There are many challenges facing small, high-tech businesses: accessing funding, expertise, laboratories/office space and opportunities to network and collaborate are just a few of them. For many such companies, the STFC’s business incubation initiatives are the ideal solution.
Whether based at the Harwell Campus or Sci-Tech Daresbury national science and innovation campuses, companies have access to STFC’s facilities, capabilities, technology, IP business support package, funding and wider networks. They offer thriving high-tech and scientific SME communities, with collaborations and connections enabling tenants to share advice and offer their services.
Business incubation centres offer a nurturing environment where SMEs flourish. The schemes are already demonstrating many successes, such as Perfectus Biomed and Oxford nanoSystems.
STFC’s Innovations Technology Access Centre (I-TAC) provides flexible, affordable access to high specification laboratory facilities and equipment, combined with office space and essential business support to help UK companies grow. I-TAC facilities are available at both Sci-Tech Daresbury and Harwell Campus. We spoke to I-TAC Bio tenant Dr Samantha Westgate, the director of microbiology start-up company Perfectus Biomed, to find out about her experience working with STFC.
We’re a microbiological service provider - particularly we offer bespoke services to companies that make anti-microbial agents. We started in wound care, so we do a lot of testing of topical anti-microbials and wound dressings, and then we also work in sectors like surface anti-microbials, contact lenses, dentistry and water treatment.
In terms of our bespoke offering, we specialise in biofilm testing and provide microbiological services that give a more “real-life” result than the standard off-the-shelf assays that are available.
It was through a business contact, and also my previous business partner who was onsite. I think I-TAC was running a competition at the time so we came on board then. We submitted a business plan and got reduced lab rent for the first three months as a bit of a trial. That was nearly three years ago now.
A mixture of reasons, really. The fact that they offer labs and offices – and that the labs have equipment that the companies can use, so it meant that we didn’t have the huge start-up costs. We didn’t have to buy autoclaves, we didn’t have to buy dishwashers and things like that, all the basic lab-ware to get us started. So it’s allowed us to get the company up and running, get some turnover and then be able to invest in equipment ourselves. Also, there’s the networking opportunities available as part of the wider campus, so we’ve got the business breakfasts once a month, and a lot of people here have links with companies that are now our clients. Geographically, it’s close to the airports and close to the motorways so it seemed like a good place to be!
Yes, definitely. It’s helped us grow from just being one or two people to now being more of a company. We have now employed two additional people full time and three or four others who do monthly consultancy for us. It’s helped us raise investment and it’s allowed us to grow in terms of premises – we’ve got a much larger lab now than we had to start off with.
I think the fact that we’ve gained clients who are based here is definitely a benefit, and we’ve also gained clients through wider campus networks. Also we’ve benefited from having support looking for funding. Now we’re looking at Innovation UK for funding and things like that – so just getting to know about a lot of the schemes that are out there, I think, is a benefit. We know about a lot more from being here than we might do if we’d placed ourselves elsewhere.
We’re just coming up to the end of our first year post-investment, next year we’re looking at taking on another full-time member of staff, and we might take another part-time member of staff too. We’re looking to complete ISO this year – ISO 9001 – and GLP (Good Laboratory Practice) early next year, and hopefully some of the other ISO accreditations later next year. And from there, we’re just hoping to keep on growing!
The European Space Agency Business Incubation Centre Harwell (ESA BIC Harwell) provides high-tech entrepreneurs and start-ups with access to funding, technical expertise and business support to transform space technologies and systems into vibrant non-space businesses. The ESA BIC is managed in the UK by STFC and provides the ideal environment to accelerate innovation and unlock commercial potential. Each year we support up to 10 start-ups working in sectors including healthcare, energy, agriculture, digital technology and defence.
We spoke to ESA BIC Harwell alumni Jon Horbaly (CEO) and Alex Reip (Senior Research Scientist) of Oxford nanoSystems to find out more about their time at Harwell..
Alex: Our product is a nanocoating technology. In our business we are using a nanocoating to improve heat transfer in heating systems, this can be applied to any surface and also helps to prevent corrosion. The coating is designed to decrease the build-up of limescale in water environments. These coatings will not only help manufacturers and the public to save money, but will also help the environment as these systems reduce fuel consumption and carbon emissions.
Alex: The technology is adapted from colloidal thruster technology found on satellites. Colloidal thrusters create an electrostatic repulsion which accelerates a material through a tiny nozzle. In outer space, this repulsion is used to make fine adjustments in the orientation of satellites.
Jon: In simpler terms, the satellite is like a box with holes in the bottom of it. When the spray of particles is pushed through these holes, the force of the pressure being emitted causes the box to move back onto the needed trajectory. The concept of the spray is what we have taken from the satellite because it is very fine. We have adapted this technology to spray very thin coatings on surfaces which help to increase heat transfer and prevent corrosion.
Jon: We heard about the ESA BIC through some local networks and connections. An incubatee already part of the incubation programme actually recommended that we consider applying for the scheme after he got to understand the technologies that we were using. The sense of community at the ESA BIC Harwell is characteristic of the programme - there really is a strong community spirit between the other companies based there and across the wider campus - and so we have then reached out to other companies to build on our connections.
Jon: Since June 2012, but we didn’t move in until about October, so about 2 years. Having finished our term at ESA BIC Harwell in June 2013, we are continuing to work with STFC (who manage the ESA BIC for ESA) and are now based at their I-TAC facility on the Harwell Campus campus.
Alex: The access to the state-of-the-art facilities of ESA and STFC; you can do a lot more as a start-up than if you just had an office somewhere. Science technology companies need funding, which the ESA BIC provides through its incentive scheme, and there are other opportunities to be involved in schemes such as Innovation UK’s Launchpad programme. The facilities, expertise and access to equipment and lab space from STFC have also proved to be invaluable for our business.
Jon: To reiterate what Alex said, the plethora of facilities and the proximity is key – everything is on site at Harwell. Also the STFC staff are friendly and knowledgeable and they have provided us with new connections and contacts which has saved us time and money.
Jon: The access and proximity to the facilities is helping us to develop our technology much faster and more inexpensively. The expertise of the staff keeps us moving along.
Alex: And the canteen is great! [laughter] We get to meet new people.
Jon: And the PR. Credit to the staff. The support of the ESA BIC marketing team has enabled us to get international exposure through the homepage of the ESA website as their photo of the month. Securing that gained us further contacts and boosted the reputation of our company by being on the ESA website.
Jon: Definitely. We have been approached directly from outside companies asking if we could help apply our technology to their business, and have had referrals to help other businesses through the technology transfer network links on site.
Jon: Well as I said before, we have moved into I-TAC (Innovations Technology Access Centre). We wanted to stay as close to the ESA BIC Harwell network as possible and still maintain the relationships.
Alex: Yeah, we want to stay and grow the business.
Jon: We want to find new applications of our technology in new markets. New products. All over the world.
Alex: That should be our slogan
In addition STFC also operates the STFC CERN Business Incubation Centre a pilot scheme which has just welcomed its first incubatee and is the world’s-first CERN business incubator. Based at the Daresbury science and innovation campus, the aim of the STFC CERN BIC is to support businesses and entrepreneurs in transforming innovative technologies related to high-energy physics into commercial applications.
The BIC offers unequalled opportunities for high-tech entrepreneurs and start-ups to be involved with the world-leading research centre, with successful applicants having access to up to 80 hours of CERN and STFC scientists and technical expertise.
To enquire about the STFC CERN BIC please email: enquiries at CERN BIC.