Business Durham's Catherine Johns on growth plans for NETPark

Business Durham's Catherine Johns tells Robert Gibson about ambitious 10-year growth plans that will make NETPark a leader in its field

Catherine Johns
Catherine Johns

Within the space of a decade – virtually nothing in the world of research-heavy, science-driven business – NETPark in Sedgefield, County Durham, has more than proved its worth.

Occupying a verdant 15 acre site, the development, created to unlock the potential of technology firms through a dynamic and supportive environment, is now home to 23 companies, employing a total of 400 people.

Among them are two PLCs, a couple of the Government’s elite Catapult innovation centres and a good few game-changers when it comes to the practical application of science.

For Business Durham, which runs the facility on behalf of Durham County Council, however, the real growth – not to mention the excitement – has only just begun.

“It’s the next 10 years that are going to be key,” said Catherine Johns, innovation and growth director at the organisation.

“The plan is that NETPark is not only going to be the destination of choice, but of necessity, for technology companies interested in unleashing the potential of materials.”

Indeed, the 2025 masterplan proposes expansion on a jaw-dropping scale.

If all goes to plan, the next decade will see a further 30 acres of council-owned land to the north of the current site being developed, bringing in 200 additional companies, directly employing 3,500 people and supporting a further 7,500 local manufacturing and supplier jobs.

At the heart of the new-look site will be an integration centre – supporting businesses with services such as access to finance, exporting and marketing – while further benefits will accrue through an on-site UTC (University Technical College) and the likes of apprenticeship schemes.

With the development set to become one of biggest science and technology parks in Europe, there are also plans to forge strong links with bodies such as Innovate UK, universities and international experts.

NETpark – or the North East Technology Park, to give it its full title – would also have a permanent presence in local colleges as part of its outreach programme and would open offices in major innovation hubs around the world.

“People identify with NETpark as a brand and engage with it on different levels,” Catherine said.

“We want to choose the best innovation hubs around the world and have a presence there, because these companies operate within a global field and we cannot limit them to one site in Sedgefield.

“It’s about being outward facing and there is no substitute for face-to-face contact, so at the moment we are looking for partners.”

When it comes to the kind of companies NETpark will nurture, Business Durham, which operates a gateway policy for the site, would seem to have already found its specialism - technology firms with an emphasis on physics, that create highly skilled, well-paid jobs.

A knack for using science to create innovative products people want to buy has also been a consistent theme.

Take Polyphotonix, for example, at which former artist Richard Kirk used his skill with organic light to develop a sleep mask that could save the NHS £1bn a year in treatments for diabetic blindness.

Kromek likewise stands out when it comes to such innovation.

“It started as a materials company with just two people,” Catherine said.

“It was very, very good at making the mineral cadmium telluride – better than anyone else – but discovered its future lay in the products it was used in.”

Kromek sensors can now be found in scanners around the world, helping thwart terrorists, detect cancer and assist the security services in monitoring radiation levels.

“We act as the connector,” Catherine added. “It’s the community feel that draws companies to NETPark.

“They like the feeling of being part of something that is bigger than themselves.

“It’s an environment that understands them and the problems and challenges they can face.”

Naturally, given the scale of what’s planned, it’s not going to happen overnight.

Planning permission, for example, must be sought for the infrastructure alone, before the details are even considered.

Business Durham, though, is quietly confident - and perhaps with good reason. The Government, Durham County Council and the Centre for Process Innovation, for example, have expressed support for the expansion and money has already been allocated to improve the likes of drainage, utilities, roads and broadband.

At a recent council meeting, £12.9m of funding was approved, with £1.2m coming from the authority’s capital programme and the remainder from self-financing borrowing.

It also helps that Catherine herself has been elected to the board of the International Association of Science Parks and Areas of Innovation (IASP), a worldwide network with more than 400 members in 73 countries.

“That’s a massive endorsement by our industry,” she said.

“It’s a pioneering, world-leading organisation – you cannot get higher.

“It’s also hugely significant that we’re representing both county Durham and the North East at this level and it provides an opportunity to share best practice and learn from science parks around the world.”

She added that her new position would provide opportunities to find partners and create new jobs as the NETPark vision develops.

“There will always be barriers and challenges to overcome,” she said.

“But we have bucket-loads of ambition, support from the council and stakeholders, and interest from government and others.

“All that gives us huge confidence that this is the right thing to do.

“It will happen and it will succeed.”

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