The county of Hertfordshire in the UK is one of the leafy shires that surround London. Situated to the north of the capital, it stretches from Greater London north towards Cambridge, east towards Stansted Airport, and west towards Luton Airport and beyond. A new Enviro-Tech Enterprise Zone has been launched in the west of the county that aspires to host hundreds of companies that operate in the green arena. Jo Murray asks Paul Witcombe, Enterprise and Innovation Manager at Hertfordshire’s Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), what is on offer, where things are headed and what are the county’s credentials as a nurturer of eco-systems.
It is fair to say that environmental technology has been slow to reveal itself as a sector vital to economic development. Whilst fintech and biotech have been much supported by venture capitalists and governments alike, enviro-tech companies have tended to operate under the radar while stakeholders tasked with building economies have struggled with definitions and meaning.
Yet products and services promulgated by the enviro-tech sector are part of our everyday lives – be they regulating emissions, water movement, energy use, pests, hazardous materials, logistics – and are consistently incorporated into the built and natural environment. They are increasingly e-enabled, delivering data and predictability; and they are very much the focus of research institutes. After all, enviro-tech manages the detail so that governments, and indeed continents, can deliver on their environmental promises. And yet those working in economic development know little about environmental technology and rarely put it forward as one of the main planks of their inward investment strategies.
That is not true of Hertfordshire. The county has just launched its new Enviro-Tech Enterprise Zone. It went live on 1 April with the aim of attracting hundreds of green technology businesses into the county, creating thousands of jobs. The enterprise zone comprises just over 100 hectares across three main sites: Maylands Business Park, the Building Research Establishment (BRE) and Rothamsted Research, the latter two bringing world-class expertise in the built environment and agri-tech respectively. A range of Government incentives are available to attract further investment, including business rate relief and superfast broadband.
The literature says that the enterprise zone will focus on five key areas: green technology, sustainable construction, sustainable transport, agri-tech, and smart energy and smart technology. How does that translate onto action on the ground in Hertfordshire?
Paul Witcombe explains that Hertfordshire is building an eco-system around its corporate strengths, world-class research and its SME base. Why enviro-tech? Perhaps the first thing to mention is Hertfordshire’s impressive cohort of construction companies. Home to the likes of Vinci, Willmott Dixon, Sir Robert McAlpine, Skanska, VolkerFitzpatrick, Bouygues and more, Hertfordshire’s construction sector is second only to its healthcare sector. The sheer knowledge base aggregated in these companies is huge and a failure to harness it for economic development purposes would make no sense. Hence Hertfordshire’s call to action.
Added to that, Hertfordshire is home to BRE, a perhaps underused national asset that has been somewhat overlooked in the rush towards innovation in terms of blue sky thinking. BRE is an applied multi-disciplinary building science centre with a mission to improve the built environment through research and knowledge-generation. It was established to investigate various building materials and methods of construction suitable for new housing following the First World War. BRE was privatised in 1997, delivering the freedom to certify and approve the products it tested. It has been engaged in significant consultancy ever since but is now shifting deeper into business engagement and knowledge transfer.
Rothamsted Research complements BRE, being focused on agricultural research rather than the built environment. It has provided cutting-edge science for more than 170 years and its mission is to deliver the knowledge and new practices to: increase crop productivity and quality; and develop environmentally sustainable solutions for food and energy production, including soil science.
So, the Enviro-Tech Enterprise Zone is being built on strong foundations with the aim of creating an eco-system that will deliver vital opportunities for further sub-sectors. Mr Witcombe points to opportunities for companies focused on smart city solutions to grow and prosper in this new environment. Companies that invest in the digital transformation of the transport sector will find a perfect base here; and so too will those who focus on low carbon principles and IoT technologies.
Logistics and distribution companies embracing future-facing technologies will find a natural home here too. They have the example set by Amazon with its fulfilment centre in Hemel Hempstead which, at over 450,000 square feet, is the size of six football pitches and relies on high-level logistics to deliver on its promise to consumers.
Whilst Hertfordshire is no longer a significant manufacturing location, given its proximity to London and its dearth of development land, it is heavily focused on HQ functions such as administration, sales and R&D. All of these functions may well find their way onto the new site along with scientific and technological services.
Bioscience is where Hertfordshire shines. The county has already proved the importance of building eco-systems with the success of the Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst (SBC) – the UK’s first open innovation biomedical catalyst. Here, fast growing biotech, pharma and medtech businesses can draw upon world-leading expertise, networks, academic support and scientific facilities to grow and prosper. The catalyst is a joint venture between the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), Wellcome and Innovate UK, and it provides access to equipment and facilities that would otherwise be beyond the reach of SMEs.
The Cell & Gene Therapy Catapult is the latest in a long list of additions to the SBC community. MRC Technology, a medical research charity, has relocated its drug discovery activities to the campus; and GE Healthcare Life Sciences, a global provider of tools, technologies and services for life science research, has opened a Technology Laboratory on the campus. Universities are present too: Cambridge University continues its collaboration with GSK to progress its drug candidates; University College London (UCL) has moved translational research projects in drug discovery and medical devices to three lab spaces at the SBC and other universities – including Bristol, Southampton and Manchester – continue to engage with tenants.
Indeed, Hertfordshire has out-performed not only much of the UK on the bioscience front but also locations around the world. “And that is our ambition for other sectors too,” says Mr Witcombe, referring to enviro-tech. “It is all about bringing corporates, university research and SMEs into the same arena. A question of picking a corporate asset, supporting it with research and developing SMEs around it.”
He continues: “When it comes to the built environment, we have got the skills here. They might be embedded in different companies but the skills are here. And so too are the market opportunities.”
Image shows an internal render of the Open Innovation Hub at BRE: the hub will create a national and international centre for research and innovation in the built environment and will be a flagship building for the Hertfordshire Enviro-Tech Enterprise Zone. (Credit Mowat & Company)