Prism Magazine - February 2003
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Getting Down to Business


European educators haven't been as entrepreneurial as their American counterparts, but now they are jumping on the tech park bandwagon in a big way.

COver Illustration by Janet WoolleyAlfred Marshall, a noted Victorian economist at the University of Cambridge, is the father of research parks. He first suggested the idea of like-minded industries clustering together to enjoy economies of scale—a theory that formed the basis for centers where academic research and business acumen intersect to forge or nurture new companies and create jobs and wealth. But the mother of all technology parks is Stanford University, in Northern California. It built the first in 1951, the Stanford Research Park, which has not only spawned some of the world's most famous tech companies—from Hewlett-Packard to Yahoo! to Cisco Systems—but hundreds of imitators at schools across the country. Back in England, it would be another 19 years after Stanford broke ground on its park before Cambridge's Trinity College launched Europe's first research park, Cambridge Science Park.

That lag between the U.S. and Europe continued for several decades. By 1990, there were several hundred technology parks in the United States, most based on the Stanford model. There were at most 100 parks in Europe that year. But over the last decade, and particularly in the last five years, Europe has experienced an explosion of research parks. Exact numbers are hard to come by, in part because definitions vary, but the International Association of Science Parks (IASP) conservatively estimates there are 170 parks in Europe today, with another 40 on the drawing board. In France, for example, 13 parks have opened in the last five years bringing the total to 23. Ten new parks are planned for Spain alone. Two parks just opened in Ireland—in Kerry and Tipperary–while the University of Belfast, in Northern Ireland just launched a park, as well. "They're everywhere; everyone wants one now," says Jim Robinson, former president of the AURP, the Association of University Research Parks, and head of the Research Triangle Park in Raleigh, N.C. Hot new areas of research in old-world parks are biotechnology, nanotechnology, and wireless communications.

The boom in tech parks in Europe has been sparked mainly by economic development needs. Local governments view them as a way to boost their economies. But just how well tech parks serve as economic development magnets is open to speculation, because there's no research on the subject. The IASP is, however, undertaking a study to determine their economic effect. Nevertheless, the anecdotal evidence is enticing. Since Cambridge Science Park opened its doors 22 years ago, a host of other parks have sprung up in its wake, creating what's been called the Cambridge Phenomenon or the largest gathering of high-tech companies in one region outside the Silicon Valley. It's estimated that Cambridge high-tech firms annually generate exports worth more than $2.34 billion. Today, these companies employ 4,500 to 5,000 workers, up from between 1,500 and 2,000 a decade ago. In the 17 years since the Heidelberg Technologiepark opened its doors, it's jumped from 11 companies employing a handful of people, to 50 companies with 1,500 on their payrolls. The National Technological Park, which is linked to Limerick University—the MIT of Ireland—has in the last decade nearly doubled in size to 90 companies employing 5,000 people. When other European communities and schools look at those numbers, it's understandable why science parks look so alluring.

What took Europeans so long to see the attraction? Mainly cultural differences. British and Continental universities and academics were wary of commercializing intellectual property or working with industry. Luis Sanz, director general of the IASP, which is based in Spain, says European schools were always as competent as their American counterparts when it came to research, but, he adds, "they were behind in their relations with industry, their penetration of markets . . . and, in general, in their understanding of business and entrepreneurship." At Warwick University, a school heavily oriented toward engineering and science, Mark Bobe, liaison officer to the Warwick Science Park, puts it more bluntly: "There was a degree of suspicion; they didn't like getting their hands dirty with commercial interests."

Bradley Stringer is a case in point. He's the founder of Cellfactors, a company that devises human-cell therapies for bone regeneration and neuro-degenerative disorders, based on research he did at the University of Sheffield. When he began obtaining patents in 1992, five years before he started Cellfactors, many of his colleagues viewed him with raised eyebrows. "I was looked at as something of a maverick. Now, at the risk of sounding arrogant, I'm seen by some as a bit of a visionary." Luckily for Stringer, the then head of the school, Vice Chancellor Gareth Roberts, who now runs Oxford University, was very encouraging and the school put up nearly $160,000 to get Stringer started.

That's an attitude that's quickly becoming more widespread in Europe. As its schools more readily embrace the concept of technology transfer and the establishing of relations with industry, so, too do their academics. And money is a prime motivation. Governments and other university funders are asking the schools to get more involved in commercializing intellectual property. "That's new and different," Robertson says. Bobe, of Warwick, agrees: "As states pull back on funding, universities have to look for other funding sources." The Warwick Science Park "has made a positive revenue contribution to the university." Indeed, in the last year alone, Warwick University has spun out 15 new businesses, all at the park. Cellfactor's Stringer adds: "That ivory tower stuff is changing quite dramatically now, as universities are under pressure to find new sources of funding."

Federal governments rarely offer much money toward science parks, but some provide seed money to help encourage spinoff companies, and most encourage the commercialization trend. Electrical engineer Wolfram Stein got some federal seed money two years ago when he founded med3D, a company based at the Heidelberg Technologiepark that designs software to help dentists fit implants more precisely. But Stein says the governmental blessing was worth as much, if not more, than the euros. "It showed there is political will to turn research into commercial products," he explains.



Although European attitudes toward business are improving, many still fear an industry "invasion" of academic labs. Frank Loscher is head of technology and research at Molecular Machines & Industries (MMI), a German company that develops highly sensitive systems for the detection of biomolecular interactions. The company is based on research initiated at the University of Regensburg. Loscher says the bursting of the tech-sector bubble reinforced academic apprehensions. After watching a number of successful companies being forced to close, many researchers who were considering commercial ventures retreated to the comfort of their laboratories. But Charles Dilks, another past president of the AURP, and executive vice president of the University City Science Center in Philadelphia, says a research park doesn't need widespread participation among academics to succeed. "The point is, you need only 10 or 20 percent of your faculty to be entrepreneurial." Increasingly, that's becoming easier to achieve. As Heidelberg Technologiepark's Plate points out, "The thinking is changing. Many professors now not only want to publish but to commercialize their research."

In the United States, universities initiate most technology parks. Dilks notes, "Here you do not see a major urban or research university that does not have one. They're considered integral to the mission and that's not always the case in Europe." The European model has largely been parks launched by local governments or private developers. Sanz says that was certainly the case for many years, but "the situation is changing significantly, and in the last five years we have seen many European universities launching their own science parks." That trend is likewise connected to the growing need of European schools to find new revenue streams.

Regardless of how they were launched or by whom, most parks in Europe maintain strong ties to a school or research institute. "To have links to a university is not only important for a science park, absolutely crucial," Sanz says. Roberts, of Angle Technology agrees: "They cannot be just real estate developments. They have to be linked to a research base." Eugene Brennan, manager of Ireland's National Technological Park, calls his facility's close relationship with the University of Limerick its foundation. The park works closely with Limerick's enterprise program and stays abreast of current research at the university so it can spot potential candidates for commercialization. The parks in Kerry and Tipperary it helped launch are also linked to local institutes of technology. At the Heidelberg Technologiepark, "nearly every company" is based on research from University of Heidelberg labs, Plate says.

Successful parks must also make sure they meet their client companies' needs and provide the right mix of services and facilities, cooperation, and networking. Plate says that good science parks do by design what occurred organically in California's Silicon Valley. "There should be an organized atmosphere of entrepreneurism, an atmosphere of mutual assistance," he explains. Things like shared switchboards, secretarial help, conference rooms, and courses in finance and management help keep newly-launched businesses afloat. For more established companies, especially those involved in biotech, a generous amounts of lab space is paramount. Many parks also provide access or introductions to consultants, patent lawyers, venture capitalists, and business angels. Loscher, of MMI in Heidelberg, says the infrastructure— the cooperation among park companies, the services and the use of the university's libraries—has helped his company enormously. And the right atmosphere is important, says Stringer of Cellfactors. His company is headquartered at a park in Cambridge, despite its link to Sheffield, to take advantage of the cluster of biotech companies and services there. "There are greater opportunities to pick up staff and to interact with many like-minded companies." Brian Bryden, a Warwick engineer who cofounded Herfurth Laser Technology with Icke, says just having the Warwick Science Park address on its letterhead is beneficial. "It's a nice advantage. It tells the world that you're a serious tech company."

One strong clue as to how economically viable science parks can be is the fact that they've managed to adroitly weather the fallout of the Internet shakeout. Moreover, despite the ongoing sluggishness of the tech sector, the growth in European research parks continues unabated. The success of tech parks during the downturn has much to do with their continuing focus on cutting-edge technologies. Instead of being heavily weighted with software and Internet firms, many parks are brimming with companies working in such hot areas as biotechnology, nanotechnology (and materials science), wireless communications, environmental technology and computer games. "Only 19 percent of the companies in (our) technology centers are software companies, so there was no great influence" from the recession, notes Marita Assmann of the Association of German Technology Centers. In Britain, tech parks mustered an impressive 25.6 percent growth in employment last year. "That's significant, given the bursting of the tech bubble," says Paul Wright, chief executive of the United Kingdom Science Park Association.

Nevertheless, some individual companies have been stymied by an overall lack of venture capital money in Europe. Says Dilks, of University City in Philadelphia, "Venture capitalist activity in Europe is not nearly as robust as it is here." Indeed. Because Europe's venture market is so much less mature than America's, many young funds in Europe are floundering financially, the Brussels-based European Venture Capital Association says. And some Continental VC funds are under pressure from investors to avoid high-risk enterprises. To help combat the problem, some parks, like Warwick's, have borrowed another American idea. They're putting together "connect" shows. "They're a bit like beauty contests," Bobe admits. The idea is cramming a room with venture capitalists, then giving client companies a chance to make a 10- to 15-minute presentation. The shows are popular with both companies and moneymen, Bobe reports.

In most European countries, there is not a problem with burdensome government regulations getting in the way of technology transfers. Sanz says those countries in which there are some legal constraints tend to be in the East, and are inherited hangovers from their communist days. According to Sanz, "these laws are now quickly being abolished in a vast legislative reform that very often is done with the support of consulting by Western European experts."



Dividing revenues received from commercialized research that comes from school laboratories doesn't seem to present much of a problem either. Most universities in Europe generally follow the U.S. model, which is to divide the money three ways between the school, the department, and the academic. One notorious exception is Cambridge. It has always owned the patent rights of intellectual property commercialized by outside funds, but not of state-funded research spawned by its academics. A policy more of default than design gave Cambridge researchers 100 percent of revenues derived from the commercialization of publicly-funded research.

Cambridge's ruling body is considering an administration-sponsored measure to have the school retain the ownership of the research and divvy any spoils between it, the department and the academic. The plan has ignited a huge debate, with many researchers claiming the old laissez-faire policy helped create the Cambridge Phenomenon. But the university claims the ad hoc approach has meant too much useful research has not been commercialized, and too many academics have been ripped off. "A lot of faculty are not that au fait with the commercial world," says Louise Simpson, Cambridge director of communications. Cambridge compares itself to world-class, American tech bastions, like MIT and Stanford, and those schools file many more patents than does Cambridge, she says. The British university wants to catch up.The debate, which has raged since last fall, was so intense that the school's governors created a special task force to investigate the matter. Its report is expected in late April.

Success, of course, comes with a price, albeit one that many schools and local communities seem eager to pay. The high-tech clustering in Cambridgeshire's fenlands has certainly made the area prosperous. The jobless rate there is, for all intents and purposes, zero. But traffic congestion in and around the city is interminable, housing costly, and land-use experts say the area is already overbuilt with houses and businesses. Another worry for universities is that private enterprise will lure away top academics from their labs. But supporters of technology transfer say fears of a "brain drain" are overstated. "So what?" shrugs Sanz. "Most academics who are allowed to work with and for private industry in an adequate context and environment, and under clear rules, will remain academics." Even if some top researchers defect to the private sector, universities receive many more compensating benefits, including, of course, revenues, employment opportunities for grad students, and internships for undergraduates, proponents say. Moreover, as the UKSPA's Wright notes, there's never a guarantee that a valued researcher will remain at one school for long. "Academics tend to be a fairly itinerate bunch anyway."

Clearly, the potential benefits offered to universities and their surrounding communities by technology parks are manifold. As Robertson, of Research Triangle Park says, "There are plenty of fruits to be shared." European academia may once have considered those to be forbidden fruits. But they've certainly developed a taste for them now.


Thomas K. Grose is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.
He can be reached at

When's a Park a Park?


What's in a name? In the United States, they're usually called research parks. In Europe, these facilities are known as science parks, technology parks, and technopoles. Mostly, the terms are used interchangeably. But what is a tech park?

The International Association of Science Parks last year issued its official definition, calling it "an organization managed by specialized professionals whose main aim is to increase the wealth of its community by promoting the culture of innovation and the competitiveness of its associated businesses and knowledge-based institutions." A park, it says, should stimulate and manage "the flow of knowledge and technology among universities, R&D institutions, companies and markets." Moreover, it should facilitate the creation and growth of innovative companies using incubation and spin-off processes. Finally, the IASP says, a park should provide value-added services, and high-quality space and facilities.

Charles Dilks, former president of the Association of University Research Parks and executive vice president of the University City Science Center in Philadelphia, says that whatever name it goes by, a research park often has seven key components:

  • A link to a research university
  • Entrepreneurial faculty members who comprise at least 10 to 20 percent of the total faculty
  • Faculty members who are conducting groundbreaking, innovative research that has commercial applications
  • A good and resourceful technology transfer office that works closely with the park
  • An incubator facility that offers fledgling companies space
  • and services
  • Enough space to capture and house businesses once they're ready for prime time
  • Access to venture capital money to fund the whole process
  • - TG

Tech Republic

Shrugging off the low-tech reputation of the Iron Curtain, nations in Central and Eastern Europe have been nursing their own crop of tech parks over the last decade. Currently, IASP has more than a dozen members in new NATO nations like Latvia, Estonia, and Slovenia. But unlike their western counterparts, parks in these countries must also overcome communism's legacy of political and economic stagnation.

"The specific challenges facing us are similar to those that affect a lot of businesses here. Particularly complex land ownership issues and an inefficient legal system are two that come to mind," says Roderick Barker, the general manager of the Czech Technology Park. The park occupies 2 million square feet of office, research, and industrial space in Brno, about 125 miles southeast of Prague. Here high-tech heavyweights, like IBM and Lexmark, toil alongside homegrown companies, like the Czech engineering group Tranza. Barker also says launching a tech park requires a large initial investment with few short-term returns. Making money matters even tighter, the World Bank estimates that Central and Eastern European cities will need $65 billion in infrastructure investments over the next 15 years. Barker agrees, "One of the biggest costs we face is the installation of primary infrastructure."

Still, the Czech Technology Park is seeing some success. A client company that develops electron microscopes recently expanded from 29,000 square feet to almost 93,000–an expansion Barker says creates a significant number of new jobs for the region. "This expansion has taken place in just four years and centers around technology specific to this area developed in cooperation with the Brno University of Technology," he says. "We are very satisfied with this."

- Bethany Halford