NETPark – the future’s bright for North East tech firms

November 1, 2018

When the first building at the North East Technology Park was opened in 2004 by then Prime Minister Tony Blair, few could anticipate the role the park would play in the global ambitions of dozens of County Durham businesses…

It has been 14 years since NETPark Research Institute became the first building to open at County Durham’s exciting new North East Technology Park, known as NETPark. It became home to Durham University and the Centre for Advanced Instrumentation and was quickly followed by the Incubator and the first SME, Durham University spin-out Kromek.

Fast forward to 2018, and Kromek, which manufactures equipment for the medical, nuclear and security industries, is now AIM-listed. It has secured significant contracts with the US DARPA, an agency of the US Department of Defence to detect dirty bombs and won a £1.4 million deal
to improve breast cancer detection. Also, the incubator is now fully occupied with 17 science, engineering and technology companies.

Meanwhile, NETPark – which is managed by Business Durham, the economic development organisation for County Durham – now offers high-tech companies office, incubation, growth space, offices, science labs and clean room facilities.

Kromek has been joined on the park by dozens of innovative companies that are making a major impact on people’s health, creating new jobs, revolutionising existing, technologies and keeping our country safe.

From its early days, the park has grown alongside its talented tenants. When its most recent development, the £7.6 million Explorer building, opened in January, it was already 40 per cent full, showing just how much the park is in demand. Explorer’s new tenants, x-ray imaging specialist IBEX and electronics firm PragmatIC, had come from NETPark’s Discovery Centre and from the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) respectively.

IBEX chief executive Dr Neil Loxley says the move to the Explorer building was instrumental to the company’s future success. The company started its journey on NETPark as a virtual tenant, then took incubator space before moving into offices in the Discovery 2 building. It now has custom- designed office and laboratory space in Explorer to support ambitious five-year growth plans to double its workforce and transform it into a multi-million pound business.

Dr Neil says: “We had a great deal of input into the design and layout of the office and laboratory, which will take us through the next five years of growth comfortably. The quality of the facilities at NETPark and the attitude of staff is first class. It has a really dynamic, innovative atmosphere.”

For Ken Williamson, chief operating officer at PragmatIC, Explorer offered an ideal opportunity to support their rapid growth.

“We initially came because of the printable electronics centre but access to a highly-skilled semi-conductor workforce in the North East has been a key factor in us staying and growing here, as well as the value-for-money office space and the access to funding. The Explorer building really is an ideal place for us,” he says.

Peter McDowell, property director with Business Durham, which works on behalf of Durham County Council, says the Explorer building has provided a vital “next step-up” for tenants, adding: “It’s a bigger building so it’s given existing tenants the opportunity to grow rather than stagnate as they hunt around for new premises. A company can see a clear path for their business without having to worry where they’re going to go next.”

Following on from Explorer, the park has recently seen Phase 3 get underway with the completion of a new road and infrastructure works. Getting the right infrastructure in place at NETPark has been vital to pave the way for the building of new facilities in the future, whether they will be occupied with larger inward investors or existing tenants at the park. Both Explorer and the new road have been made possible with £8 million funding from the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP).

“The Explorer building has provided a vital ‘next step- up’ for tenants. A company can see a clear path for their business without having to worry where they’re going to go next.”

Peter adds: “Without the support of North East LEP, we couldn’t have created Explorer and the new infrastructure. They’ve also been very supportive of CPI.”

Since its early days, the park has been joined by two Catapult centres – High Value Manufacturing, the catalyst for the future growth and success of manufacturing, and Satellite Applications, which supports companies by opening up opportunities using satellite data and technology.

The North East Satellite Applications Centre of Excellence is one of only five in the country and has engaged with more than 350 businesses in the region, exploring the potential for space technology and data to grow their companies. They join CPI’s four national centres at NETPark.

Peter continues: “The benefits of being at NETPark include the collaborations it offers for tenants. At Business Durham, we can help make those introductions and help businesses foster long-term relationships.”

Pioneering biotechnology firm ReViral is another tenant which has found the collaborations useful as the business grows. ReViral opened a research facility at the park in 2016, and is due to start the next stage of clinical trials of itsfi drug to combat Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) after securing a second round of funding – US$55 million from US and European investors.

Former Durham University lecturer Dr Stuart Cockerill, chief scientific advisor at ReViral, says: “It’s been hard work to get to this point but it’s very exciting to be here now.

“We love it at NETPark. It’s a great location and a good site being among other companies such as the CPI. It’s clean and a safe site.”

All of the developments form part of NETPark’s ten-year strategy, which aims to create 3000 jobs and add another £400 million to the region’s GVA. As it continues to grow, its future and those of its tenants is looking incredibly bright.

Peter concludes: “A science park brings so many benefits for the local economy, not least because many of the jobs it provides are for a highly-skilled workforce so we can keep our talent here in the North East.

“For the future of NETPark, we would like to see private investment on the park and attract more businesses who want to create larger, bespoke facilities. We have the land and we certainly have the right support in place for companies wanting to locate and grow here. We’re here for the long term, and we have the long-term vision to go with it.”


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