The following was originally delivered as a speech to the UKSPA 30th Anniversary Summit on Thursday 10 July 2014.
When I last addressed UKSPA I reflected on how the role and the status of UK science parks had greatly developed over the last 30 years and the range of start-ups they were hosting.
Taking a slightly different tack, this year I’ve been considering the demands science park tenants are now making on their professional suppliers and support and how science parks might respond.
We are in a world, we are told, of attempted deregulation; yet certain sectors such as my own professional services sector face greater regulation and certain sectors have lost public confidence as a result of misconduct despite regulation.
In common with many small start-ups, science park tenants seem to be looking increasingly for packaged services from suppliers, which of course is one reason why science parks are such an attractive proposition.
This extends into the professional services sector where we are rightly seeing clients asking for a more complete range of services and bundled deals, alternative forms of payment and the like. The theory is great: one supplier, one relationship to manage.
There are clearly dangers in this for the start-ups. Few save for the largest professional suppliers have all the skills or all the skills in the same degree of expertise to meet all requirements and even they will be offering a team of people, not just a single point of contact, to deliver the necessary skills. Those that do are often expensive.
Alternative payment regimes for start-ups involving equity or options may be unlawful in the case of some professions or compromise independence and impartial advice or be very high risk for suppliers, who themselves are not generally in the risk game or active investors; and let’s not forget how costly some of these alternative regimes can be for the start –ups themselves. Anyway, who really wants an adviser as a part owner of a science based business?
So where else to go?
Despite the PR to the contrary, to a very large degree government seems to have retreated from advising. Whilst executive agencies such as the IPO have expanded their range of direct services both paid for and free of charge, no one, especially the agencies themselves, is arguing that they are an effective substitute for professional advisers.
So there’s a gap which I think can be bridged by non-executives, but these are a very variable bunch of people with a very ambiguous role and frankly they can be costly.
If not non-execs, how about mentors? We have them in our careers; why not develop the idea more for business? I do think there is a big role for experienced people, not necessarily in the non-exec director category, who can offer a lot as mentors.
Models for sourcing mentors do exist. The Association of Business Mentors (ABM) is the independent, not-for-profit professional body for Enterprise and Business Mentors. Specifically for technology businesses we might want a different profile of mentor though in my experience the problems faced by tech and non-tech businesses are 90 per cent the same. Maybe selling the credibility of tech concept needs more work, but otherwise bank managers are the same the world over. These people are also typically good networkers and have a good black book of contacts.
This gives the start-up a pool of people to work with, in a defined way, co-located at the science park on an irregular basis. If the service were provided through the science park itself, costs could be contained, insurance could be provided and facilities made available for a panel of people maybe not restricted to one site but serving a locality.
They too need to have a properly defined role with properly defined responsibilities and liabilities and insurance cover. But do they need to be paid at an economic rate? Can they be used ad-hoc much as a drop-in service? Can you rely on pro-bono?
So can UK science parks themselves take on some of these additional professional support roles and is there a danger in so doing? If so, how best to do so?
Individually clearly this is unlikely save for some of the larger parks. However we know that operations such as ISIS in Oxford can give a wide range of advice, and there are a number of technology exploitation advisers who have acquired contracts to run a number of university tech transfer or licensing businesses. So maybe the science parks collectively or perhaps through UKSPA could look to combine to offer – probably on some subcontracted or syndicated basis – such services, combining their buying power and administration further expanding the attractions of science park tenancy.
A fear, and I think it is a reasonable one, is that mentors are even less well regulated than non-execs, they do not even have the standard Companies Act statutory responsibilities. It may be that as one who has been regulated and subject to professional codes all his working life, I am a little too stuck on conduct and behaviour. Within my group, we have an unregulated consultancy business, but we run and manage it as if it were regulated like its sister patent and trade mark attorney and legal businesses. So I wonder whether maybe UKSPA itself could have some form of referencing and accreditation scheme for its panels. It has started down this road in its ASPIRE scheme for reviewing the businesses of its member science parks. May maybe there is a role for science parks or UKSPA as a procurement agency, not just for janitorial supplies but for professional services, with a common contractual basis and fee rates, funded on a toll or turnover basis. Active professionals in regulated professions themselves generally cannot easily pay this because of bans or at least problems with referral fees, unless some form of client outsourcing management fee is to be paid. So the start-ups themselves are going to have to fund this, but the selling point is accreditation. Is there the demand? Can procurement guarantee the quality and suitability?
In sum: how far are UKSPA and its membership willing and able to go in expanding the range of services on offer; and if not offering these directly can a procurement or accreditation role be delivered that would benefit start-ups and make use of UKSPA facilities even more attractive? Can UKSPA deliver a credible professional support network at an acceptable cost to its members’ tenants? I’d be interested to hear your views this evening.