Blue sky thinking

Blue sky thinking

Science City York isn’t just boffins in white coats, says Peter Baber. Its remit is much wider – and its success is starting to show.

Since 2007 Science City York (SCY), the business support organisation for scientific and knowledge-based businesses in the region, has notched up an impressive track record.

In 2008, partly in an attempt to access more funding streams but also to demonstrate its independence, it became a company limited by guarantee.

That puts it on a different footing from the other Science City agencies around the country, which were created after SCY was created in 1998 and still sit very much within their respective local councils. The change paid off, because in 2009 SCY won two new rounds of funding from the European Regional Development Fund.

First a big £19.74m to deliver more than 9,000sq m of new business, laboratory and knowledge exchange space. The agency also won £1.3m in ERDF funding for a programme of intensive assistance for key business personnel within some of the SMEs it supports.

The money has enabled it to appoint three business mentors with science and industry backgrounds, who can each work with a maximum of 14 companies for no less than 16 hours a week.

That same year – 2009 – also saw the agency open a centre close to the centre of York for creative industries. The Phoenix Centre has already become the base for 12 new ventures.

The agency signed a joint memorandum of understanding with UK Coal in preparation for a bid to build a hi-tech centre for the former North Selby coalfield mine site on the outskirts of York and it finally renegotiated its contract with Yorkshire Forward, which provides much of its funding.

In the four years of the previous contract, the agency had assisted 120 businesses and created 54 new ones. It all sounds very impressive. Especially when you discover that from mid-2007 until recently it had no chief executive.

Richard Hutchins was appointed in 2007, but he left after six weeks for personal reasons (he has since returned to Advantage West Midlands, the regional development agency he had left to head SCY) and Richard Gregory, the former managing director of Yorkshire Television and deputy chairman of Yorkshire Forward who is also SCY’s chairman, stepped in to take overall responsibility.

Such an unusually long hiatus isn’t the only thing that’s a bit of an anomaly about Science City York.

For one thing, despite the name, and despite the fact that it gets a good part of its funding from the City of York Council, it isn’t restricted to funding businesses based in York itself. The boundaries of North Yorkshire – a considerably wider area – are its remit.

Nor is it narrowly confined to what many people might have as an image of science – men in lab coats experimenting with test tubes. “Our remit is a bit wider than science,” says Helen Malton, one of the three newly appointed business mentors.

“We can work in any knowledge-based company.” Many of the companies that it funds are in fact digital companies. Examples might include IOKO, an award-winning mobile and digital development company whose credits include creating the 4 On Demand anytime television viewing system for Channel 4.

Another example, and one which stretches the definition of what SCY does to the limit, is Gaist, the winner of the innovation showcase award at Venturefest, a Dragons’ Den-type event for technology companies, which SCY sponsors.

The company is not based in York at all, but rather outside Keighley, only just making it into North Yorkshire by a few hundred yards. The company has developed a digital mapping system.

Commercial director Nick Kitchin describes it as being halfway between professional GIS systems – which are full of applications but requiring some technical expertise to use – and Microsoft Bing – easy to use, but of limited use for emergency services and local councils who need to keep tabs on where things are.

There are, of course, a wide range of business support organisations and low-rent office complexes aimed at attracting the digital sector across Yorkshire. But Kitchin says SCY provided the thing that really mattered; a £50,000 loan to get it started in 2008.

Dr Ian Graham, director of the Centre for Novel Agricultural Products (CNAP) at York University, and someone very much more in the traditional mode of science, has no problem with the wide remit SCY follows.

“Digital companies have after all come off the back of scientific discoveries,” he says, “and they are probably closer to the delivery stage than many others.” That’s a point echoed by Dan Croxen-John from Applied Web Analytics, one of the new tenants at the Phoenix Centre and someone being advised by Norman Slater, one of the mentors appointed alongside Helen Malton.

“Digital businesses are well placed to take advantage of funding at the moment,” he says.

“The science comes from the statistical significance of what we are talking about.” But what does the woman who has come in at the end of all this hiatus think? At the start of this year, Professor Nicola Spence was appointed as SCY’s new chief executive.

She beat off more than 70 other applicants for the job – a surprisingly high number given the proximity of the election and the possibility of a new government which might not look so kindly on such agencies.

She comes to the agency with impeccable credentials. A former academic researcher and plant pathologist, her career highs have included developing the first ever plant virus to be registered as a biological product in Europe (which sounds a bit like Day of the Triffids but isn’t).

She comes to the agency from the Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA), just outside York, where she was external affairs director for a time.

“I hung up my pipette and lab coat quite a while ago,” she says. “I realised the motivation for my career was going towards running an organisation that was directly supporting the link between the businesses and the researchers.” She is quick to point out that because of the nature of the kind of work the agency funds, there will always be some companies that achieve more than others.

“We’ve worked with hundreds of businesses,” she says. “Some of them will always be small because of their market, but others have grown.” She is also keen to stress that while commerciality is important, it must not drown out “blue sky thinking” by scientists.

“The new Research Excellence Framework, which is used to decide much university funding now, has 25% of marks on impact,” she says.

“Some academics are struggling to see how they are going to achieve that. But you shouldn’t put too much constraint on creative interest, because you never know where it is going to go.”

Nevertheless, her background has certainly given her a personal interest in ensuring potential new discoveries get the best chance in the commercial world. The plant virus that she was so proud to register never saw light of commercial day because the Israeli company backing it had “a dodgy time”.

She clearly wants to ensure other ideas do not similarly fall victim to commercial distress. “We are also about attracting new businesses to the region, encouraging spin-outs, start-ups, then providing support so that companies have the right skills,” she says.

She is particularly excited about the £19.74m ERDF funding for incubator space, and how this might chime with York University’s plans to expand onto a new site at Heslington East. Co-ordination of services is just as important as providing them in the first place, she says.

“We haven’t worked as hard as we could to connect different organisations here,” she says. “I worked for a research organisation five miles from York that wasn’t working with local business or the university.

We can do better.” Although she says she is still in her first “100 days” like a US president, “in three years, I hope to be able to walk down to Heslington East to see this exciting hub that everyone is talking about in the UK and Europe”. Certainly those who have been at the receiving end of SCY funding are very thankful.

Kitchin says that as a result of the funding, Gaist has been able to develop a product which aims to map existing roadworks on UK roads in real time. The company already has support from every local council and highway authority in Yorkshire and Humberside, the North East and the North West – no mean feat. And now Microsoft is sounding interested in funding the roll-out.

Croxen-John, too, says SCY money helped him to attend a web analytics conference in America where he was able to make useful contacts and further his research.

“The software people are developing now is essentially free,” he says, “so your own insight is what is important. I am currently talking to a US business happy to share information on how it grew.” The company is also working with retailer New Look on its online checkout.

Most of all, Ian Graham sees the value in what SCY is setting out to achieve. CNAP has been in lengthy discussions with Yorkshire Forward and the Government about possibly setting up a biorefinery in Yorkshire.

“What we do is similar to oil refining, except we are trying to extract maximum value from biomass. We normally look at milligrams of the stuff, but you have to work in kilograms before industry is interested in evaluating it. So we are trying to build a biorefinery where you can take biomass extract in significant levels. In talking with Yorkshire Forward it was really critical that we had an organisation like SCY working with us to make sure the right structures were in place to attract funding.

It is an extremely good facilitator that will allow for innovation.” Spence believes SCY has another role - to communicate what scientists are doing. This helps to foster a sense of York and the North Yorkshire region as a centre for scientific research, particularly in food science. Again, she says, such communication has not always been great in the past. FERA used to work with over 100 different countries, she says.

“We haven’t made enough of that. It is partly about inward investment, partly about partnering, and we need to tell that story.”

It is an apposite time to promote the kind of science York organisations do, she says, because the debate over food and biomass supplies is topical. But there is a snag.

Any debate about the future of food will involve some discussion on genetically modified (GM) crops – and scientists might not be the best people to advance such a taboo subject.

“The Government increasingly looks to scientists to do the communicating,” she says, “and it is a tough call for any administration. Would you want to be the minister that approved GM? You can’t expect a scientist to be a brilliant communicator and handle those difficult challenges.

“I was reading about the climate change scandal at the University of East Anglia, and I thought the scientist at the heart of it was so naïve. ‘I’m just a researcher’, he was saying. ‘No one has ever taught me to deal with the media’. That’s where the problem lies: he has been doing his research, dodging Freedom of Information requests, and not realising the impact that might have. That results in science not being trusted. That is a role for SCY in that we do have dedicated communications and press people who can work with businesses and scientists.

“People are equipped to understand what the facts are and make an informed decision, rather than being swayed by media coverage.”

Although she insists she still wants to see a debate on GM, she clearly feels the anti-GM lobby has been so powerful that an opportunity has been lost, to the detriment of the UK, and Yorkshire in particular. The GM Inspectorate is based in York, and there are still GM trials running in Yorkshire.

“But ten years ago we had products on the shelves, and biotech companies in the UK, and that has all gone,” she says. “The UK economy has been harmed by that. Biotech investment has gone offshore.

“It has also had a negative impact on the UK science base, because you can’t get that work funded in the UK, so those people either go somewhere where they can get funding, or they do something else.”

Ian Graham, however, is not quite so sure. “We shouldn’t restrict ourselves by the arguments over GM,” he says. “Even if nationally we agree to look at GM again, it will take a number of years to deliver.” But he agrees there is much potential for more work on related subjects.

“There is plenty of opportunity for intensification of biorenewable feedstocks that don’t have anything to do with GM,” he says. With SCY, the mechanisms should be in place to make sure such work at the very least comes to York.