NETPark usually looms large in any discussion about North-East innovation. Andy Richardson finds out why County Durham’s science and technology hub has been such a success story

BUILD it and they will come - that is the basic premise behind all business parks. Developers, often with local authority support, speculatively construct a site in the hope that it will draw enough investors to create a go-to place for go-ahead businesses. It is easier said than done, and it would be fair to say that some of them work out better than others. NETPark science and technology hub - County Durham’s very own field of dreams – has been one of the more successful examples, becoming a magnet for entrepreneurship, innovation and job creation.  

There was a buzz of expectation, tempered with a dash of cynicism, when the then Prime Minister Tony Blair popped back to his Sedgefield constituency during the summer recess 15 years ago to perform the official opening of the North East Technology Park (NETPark) Research Institute. Mr Blair returned to the site later that year, a couple of days before Christmas, to unveil the NETPark Incubator, which, as its name suggests, aimed to nurture start-ups through the early stage of their lives to become enterprises capable of standing on their own two feet.

“This will help to create the businesses of the future,” Mr Blair told The Northern Echo at the park’s grand opening, before adding: “The vision for the project is for NETPark to be the location of choice for forward-looking companies seeking the best place for their research and development activities. I encourage all businesses involved in science and technology to explore this new opportunity and become part of the NETPark vision."

This could have sounded like trademark Tony Blair rhetoric. After all, the region had seen more than its fair share of fly-by-night overseas investors arrive to a big fanfare and then scoot off when the grants dried up. But right from the outset, NETPark had a clarity of vision and purpose which set it apart from the competition. With funding support from the EU, Durham County Council, local development bodies and central Government, it has lived up to Blair’s bold billing, and in many ways exceed expectations. It is now a trump card in the area’s bid to attract inward investment and present itself to the world as a centre of smart-thinking and ground-breaking technology.

Part of its success comes from having a cluster of like-minded businesses, and a range of facilities, from laboratories to industrial units, that give firms space to test theories, develop products and grow in a mutually-supportive environment.

NETPark is managed by Business Durham, the economic development organisation for County Durham, which works on behalf of Durham County Council. Its involvement, and the support of partners such as Durham University and Mr Blair’s successor, Phil Wilson MP, ensured that the site forged links with the community and sought to inspire the next generation. This has included workshops, after-school clubs, themed days, visits from NASA astronauts and special projects that highlight career pathways and centre on the kind of real-world technology, such as DNA, forensics, smart materials and electronics, that fire young minds.  

The Incubator’s first occupants, Durham Scientific Crystals, went on to become Kromek who for the first few years almost single-handedly justified all of NETPark’s hype. Kromek is now a Transatlantic operation listed on the AIM stock exchange.

But drive around NETPark and you begin to realise that Kromek are only a small part of the story. The park is home to more than thirty companies providing over 450 highly-skilled jobs. X-ray detection business IBEX, robotics company Tharsus, software innovators Quorum and cutting-edge electronics firm PragmatIC are among those who found this the ideal site to expand their operations.

The park has two Catapult centres - High Value Manufacturing, the catalyst for the future growth and success of manufacturing, and Satellite Applications, which supports companies by opening up opportunities using satellite data and technology. The Catapult programme is part of a government strategy to develop elite innovation centres aimed at helping the UK compete with the best in the world.

Also, on the Sedgefield site is the North East Satellite Applications Centre of Excellence - one of only five in the country. It has engaged with more than 350 businesses in the region, exploring the potential for space technology and data to grow their companies. It joins CPI’s four national centres at NETPark.

No one has been more important to the success of the park than the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI), whose partnership with NETPark has been key to the development of both parties. CPI has proven time and again that this is a place where big thinkers come to realise their ambitions.

And NETPark has a bold vision for the future. The aim is for it to become the global hub for materials integration, supporting companies to integrate materials into innovative, high-value products with enormous social and economic impact. The product range is mind-boggling, helping us to be healthier, generate sustainable energy, keep us safe and secure in the world and transform the lives of those around us.

The vision is that by 2025 NETPark will not just be a destination of choice it will be a destination of necessity for SMEs, blue-chips, universities and governments who want to unleash the potential of materials, transforming them into products that change all our lives for the better.

Brian Archer, managing director of Business Durham, said: “It’s been fantastic to watch NETPark grow over the last few years and see many of the companies which started out in the incubator become global successes. It continues to attract world leading companies to the park and is a leading force in the sectors of innovation, healthcare photonics and satellite applications. The park has a thriving community of like-minded businesses and one of the many advantages of being there is the collaborative work which happens with organisations such as CPI. 

“We’re looking to develop NETPark further over the next few years and provide more facilities for larger companies to locate and expand here. It really is a jewel in the crown of County Durham."

*Break the following success stories into a panel*:  

NETPark success stories:

KROMEK The businesses which started as a two-person operation at Durham University is now a world leader in detection technology that helps to combat threats such as cancer and terrorism. The US homeland security services are among its clients.

CPI The Centre for Process Innovation was involved with the planning, build and launch of NETPark’s National Printable Electronics Centre. Its ongoing commitment and investment in the Sedgefield site saw it launch the National Formulation Centre, an open-access innovation hub for advanced formulated product design and manufacture. Its facilities have supported R&D by the likes of Kromek and PolyPhotonix. CPI is key partner in plans to grow NETPark over the coming years.

FILTRONIC. A world leader in the design and manufacture of a broad range of customised RF, microwave and millimetre wave components and subsystems.

THARSUS The Blyth-based robotics company chose NETPark as a base for its new office so it could widen access to the North-East’s talented pool of engineering professionals.

QUORUM The software company, made the short journey from Teesside to the NETPark Incubator in 2014 and never looked back. Its products include Sentinel, which enables communication with National Grid and supports the efficient operation of power stations in the UK market.

IBEX The firm has developed and patented x-ray detector technology that can be retrofitted to existing x-ray machinery to significantly improve the detection of defects and impurities in the materials being imaged. Its technology, which acts like a colour filter to bring out extra information on an x-ray image, can be applied in markets, including food inspection, bomb detection and medical radiography.

PRAGMATIC. A world leader in ultra-low-cost flexible electronics, it designs and develops flexible integrated circuits thinner than a human hair and can be easily embedded into everyday objects.