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17 October, 2007 - 01:00 By Tony Quested

St John's gospel still rings around the world - 20 years on

Operating in the fast moving, technology driven commercial world of the 21st Century it is hard to do full justice to the vision displayed by St John's College way back in 1987 when, against a sparse economic landscape, it decided to build Britain's first innovation centre.At the time the Cambridge Phenomenon remained pretty much a local secret unknown to the wider world; angels were either nurses or celestial harpists and tech transfer meant you'd passed the 11-plus.

But Chris Johnson, senior bursar of St John's College, was restless in his desire to create something special on the vast site that is now the innovation park.

Walter Herriot, managing director of the innovation centre for the past 17 years, says: "The college had owned the site since 1534 and wanted to do something property related - preferably science related.

"The situation wasn't great between the local tip and the sewage works - and the site itself had been left in a bit of a state by the previous American encumbents."

Ironically, given the US link and the flatness of the Cambridge landscape, Chris Johnson decided to look in the States for inspiration and found it in Salt Lake City in the form of an innovation centre attached to the University of Utah.

It had everything we have now come to expect from the St John's Innovation Centre - a strong management company running it, close working relationships with the University, easy-in, easy-out leases and a stimulating, supportive environment.

Herriot says: "At the time there was no such model in the UK and Chris and the board made the commitment to replicate it in Cambridge with Bill Bolton as the director. I took over from Bill three years into the project.

"I had been with Barclays and was then corporate finance director with Coopers & Lybrand. We were working in St John's and Chris asked me to run the place on a full-time basis.

"I enjoy working with early stage companies and I liked the concept of the innovation centre and the challenge of making it work. If I had stayed in the finance sector I'd have probably retired early and become a golfer.

"I remember that I was supposed to start at St John's on April 1st but I thought that was tempting fate so I actually took on the role from May 1, 1990."

By that time, second and third phases - Dirac House and the Jeffreys Building - had been completed. Improvements have continued apace. An extension to the innovation centre, including restaurant and conference facilities, was opened in 1994. Two further buildings on the Park - the Vitrum and Tality developments - were completed in 2001.

The flagship, stand-alone building on the St John's park - St John's House - had been taken by Ionica, the telecoms company that lived dangerously and went under, and briefly by Zeus but has now found a world-class, heavyweight occupant in CSR, which is developing its wireless audio team there.

Since opening its doors via the original building in 1987, the innovation centre has been much more than just a home to exciting young businesses.

It has provided guidance and expertise to steer companies through tricky early problems, helped tenants improve their networking with other businesses and key influencers, extolled the virtues of sound management notably cashflow management and acted as a template for similar incubators around the world.

World-class enterprises such as Autonomy, Symbionics, BioProgress and Business Weekly, among many others, started life at St John's and moved on to hit international heights.

Taking the broader picture, a combination of Walter Herriot's dynamism and the St John's Innovation Centre environment has had a beneficial impact on the whole Cambridge business community - inspiring best practice and good business habits.

So while tenants have come and gone with their tails at varying heights and the built environment has evolved, the innovation centre has stayed pretty faithful to the original ideals.

The management company, St John's Innovation Centre Ltd, was incorporated to:

Enable the College to maximise the return on its investment by the efficient, professional management of the park.

  • Provide a supportive environment for tenant businesses by providing quality, cost-effective services.
  • Provide an environment in which technology transfer and innovation are promoted to assist small and medium-sized businesses at a local, national and international level.

Not all the companies helped by the innovation centre are tenants in the physical sense. The centre allows young companies to rent the St John's address and services and cash in on the cachet.

A lot of young businesses start life at home, isolated from the business community and need contacts and credibility to grow. They can use the St John's Innovation Centre address and use meeting rooms free of charge to impress potential customers or investors.

They can also avail themselves of telephone answering and mail handling services through the centre's secretariat and are able to buy other services, such as preparation of contracts of employment, staff handbooks, statutory reports and accounting input (principally book-keeping and budgeting).

St John's has some 240 'rent an address' clients in addition to around 65 physically located tenants. The tenant mix is somewhere north of eclectic, embracing biotech, hi-tech, consultancy across a range of specialisms, PR & marketing, energy and eco-related businesses, materials and industrial technologies, software and telecoms.

These benefits are significant but there is another important payback - the prospect of sustainability. The figures show that the success rate for tenant companies in their first five years is in excess of 85 per cent - compared to 50 per cent for similar businesses located elsewhere in the Cambridge area.

Part of the reason for that high sustainability rate is undoubtedly the environment but access to complementary business-building assets is also a key component.

Herriot says: "We have stayed true to the original concept regarding the services we provide but have significantly expanded the number of ways in which we can deliver these."

The proof that the St John's Innovation Centre model works can be evidenced much further afield. Herriot reckons that at least once a month the centre will receive a request to host people who want to set up a similar centre in the UK and are keen to see what makes the St John's model tick. Moscow is said to have a St John's replica.

Herriot also receives many requests to jet around the world, from Muscat to Malaysia, not just to preach the gospel according to St John's but also to talk about Cambridge's knowledge base and technology transfer expertise. He also supported a technology transfer initiative in Trinidad last year another altruistic assignment on behalf of Cambridge plc. Over the years, Herriot and his team have handed out so much advice - much of it free - that a Citizens' Advice Bureau sign could be mounted on the reception wall without appearing out of place.

Herriot says: "There are a lot of people in business or involved with economic development who are not sure where to go for advice or how to achieve certain objectives. We are the Statue of Liberty - we get the huddled masses, directed here by someone else we have helped in the past; and that's ok."

Herriot computes that the centre works with around 1,000 companies over a given year, through its various initiatives and always endeavours to lead by example.

It operates an Enterprise Link, run by Jane Darlington, that - as its name suggests - encourages business managers to meet one another, share experiences good and bad and grow their circle of contacts. A young company may be keen to open up in the US but unsure how to go about it - but help is at hand.

The centre has EEDA funding to help young companies write and assess business plans. Around 40 people a month are advised on business issues and Herriot personally reviews an average of 10 business plans a month.

While the service began with Greater Cambridgeshire area inquiries, a large number are beginning to be received from across the East of England. These inquiries span a range of industries, not just hi-tech, and mainly involve businesses that are pre-revenue.

Herriot is proud of the fact that the St John's Innovation Centre is making a genuine difference to the aspirations, the survival rates and the growth prospects of so many formative Cambridge companies - although he says he would like to have had more time to look at strategic issues; how Cambridge could improve its performance in a global context. That may be something to save for another day - perhaps after his retirement in 2008 - although a postponement of that particular anniversary would benefit St John's and Cambridge.

For now, the many hundreds of young businesses that have emerged from his paternal stewardship over the years will be grateful that he has focused on helping them navigate around the rocks of early-stage business life and into clear blue water.

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