‘A beacon of innovation excellence’ – Norwich Research Park awarded trophy for contribution to Norfolk’s business life
Next week, Norwich Research Park will receive the Outstanding Achievement award at the Norfolk Business Awards. EDP business editor Mark Shields spoke to the park’s executive chairman David Parfrey.
As befits the leader of a globally significant research centre, David Parfrey is full of ideas.
Before he took up the role of executive chairman of the body which runs Norwich Research Park (NRP) in March, he had been contemplating retirement, at the end of a long career steering investment into the nation’s scientific centres.
But the lure of leading the park into the next stage of its life proved too strong – so he has thrown himself into plans to expand NRP, spread its good name globally, attract angel investors, forge links with schools, work with other Norfolk business parks and make it an aspirational career choice for the county’s youngsters.
“We’ve got the makings of something really fantastic here. We have all the building blocks,” he says, explaining his infectious enthusiasm.
Yet, when he accepts the Outstanding Achievement award next week at the Norfolk Business Awards on behalf of the Norwich Research Park, the coming-together of the scientific and business worlds will neatly embody perhaps his most pressing ambition.
The award recognises the park’s growth into a major economic player in the county – one which is home to more than 80 businesses and was highlighted in the government’s Industrial Strategy document earlier this year.
Mr Parfrey is keen to strengthen those links over his two-year term, and to speed the flow of research which can be translated into commercial use, whether in partnership with industry or in spin-out companies developed on the park.
He characterises the research and the application as two sides of a canyon, with only the brave or foolhardy able to traverse from one to the other, with too many falling by the wayside.
The role of Norwich Research Park, as he sees it, is to help make that journey easier.
“In the past, we’ve been throwing rope ladders at each other. What we need is a 10-lane superhighway between us,” he says.
“We’re building a bridge between the two sides and we are well on the way.”
He believes the science being done at the park is genuinely world-leading, and has fulsome praise for all the institutions working across the 230-hectare site, employing 12,000 people, including 3,000 scientists and clinicians.
They include the John Innes Centre (“the undisputed world-leader in crop science”), the Sainsbury Laboratory (“chock full of stars”), the Earlham Institute (“reinventing itself further up the value chain”), the Quadram Institute (“a future star”), the University of East Anglia (“right up there in the league table”), and even the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital (“working hard to be in a better place”).
Among the plans to ease that journey from scientific research to commercial venture is a proposed translation fund, which could eventually be topped up by investors.
Mr Parfrey also wants to set up a “virtual accelerator” project, which would put in place the business and commercial support that scientists need to develop their breakthroughs to be ready for market. He has visited similar schemes in the UK and US, and plans to cherry-pick the best elements to create one that works for NRP. Discussions with the UEA’s Norwich Business School are under way.
“A researcher may not know about business plans, or marketing, or access to funding. But we have that knowledge on the park – we just need to get people talking,” he says.
Putting Norwich on the map
He admits one of his main challenges will be raising awareness of the expertise in Norwich, which at times sits in the shadow of the scientific might of Cambridge.
The park sees the lifestyle it can offer scientists, researchers and others as a major part of its appeal to tempt professionals and firms further up the A11.
“It’s a great place to work but you can also afford to buy a house and you don’t have to live in a concrete jungle. It’s a myth that great science stops at Cambridge,” he adds.
He wants to make the park’s 12,000 workers a key weapon in his arsenal.
Just five minutes of help a week from each of them – having a conversation with a friend, making a couple of posts on Twitter, answering an email from a student – would give him a resource of 1,000 hours to help spread the word about the park.
“It matters to me greatly that the man or woman in the street knows what Norwich Research Park is. If we have to walk down the street with sandwich boards, then that’s what we’ll do,” he adds.
“If, in a year from now, people don’t have a different level of knowledge of us then I’ll be really disappointed.”
“A beacon of innovation excellence”
Norwich Research Park will be awarded the Outstanding Achievement award at the Norfolk Business Awards on November 22.
The honour is in recognition of the work done in establishing Norwich and Norfolk as a centre for scientific research, and its economic contribution to the life of the county.
Ciaran Nelson, director of communications at Anglian Water, which sponsors the award, said the county should be proud of having such a hub of innovation and progress in its midst.
“The east of England is rapidly making a name for itself as a centre of future thinking, and that is nowhere better demonstrated than within the Norwich Research Park,” he said.
“In previous years we’ve focused on collaboration and innovation when making the award for Outstanding Achievement, and this year the theme is people. Frankly, the Norwich Research Park would be a worthy winner under any of those themes. In many ways it demonstrates perfectly the power of bringing all three together.
“You could make an argument that the founding fathers of what has become the park as we know it today – the likes of John Innes and William Bateson – realised that long before many others.
“It’s one thing to establish a shared space for innovation, but it’s something quite different to create an ecosystem of shared thinking and development that results in the type of genuine progress that spills out of the NRP.
“All of those who work in and around the park should be proud of what they are achieving – but more importantly, the whole of Norfolk should be delighted to have such a facility on our doorsteps.
“We sincerely hope this award inspires all those within the NRP to take their work even further – after all, tomorrow’s challenges will not be well met with yesterday’s thinking.
“Congratulations are due to everyone involved in the Norwich Research Park today, and all who over many years have helped it become the beacon of innovation excellence that it so clearly is.”
Norwich Research Park is the first organisation to have won the Outstanding Achievement award for many years. Recent winners include former Norfolk Chamber chief executive Caroline Williams (2016) and Norwich University of the Arts vice-chancellor Prof John Last (2017).
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