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Creative energies and incubating sustainability


Few of the facilities on Manchester University’s sprawling campus can claim a better enterprise pedigree than the Zochonis Building. On this hallowed ground Tom Kilburn and Sir Freddie Williams did their pioneering work on the first stored-memory computer and Eric Laithwaite of linear motor fame passed through its portals.

Today the former electrical engineering building hums with a new creative energy as the first intake of 31 students on Manchester Science Enterprise Centre’s (MSEC) ground- breaking Master of Enterprise programme learn the business essentials of converting high-technology concepts into survivable companies.

Centre director, Professor David Auckland, sees the £4.7m MSEC project as the intermediate layer between formal education and the ‘business incubator’. The incubator concept was born out of his previous incarnation as founder and moving spirit of Campus Ventures, a university project that has successfully nurtured 85 business start-ups in six years, 86 per cent of which are still in existence.

Down in the smartly refurbished basement setting of MSEC’s Business Creation Centre postgraduates are given a desk, phone and computer and exposed to entrepreneurial training and mentoring designed to make them and their chosen technologies ‘oven-ready’ for the incubation stage. Auckland calls it “a laboratory where you test enterprise”.

All the projects are speculative but he thinks that up to 50 per cent will end up in the commercial arena. Some of those undergoing germination offer innovative solutions to environmental problems such as manganese-based absorbent balls - snappily branded as ‘mangoballs’ - for removing heavy metal pollutants from water; systems for monitoring waste; poison-eating bacteria and a novel method of plugging spent oil wells.

“Mangoballs are a low cost, low energy way of removing precious metals
and toxic, heavy metals from solutions they could make a real impact in clean-ups worldwide.”

Alex Marshall M.Ent University of Manchester

Once they have obtained their ‘M.Ent’ degrees Auckland expects - and indeed hopes - the most enterprising of his proteges will progress into the region’s growing incubator network in which Campus Ventures is becoming a major player.

Incubators feeding off and into growth industries like bioscience and multimedia, closely linked to the strong university research base, are a key element of a new, wide-ranging regional economic strategy to boost competitiveness and quicken the pace of business formation. Start-up rates in the Northwest are increasing, as is the percentage of those surviving at least three years (58.5 per cent), but on both counts the region performs below the UK national average.

By late summer four incubators will have been established to capitalise on innovation-rich industries. The focus in South Cumbria is on marine and offshore technologies; in Burnley on aerospace and IT; in Bolton on performance textiles, and at Westlakes Science Park in Cumbria, on environmental technologies and services. Incubators will be positioned within seven other industrial clusters supplementing similar facilities in the eight mainstream Northwest universities.

This rush to open incubators has raised fears among grant-giving bodies like the Northwest Development Agency (NWDA) - a principal funder of these projects under its cluster development programme - about who will populate them. Are incubators, the question goes, a fine idea in theory but scuppered in practice by a serious lack of driven, research- led entrepreneurs? It’s a concern Auckland is quick to acknowledge.

“This is why those of us in the world of business creation have established the MSEC. The first intake is just the tip of a very big iceberg that will start to fill these incubators. It’s unfair to plunge young people straight into the incubation process when they've had no experience of the commercial world. It’s also inefficient because the incubator has to spend a lot of time and money on them before they get to the front line of commercial activity.”

Four departments within Manchester University and UMIST are pioneering the 12-month Masters of Enterprise programme and another five across all four Manchester universities will join in September 2002. Liverpool is also set to join this new enterprise bandwagon.

“What we have done in a curious sort of way is draw business creation and technology transfer into a formal educational setting. That’s never been done before anywhere else in the world”

“What we have done in a curious sort of way is draw business creation and technology transfer into a formal educational setting. That’s never been done before anywhere else in the world”, says Auckland.

David Auckland’s M.Ent programme will be just one component part of a project that is looking to take entrepreneurial activity into the heart of the Northwest’s disadvantaged areas. North Manchester Business Park

is an important economic driver for the regeneration of East Manchester, where the loss of traditional manufacturing has left the area suffering from depopulation and decay.
The project will integrate MANCAT, a local Further Education provider, into the enterprise culture alongside postgraduate research in Information Technology, technology transfer and incubation facilities. The intention is to give people from deprived local communities the aspiration, skills and vocational qualifications to compete for the thousands of new jobs expected on the park.

Catherine Potter, Managing Director of Campus Ventures who will take a fifth of the space in the 100,000 sq. ft. ICON building for incubation purposes, is anxious to avoid a situation where most of the jobs are taken by people from affluent commuter suburbs and the park has little or no economic impact on those living close by.

During a fact-finding drive around the area recently Potter was left in no doubt from a graffiti message - “North Manchester Business Park - making fat cats fatter and local people homeless” - that, for some people, the park is a political issue. She believes that provision of a social incubation service for MANCAT students on the same location would help to meet local needs.

“The area is badly provided for in terms of basic services but we have to replenish this sector from the inside. If you simply import them you are not doing what is intended - rejuvenating East Manchester.”

Salford University’s enterprise activities, which have generated 35 start-ups in two years, already have a distinct community bias. Money-Line, for example, sprang out of a research programme linked to the concept of a community bank and has been working effectively in one of the city’s neediest areas.
It provides affordable loans for those who cannot gain access to mainstream commercial finance and is expanding into rural areas.

Until recently the UK has had few mechanisms for bringing entrepreneurs with good ideas but no capital or security into business. Northwest universities have shown how quickly this can change - often with the enthusiastic backing of business ‘angels’ and venture capitalists.
Bioscience is a good case in point. Not only is Manchester Innovation’s 75,000 sq. ft. bio- incubator fully occupied, but two of the resident companies, Renovo which is developing wound-healing treatments and Intercytex, a tissue repair start-up, have each won backing of £8 million from the venture capital market.

UMIST Ventures (UVL), the exploitation arm of UMIST, has also built an impressive reputation for bringing lab-discoveries to the marketplace. During the past two years it has identified 150 developed ideas with commercial prospects and is currently working with 20 spin-out companies.

One promising newcomer, Gentronix, has developed a fundamentally new and innovative detection system for cancer-causing chemicals. Chemicals that cause cancer are known as genotoxins because they damage a cell’s genetic material (DNA). Gentronix’s new technology is a superior, cheaper and faster alternative to existing tests and recently won backing of £250,000 from a private investor.

UMIST has a strong tradition of problem-solving in the energy industries with research groups focusing on improved fuel efficiency in cars, fuels for the future, climate change, environment-monitoring and clean technologies in manufacturing. Often this expertise has been transferred into spin-out companies.

Two other separate regional initiatives involving EA Technology - a Capenhurst-based consultancy - and a group within Manchester University are underway to develop micro Combined Heat and Power (CHP) technology for domestic homes based on the Stirling heat engine.

Supplied as ‘drop-in’ replacements for existing boilers, the new systems, according to a recent study, could achieve savings of up to 30 per cent on the typical domestic fuel bill and annual reductions of 1 million tonnes of carbon equivalent by the year 2010 based on 250,000 installations.

EA Technology has been running field trials with 20 units in houses in Chester on behalf of a UK utility and hopes thes can be extended this winter to include several hundred units. It claims early results are “very promising”. Apart from providing hot water and central heating, the gas-driven engine can produce about £200 of free electricity.

“A lot of environmental technologies cost money but the beauty of micro CHP is that it saves money. It’s also an extremely cost effective way of saving carbon, ” says programme manager Jeremy Harrison. He expects commercial production to start within two years.

The trials are being closely watched by Envirolink, a non-profit making organisation contracted by NWDA to stimulate growth in the region’s environmental technologies and services sector. Over 700 companies work in the sector, generating sales of £1.3 billion and employing 24,000.

Richard Pearce, an Envirolink board director and former chairman, believes micro CHP epitomises the sector’s potential for sustainable wealth creation. “There is a golden opportunity to get this technology into the wider marketplace and ideally get these units manufactured in the Northwest.”

“As a European region that paid a seriously high environmental price for its heavy industrialisation, we’ve got no choice but to work harder and harder to find cutting-edge technological solutions in areas like contamination, pollution and energy use."

Jackie Seddon, Chief Executive of Envirolink, sees this and other links between business innovation and higher education as offering a real key to sustainability.

“As a European region that paid a seriously high environmental price for its heavy industrialisation, we’ve got no choice but to work harder and harder to find cutting-edge technological solutions in areas like contamination, pollution and energy use. What is equally clear is that these solutions have a global market, one that our companies in the Northwest want to make their own.”

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