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NETPark in Sedgefield is driving innovation in the North East

To many people, the County Durham town of Sedgefield is best known for its racecourse and as the political heartland of former Prime Minister Tony Blair.

But if the plans of a range of public bodies in the North East come to fruition, it will be the home too of some of the world’s most exciting companies, world leaders in fields like nanotechnology, X-Ray technology, forensics and semiconductor technology.

It will also, or so it is hoped, be the base for 3,000 well-paying jobs and adding another £400m to the North East’s annual economic output.

Those are the targets set for NETPark, an 11-year-old science park on the edge of Sedgefield which has this week has been in the headlines for all the right reasons.

Wednesday saw NETPark itself announcing nearly 160 active collaborations with universities around the UK and abroad, an average of seven per company on site, showing the high levels of research and development being carried out by the hi-tech firms on the park.

Those collaborations included 10 at Cambridge University and three at Oxford, projects taking place in Finland, Germany, Japan, Poland and Portgual, plus another 30 that are so commercially sensitive at this point that no more can currently be said about them.

That level of collaboration with higher education is an indicator of the type and value of work being done on the site.

“Clearly NETPark companies have got it worked out,” said Hans Moller, the North East Local Enterprise Partnership’s innovation director. “NETPark is an essential part of the LEP’s Strategic Economic Plan and Innovation Strategy to make the North East one of the innovation hotspots in Europe; the fact that companies at NETPark work with so many universities across the country and the world is proof of the North East’s global standing.”

Professor Brian Tanner, dean for university enterprise at Durham University and chief scientific adviser to NETPark, agreed, saying: “NETPark tenants obviously recognise that by working with some of the finest minds, not just in this country, but in the world, there will be long term benefits to the sustainability of their businesses.

“While it is not surprising that the highest number of collaborations is with Durham University, a local and strategic partner of NETPark, it is evident that NETPark companies seek out the most appropriate partners, wherever they are located.”

Another story that appeared that same day illustrated both the scientific and the commercial value of the work being done on NETPark, with technology firm Kromek – NETPark’s first tenant – launching a device that is hoped could fundamentally improve how cancer and other serious diseases are diagnosed.

“The NETPark facility has been the ideal home for Kromek,” said Kromek chief executive Arnab Basu. “As a technology and IP rich organisation, the proximity to the universities and the infrastructure are very important factors for us. In 2005 we were the first tenants to move in and we are grateful for NETPark’s ongoing support and backing as we have grown and evolved into a truly global operation.

“This technology and innovation hub is something the region is proud to have and an ideal place to nurture and grow the North East’s best and most innovative organisations.”

One of the newer companies based there is PolyPhotonix, which has developed a sleep mask that can treat a major cause of blindness. The device, which could help thousands of people and save the health service millions, helped the company to be named Newcomer of the Year at the Durham and Wearside heat of the North East Business Awards, as well as winning the Innovation Award at the 2014 UK National Business Awards.

Chief Executive Officer Richard Kirk is in little doubt that the decision to base Polyphotonix at NETPark has been an important part of that success.

“NETPark is a stable base in which to locate our company, a positive support network of like-minded innovators and business people. The management team at NetPark take an active interest in the companies on site and continuously looks to help and support where they can.

“PolyPhotonix has had access to millions of pounds worth tools and equipment, far in excess of anything that a SME could reasonably expect.

“This has given our company advantages in research and development and accelerated the innovative pathway by years.”

NETPark’s story began in 2000, when the former Winterton Hospital site on the edge of Sedgefield was transferred from the NHS to Durham County Council.

The first building was completed in 2004 and formally opened the following year by local MP Tony Blair, who also happened to be the Prime Minister.

Kromek, a spin-out from Durham University, moved on site in 2006, followed by several other hi-tech companies the same year.

Over the years since, the park has grown both in size and the number of people it employs.

It currently covers 19 hectares but plans are in place for an extension and the total projected size will be around 90 hectares.

400 people are employed in the 25 firms on site, with another 350 companies in the NETPark community via its online innovation network NETPark Net.

One of the park’s big supporters is Prof Roy Sandbach, chair of the innovation board at the North East LEP and the man charged with bringing “eco-systems” of hi-tech companies to the region.

He said: “A powerful regional innovation eco-system needs innovation hubs focussed sectoral business strengths, with links to universities, technology organisations like CPI, businesses big and small and to government agencies like InnovateUK NETPark is a perfect example of a technology park with all of these.

“Unlike many shiny innovation centres this one really has its ‘batteries included’. It is vital to our regional plan for economic growth.

“It’s recognised around the world that businesses can make their R&D more cost-effective and more likely to provide commercial value through collaboration and open innovation, where they meet development opportunities from inside and outside the firm.

NETPark provides businesses in key sectors the chance to work in close proximity, sharing ideas and solutions. NETPark reaches out further to do this through NETParkNET, its virtual business community. In the end, NETPark drives innovation through business R&D collaboration in a globally-leading way.”

As well as the growing businesses on the site, NETPark is also home to Durham University’s Centre for Advanced Instrumentation, as well as two Catapult Centres, High Value Manufacturing and Satellite Applications. The Centre for Process Innovation has located the National Printable Electronics Centre at NETPark and will be locating the National Formulation Centre and the National Healthcare Photonics Centre there as well.

For Simon Goon of Business Durham, who manage the site, NETPark is on track to achieve ambitious goals.

“It’s easy to see how NETPark is becoming an innovation powerhouse,” he said. “Our ambition to create 3,000 jobs and add another £400m to the region’s GVA by 2025 is certainly achievable.”

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