Practical Advice

The U.K. Innovation Eco-System – Thirty Years On

About the Author

Paul Wright

Chief Executive Officer, The United Kingdom Science Park Association (UKSPA)

Like British American Trade & Investment, UKSPA recently celebrated a significant milestone. In our case this was the 30th anniversary of the Association and these occasions always provide an opportunity to celebrate the past, consider the present, and see what has changed over three decades – but most importantly, to look forward to the future. For UKSPA and the U.K. Science and Innovation Sector this has been quite a journey. Paul Wright, CEO of UKSPA looks back on 30 years of the Association and looks forward to greater engagement with the new U.K. Government and the international community.


Members of UKSPA have been in the business of creating the right environment to support the creation and growth of technology-based businesses for three decades. The origins of UKSPA date back to the early 1980s when a small number of universities in the U.K. recognized that the era of the knowledge-based business had arrived, and pooled their experience so that they could guide others pursuing similar ventures and with complementary interests.

Founded in 1984 by the managers of the eight parks that then existed, UKSPA has since grown significantly. In the last thirty years the number of science parks and similar locations has grown steadily (from two in 1982 to around 105 in 2015).

What has continued to happen over the years is that many more U.K. universities and centers of excellence in research have recognized this unstoppable trend, and the inherent value of science park development to create parks with associated management structures to help drive science and technology up the value chain by supporting tenant companies across a wide range of activities.

In the first 20 years of their existence, in general science parks were invariably partnerships between universities and local/regional authorities. Their aim was to support and encourage commercial innovation in sectors such as biotechnology, telecommunications, industrial technology, and the pharmaceuticals industry.

But there have been significant shifts in the ownership and development of our member locations and a huge diversification of sectors supported. Although the science sector – including biotech, medical, and life science – remains of vital importance, the growth of support for companies in the creative and media – including gaming and telecoms – sectors has been significant. The almost universal university ownership of science parks in the 1970s has – over recent years – seen a substantial amount of commercial development with growing investment partnerships between the public and private sector.


Those early days need to be compared with the complexity of the current innovation landscape in the U.K. This new environment sees a number of trends emerging with consequential opportunities for UKSPA to flourish.

One of the ways in which UKSPA has developed over recent years is by “joining up” various parts of the innovation journey – from the earliest stage of growth in an incubator or business accelerator to the maturity of the major international companies on many park campuses.

The year to June 2015 has seen a growth in the number of incubators in UKSPA membership enabling us to speak from an increasingly strong position as the only membership organization in the U.K. representing the key innovation infrastructural elements that incubators, innovation centers, innovation campuses and science parks provide. The strengthening of the incubator component within our membership has been an important step for the Association.


Issues such as smart specialization and internationalization are firmly on the UKSPA agenda. UKSPA members are ideally placed to contribute, enhance and facilitate smart specialization and commercial innovation. International links are exceptionally important to innovation in the U.K. and the U.K. attracts more inward investment for R&D than any other country in the E.U.

Science parks and other UKSPA innovation locations have a crucial role to play. Companies do not just choose countries to locate their R&D and other activities – they choose places. A place with the right kind of premises, a flexible and supportive business environment and collocation with synergetic businesses and service companies can all be big factors. And if a company is looking for proximity to a world-class research organization for collaboration on cutting-edge innovation, then UKSPA members can deliver, both in universities and in research institutes. International links are really important to innovation in the U.K. with over 50% of business investment in R&D now made by overseas companies.

UKTI (UK Trade & Investment) has joined with UKSPA at a number of recent events, recognizing that the U.K.’s strength in science and innovation are big opportunities for both inward investment and trade. As well as contributing to recent conferences, UKTI has developed the UKTI Innovation Gateway which is focused on cross-sector inward investment opportunities in the area of science & innovation, as well as the trade potential.

UKTI has already developed material to explain the U.K.’s strength in science and innovation to potential overseas investors. They have also developed a tool focused on “innovation hotspots” to help identify compatible locations for inward investments.

However it is not just about overseas companies wanting to locate on a U.K. science park. There is interest among overseas investors in developing new parks in the U.K., and in learning from the U.K.’s greater maturity in science park development. Also, companies based at science parks are often in a great position to export – so from an economic perspective, the international opportunities from science parks are significant.


There are a couple of areas where we would like to engage with the new government to see how greater support can be offered to UKSPA members for the 4,000 or so innovative companies that are based on member locations.

Science and innovation parks are an essential contributor to sustainable, long term economic growth. There was encouraging recognition of this in the early days of the previous Government with an immediate ring fencing of the science budget and continued support for Innovate UK (then called the Technology Strategy Board). In fact, the last five years has seen a raft of positive statements from government ministers and officials on the value of an increasingly innovative business community.

However, UKSPA believes that there are still barriers that inhibit the development of high growth innovative firms and that this detracts from our science park’s strengths in exploiting research that allows business acceleration and encourages international investment.

We will be exploring with the new government ways to improve the tax regime, planning constraints, and finance to allow our members to grow domestically and internationally.


In a brief article it is impossible to do justice to the diversity of our membership and it would be invidious to select individual location as exemplifying all that is excellent in our sector. There are many locations that are taking forward the opportunities that a changing economy offers.

For example, the redevelopment of many former pharmaceutical R&D sites is a real feature of development across the entirety of the U.K. with new UKSPA members such as Thornton Science Park – in 2013 the University of Chester acquired the site of the Shell Technology Centre – as well as existing members such as Hexagon Tower and Wilton Centre (ex-ICI facilities), Discovery Park in Sandwich (ex-Pfizer) and developments in the northwest of England such as Alderley Park (Astra Zeneca).

One particularly intriguing development is the future of the state-of-the-art scientific buildings at Sanofi’s former manufacturing plant in Dagenham, east London, which was finally secured following an agreement with regeneration specialists SOG Group to purchase the facilities.

The retention of 17 acres of highly specialized R&D and manufacturing buildings has been a focal part of pharmaceutical company Sanofi’s site regeneration program, aimed at attracting new businesses and new jobs to the location which ceased production in 2013.

George Freeman, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Life Sciences, has praised the initiative. He said: “One of the key parts of our Life Science strategy is to help the industry evolve from the 20th century model and sites to a 21st century model. In Dagenham what we are seeing is U.K. companies being helped to convert sites of yesterday into the sites of tomorrow”. A statement that can be replicated across many other locations.


I began by looking back thirty years but would like to conclude by looking to an increasingly complex yet positive future in which UKSPA will continue to demonstrate the strength, vitality and potential of the U.K.’s science, innovation and incubation sector in an international world.

In the recent general election there was a realization from all political parties that science and innovation is an essential element of a long-term economic plan to deliver sustainable growth, and create more jobs.

The new Conservative government has explicitly stated that it will continue with the measures in the Science and Innovation Strategy, including investing close to $1.7bn in science capital each year, rising with inflation up to 2020/21, and will direct further resources towards the Eight Great Technologies – among them robotics and nanotechnology.

The Conservative manifesto spoke of the way a new Government will seek to ensure that the U.K. continues to support world-leading science, and invests public money in the best possible way through the Nurse Review of the Research Councils. Speaking before the election the Prime Minister said “a Conservative government will be committed to investing in science and engineering because we want to see our strong and worldwide reputation in this hugely important area continue to go from strength to strength”. UKSPA members will play their part in developing the U.K. as a scientific powerhouse in the future.

Further Information

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