The high-tech innovation centre that is a business for businesses

Managing Director Patrick Allen with the Acoustic Camera.
Managing Director Patrick Allen with the Acoustic Camera.
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THIS acoustic camera is among an array of pioneering equipment housed within the 3M Buckley Innovation Centre.

Running through the heart of the building is the aptly named Innovation Avenue, which is the route to a series of laboratories and workshops providing high-tech facilities and services for businesses.

The acoustic camera, for example, uses sound vibrations to produce images of objects such as engines or pumps in an effort to improve the design or detect a fault.

And the centre also has 3D printing equipment, for product design, prototype and low volume manufacture, as well as an atomic force microscope, which operates at the nanoscale.

But access to high quality technology such as this is only part of the offering of the 3M Buckley Innovation Centre, a £12m hub based in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire.

While it provides a mixture of types and sizes of office space, the centre also aims to help businesses accelerate their growth through access to national and international markets as well as practical financial and commercial support.

“As they [the businesses] prosper they employ more people, put back into the economy, the Kirklees area, the Yorkshire region and the UK economy as a whole,” said Patrick Allen, managing director of the centre and former executive director of marketing at the Co-operative Group.

A wholly owned subsidiary of the University of Huddersfield, the 3M Buckley Innovation Centre, which is currently around 30 per cent pre-let, officially opens in the new year.

Funded by the European Regional Development Fund and Kirklees Council, the 3,600 square metre centre is aimed at businesses from the high-tech arenas but across a range of sectors including pharmaceuticals, software development and engineer- ing.

The centre’s “sweet spot”, as Mr Allen puts it, is firms aged between two to three years with a turnover of between £250,000 to £1m, employing three to four people, and looking to get their business to the next level, but start-ups and big firms can also benefit.

Larger businesses, for example, can use the centre to de-couple their innovation process from the main core of the business, said Mr Allen.

“It’s almost like let’s isolate them over here, get the idea worked up, use the technology of the university, get it up and running, prototype it, and then they graft that back into the core business,” he explained.

But it’s not just about giving firms access to the technology, the centre also provides access to the skills needed to operate the equipment.

“It’s about leading those companies to the right technology at the right time for their growth,” added Mr Allen.

The centre has already attracted businesses including Severn Unival, a designer and manufacturer of control and choke valves, as well as marine engineers, Whale Technologies, TRAC Measurement Systems, part of the global TRAC Group, and the National Physical Laboratory, which has set up research facilities in one of the temperature-controlled laboratories at the centre.

The 3M Buckley Innovation Centre will advise businesses on accessing finance, which could encompass equity investment, research bids, a loan or crowd-funding for example, via its network of financial partners, and it also seeks to help companies reach new markets.

“So if you are looking as a small SME to either get a supply chain or distribute your products in China... we will guide them through that process with our partners, be that the UKTI [UK Trade & Investment] or university alumni or business contacts, and help them establish supply lines that help grow their business,” said Mr Allen.

Prof Liz Towns-Andrews, chief executive of the centre, said: “This is an eco-system for business support. It isn’t just about rental space, it’s not just about office space.”

She added: “It’s not about spin-out companies – so commercialisation of any intellectual property that arises out of the university itself. That’s not the model here.

“This is about spin-in. It’s about bringing companies to co-locate alongside the university to transfer knowledge from the university into those companies and vice-versa and to grow collaboration with the university.”

The centre, which was formed by renovating a two-storey mill building and adding a third floor and glass atrium, is being run as a business for businesses.

Mr Allen said: “We have a commercial model here so this is a business for businesses.

“So I’m running this as a business entity.

“It’s about having a sustainable business beyond three years and beyond grant-funded money.

“If we grow the businesses as we expect to grow, at the rate we expect to grow them, then there will be a queue at the door and that creates a sustainable business model. That’s my vision.”

He said he expects to have around 90 companies in the centre and 200 to 300 members in its membership network.

Not all businesses that want to get involved with the centre have to sign up as tenants. Some can become associate tenants, paying a membership fee and having access to facilities such as the high-tech equipment and meeting rooms, as well as guest speaker events.

As far as the tenants go, Mr Allen wants to see a relatively high turnover within the centre.

“What I would like to see is companies coming in here and then within three years they are too big to accommodate, they leave and we bring the next ones through,” said Mr Allen.

“They also become advocates. They start to shout from the rooftops about the success that they have based on where they started, and that starts to bring more people in.”

The 3M Buckley Innovation Centre is currently in talks with other potential tenants, said Mr Allen, and the idea is that the centre will attract businesses from across the globe.

Prof Towns-Andrews said: “The 3M Buckley Innovation Centre is very, very important to the university. It’s a new way of working for the university with business.

“The 3M model is, I believe, an exemplar and unique amongst how universities should be engaging with business.”

The 3M Buckley Innovation Centre is named after University of Huddersfield alumni Sir George Buckley, who earlier this year retired from 3M where he had been chairman, president and CEO since 2005.

3M, which entered into a long-term strategic partnership with the university, is an Ame rican manufacturer, which is probably best known for Post-It Notes and Scotch Gard.