Mark Lane finds out the benefits of being sited at NETPark, County Durham’s most prestigious science and technology park, by talking to two companies – PragmatIC and High Force Research – that have their sights set firmly on expansion
High Force Research
NETPark in Sedgefield, County Durham is now firmly established as one of the UK’s leading science parks and forms a key part of the Business Durham property portfolio.
Home to a highly successful cluster of science and technology companies which are having a major impact in global markets, including a number of North East England Chamber of Commerce member businesses, the park has recently expanded with the opening of the new £7.4m Explorer buildings. NETPark also host to the North East Satellite Applications Centre of Excellence which helps to stimulate the space sector in the region, helping businesses to identify commercial and research opportunities. It also helps businesses access funding from bodies such as the UK Space Agency, Innovate UK, the European Space Agency and the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme.
NETPark has a longstanding connection with the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) and Durham University, which supports the growth of new technology businesses through spin-outs, licensing and incubation.
NETPark’s management holds regular meetings to update businesses on the opportunities available through its partner organisations. These can include, for example, funding a new PhD student, research or the using the high-tech equipment of CPI.
The science and technology park is home to more than 118,000 sq ft of laboratory, office and clean room space of varying sizes to support businesses at each stage of their growth, providing flexibility to take more or less space as they need it.
NETPark’s phase three has put the foundations in place providing 26 acres of development land to allow companies that have grown with the park to develop bespoke premises to meet their future growth needs. These infrastructure works were made possible thanks to a £5m grant from the North East Local Enterprise Partnership, Local Growth Fund.
One NETPark tenant which has ambitious future growth plans is PragmatIC, a provider of low cost, flexible integrated circuits allowing objects to engage with their consumers and environments.
“We have a vision for the business, which is we want our technology to be in one trillion items within the next decade,” says CEO Scott White (pictured below). “That’s a fairly bold vision, when you put it in the context that the silicon industry reached a trillion devices for the first time last year and it’s been over 50 years of development since the silicon transistor was first commercialised.”
He adds: “We are looking at potentially spending over the next decade more than £1bn of investment in manufacturing facilities and equipment.”
PragmatIC makes extremely thin, flexible integrated circuits, the equivalent of silicon chips but which can easily be integrated into things at a much lower cost, making them viable on goods into which it would not normally be feasible to put silicon chips.
The business has three product offerings. The initial focus is on radio frequency identification, RFID. This is a technology allowing the unique wireless identification of objects.
“The reason this is interesting for us is that it’s already a very large market,’’ says Scott. “There were about 20 billion RFID tags sold in 2019. It’s something that is used to track items throughout the supply chain and all the way through to end-of-life and recycling. But it’s very much limited with silicon-based technology to be only appropriate for fairly expensive items. With our technology that can be extended to pretty much anything.”
PragmatIC’s second offering is its FlexIC Foundry service. Scott explains: “There are a lot of companies that are interested in doing things with our technology. If we were to try to develop the full product for all of those, we just would not have the bandwidth to do
so. But with a foundry service we can effectively provide them with a set of tools that tell them how the technology works, they can then design the circuits themselves and we just manufacture it for them. In silicon it could cost millions of dollars to put a new product into production, but we can do that for an order of magnitude lower cost with our technology. So it allows people to bring new products to market rapidly.”
Its third offering is FlexLogIC, an entire suite of processing tools combined with a fully automated materials handling system. “That is
a much more modular and scalable approach than the conventional semiconductor model that needs these mega fabs in the Far East in order to achieve the right economies of scale,’’says Scott.
“That means that, in addition to expanding our own manufacturing capability here in the North East, we would also expect that we’re going to be adding manufacturing lines around the world very close to our customers’ premises so that we could shrink the supply chain for them.”
Chief Operating Officer Ken Williamson says that to make a silicon chip takes typically five months then eight weeks of assembly, whereas PragmatIC can turn around one of its products in 24 hours.
“So it’s a real game changer for people who want to introduce new designs and new products,” he says. The company was founded – and is still headquartered – in Cambridge where the initial research and proof of concept was done to establish that there was a repeatable technology.
Scott says: “We needed to look for an appropriate environment where we could develop the concept towards a proper production model so we could manufacture reliably.’’
A key factor was the high cost of equipment for semiconductor manufacturing and a major attraction of NETPark was the presence of CPI, which could offer PragmatIC access to its equipment to develop its process and prove it as a complete end-to-end manufacturing process before it invested in its own equipment.
Another key driver was the availability of appropriate expertise. Fujitsu, Siemens and Atmel had all made semiconductors in the North East, building up an important pool of experienced personnel.
Ken says: “I’m from Scotland originally, from the so-called Silicon Glen area, and a lot of Scots moved to the North East of England to work on the Siemens and Fujitsu projects. Many of the staff here are former work colleagues who we have recruited back into the industry. For me, it’s really refreshing and exciting to be a rebuilding industry in the North East.” The whole process was facilitated by Business Durham, the economic development arm of Durham County Council. “Business Durham have been really helpful in a number of ways,” says Ken.
“We have grown extremely rapidly and they were very quickly able to free up space at NETPark Plexus and the Discovery Centres at short notice. The flexibility has been super and it continues to be. They also gave us really good networking advice and introduced us to useful contacts including Quality Hospital Solutions for an NHS project which has now really taken off. They also give us a regular heads up on business networking events, university events, recruitment and engagement events and also provide quick access into North East funding routes as well that we may not always be aware of, so I am super impressed by them.’’
Scott underlines the importance of working alongside other high-tech companies. He says: “There are a number of other companies on the site that are potentially complimentary from a commercial application perspective, but there are also the benefits of working with other like-minded companies, in just comparing notes on business challenges and connections within the region and so forth. We see that here and in Cambridge, when you get a concentration of similar kinds of companies, not necessarily in the same industry but doing things with technology, it’s so useful to be able to compare notes.”
A NETPark neighbour is High Force Research, an independent research and development company specialising in chemical synthesis and chemical process development. Set up in 1988, its main areas of business are in the pharmaceutical, biotechnology and fine chemical industries.
CEO Dr Roy Valentine (pictured below) recalls the early days: “We started out with a small unit in what was the Mountjoy Research Centre just behind Durham University, which was a small science park, now converted to admin offices for the university. We had a unit there and installed a couple of fume cupboards and laboratory equipment. We took a school leaver on who’s still with us today and she was one of our first lab technicians.”
The fledgling company soon took on a second unit, but, by 1996, had outgrown Mountjoy and bought a plot of land on the new Bowburn North Industrial Estate, where I met with Roy to discuss High Force’s expansion to NETPark.
“We put this building up and expanded it a few years later. We’ve just gradually grown and now we employ 35 people and now this site is completely full,” he explains.
About three years ago, High Force Research opened two laboratories at the Wilton Research Centre on Teesside.
“We put half a dozen chemists in those laboratories purely doing research. But because of the geographical distance, being more than hour’s drive from here, it wasn’t ideal,” he says.
He continues: “We looked at NETPark about three or four years ago, but there wasn’t any space there then, but NETPark are now expanding and they have another greenfield with infrastructure but no buildings yet and we thought maybe it could be somewhere where we could put another facility.”
Just over a year ago, High Force directors met with NETPark manager Janet Todd. Roy recalls: “Janet said it was going to take quite some time to develop that and put extra buildings up, but she had an ideal space which was about half the size of our present building and it was completely empty. We took the lease out on that building in Discovery 1, where we have half of the ground floor and we fitted out the main area as a large laboratory, now we have five people there at the moment and an office.”
Clearly – and as the name implies – R&D is important to High Force. “At the moment we are sponsoring six PhD students at the local universities,” says Roy. “It’s a two-way thing, we can financially support the students in the local universities and what we get back potentially is some research that could become commercialised.
“A good example of this is the formation of a spin-out company from Durham University three years ago called Lightox Ltd and we supported the early work over a number of years at the University by sponsoring a number of PhD students in a particular area of chemistry and that has led to what we think is a commercial application going forward. That company now employs eight people.”
Roy continues: “We have supported them financially and in other ways and they are now looking for a lot more investment and we will be the manufacturing partner as the products start reach the marketplace. But there is a long way to go and clinical trials need to be done because their products are going to be used as APIs [Active Pharmaceutical Ingredient] as well as imaging agents.’’
He adds: “Up until now we have been a CRO [contract research organisation], which is a service company and
our business has grown over the years as we attracted new customers. Now with our involvement with Lightox, the spin-out company, we want to try and develop our own range of products so that we can offer the market those products.”
Roy concludes: “That is our plan, to give us more independence so that the business is not so much reliant on contract research as it has been over the years where you’re constantly looking for new customers and projects. That’s a service model but we want to become more independent and have our own range of products as well. We see NETPark as the ideal location to accommodate the future expansion we are targeting.”