt.

"I would like to think that CONNECT will be funding itself within the next five years. Halo, we are already working to make it self-sufficient by asking the business angels to make a contribution," he added.

"Assuming we don't lose any major tenants the revenue that we're generating from rent is already very stable and increasing. Of course if Government were to ask us to do something new or different we might well need some support. But certainly with the organic growth of the Science Park itself, there is no reason it can't all be self-funding within the next five or six years."

The recent visit of HRH Prince Andrew has helped raise awareness of the Trust's objectives.

His Royal Highness's visit to the Science Park was part of his focus on promoting institutions at the forefront of maintaining the UK's reputation for excellence in technology and science.

"One of the criticisms that was levelled at us was that we don't shout loud enough," adds Hewitt. "There are always going to be people who won't have heard of NISP and won't be interested in it. But there is a range of influencers here that have to understand what we do. Most of the Executive Ministers have been here – they are starting to see the relevance of what we're doing here for the Programme for Government."

Recognition of the pivotal role NISP plays in the economy has also extended to the business community, where there has been a lot of interest from people with big reputations in becoming mentors or board members.

Hewitt, also a board member of Invest NI, notes that ten companies in Northern Ireland account for 50% of exports, illustrating the pressing need to help our SMEs develop products and innovative processes which will help them break into export markets.

"We have a network at the Science Park that helps young companies meet the kind of people they need to meet to develop their business. We have 1,000 business people who give their time to help young companies develop their business. That is an incredible resource," he said.

Hewitt believes that NISP also has a big part to play in the process of changing the cultural mind-set of people in Northern Ireland towards science as a career.

"The challenge for all of Northern Ireland is to change the mindset away from the really bright kids going into law, medicine and the civil service. I think the contribution we can make to that is in demonstrating there are great jobs in science-based companies," he said.

"Schools are bringing people down here from an early age to be introduced to technology. We're saying to them, this is what Northern Ireland's history is about, but this is what the new technology offers. Engineering no longer means overalls and dirt under your finger nails. It is now a much more attractive career option for kids, as are the other sciences," he adds.

"The whole question of inspiring young people is both in showing them the career options and also showing them there's hope."

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