Tom Blount: The formula for innovation

This story is over

The story of Lincoln’s declining south-west industrial quarter is being rewritten, and the man in charge of filling its pages is sitting on the brink of a chain reaction of innovation.

Tom Blount, Director of Lincolnshire’s first science and innovation park, is not only predicting a county-wide industrial renaissance, but is also creating a sustainable supply chain for the wider Lincolnshire economy.

For the first director of the £50 million Lincoln Science and Innovation Park (LSIP), bringing a 10-20 year masterplan to fruition, creating a pool of skilled university graduates and working to provide local businesses with a creative, stimulating hub from which to innovate, is all in a day’s work.

“On a basic level, I’m running a site which has, up until this point, been relatively run down,” explained Tom. “So we’re having to bring the whole site up to not only good enough, but world class standards.

“Lincoln is a really fascinating marketplace. It’s one that has perhaps not seen the booms of the rest of the county, but nor has it been as badly affected by the downs as some other places, and I think that’s a testament to the strength of the engineering and manufacturing companies that are here. It’s one however that hasn’t really kept up with the investment that’s been going on in the rest of England for the last couple of decades. This meant there was a huge opportunity for creating the kind of infrastructure that businesses need to grow.”

The project is based on an 11-acre site off Tritton Road which shares a history of plant and turbine development and has claim as the home of the original tank before WWI. It was founded by partners Lincolnshire Co-op and the University of Lincoln, who initially invested £14 million. Work began on the site in August 2013, and Tom started in post in February 2014 with a brief to drive forward the city’s scientific and industrial legacy.

“The fact that the Co-op and the university were presenting a first director of the science park with a blank canvas in many ways was incredibly exciting and remains incredibly exciting. We’re very fortunate in that we have an already developed building here with the Think Tank, and we had the university as our anchor tenant going into the next step, the Joseph Banks Laboratories. It meant that from the moment we opened our doors we were already a profit making business.”

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

An eye for enterprise

Tom Blount, 36, was born in Chesterfield and followed his father around the world in his role as Managing Director of Tarmac Concrete Products Ltd. He went to school in Wolverhampton before attending the University of Warwick to study history.

“My first job after graduation in 2000 was working for a company that organised investment conferences. I always quite liked the idea of the adventure of working with small businesses. I went into finance from around 2008, working with businesses trying to raise finance and the ones that were most of interest were the science and technology ones.

“I’ve run Business Angel Networks, investment funds, and I ran the West Midlands Advantage Proof of Concept Fund for three years. When I was running the Proof of Concept Fund I was dealing with somewhere in the region of 200 high technology businesses, business ideas and tech transfer opportunities emerging from universities.”

Tom came to Lincoln from the University of Warwick Science Park where he worked with businesses as a coach and an advisor. “I’ve always worked with small companies and that’s where I get my thrill. The opportunities and excitement of running a small business, where everyone has to get their hands dirty and do every job that needs doing, regardless of whether it’s in their job description or not, is an ethos that really stands out for me. Best businesses tend to be those that have a relatively simple product to describe, ones that everyone can immediately see the benefit of.”

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Growing a science park

The transformation of the former Becor House and Minster House into the Joseph Banks Laboratories, named after the famous Lincolnshire botanist, set in motion the beginning of phase one at the park. The university was able to welcome its first 1,000-strong cohort of students in September 2014 to three academic schools: the School of Pharmacy, the School of Life Sciences and the School of Chemistry. The facility covers 6,000 square metres of hi-spec labs, tutorial rooms and open social spaces.

“Joseph Banks has got somewhere in the region of 150 to 200 full-time posts within it and more than half of those are new roles because of the creation of the new School of Chemistry and the School of Pharmacy,” said Tom. “The rationale behind creating the School of Pharmacy was that Lincolnshire Co-op was struggling to recruit good pharmacists for their business, so hopefully we are creating a pool of graduates who are going to remain in Lincolnshire and will be visible to the public at large.

“At the moment we turnover between £750,000 and £1 million a year. Bringing the masterplan phases one and two to fruition will cost somewhere in the region of £40-50 million. By the end of 2016, the science park and its partners will have invested about £18 million, plus of course the original developments costs of the Think Tank which was about another £9 million. In the long term, I think we are talking about something approaching a £100 million project.”

Completing phase one is the upcoming construction of the £6.75 million Boole Technology Centre. Tom revealed that, after securing a £3.38 million Single Local Growth Fund through the Greater Lincolnshire LEP, work would begin on the 3,000m2 development in August 2015.

The overall Lincoln Science and Innovation Park masterplan spans between 10 and 20 years and is predicted to be a £100m project.

“The build is expected to take around nine months to complete (May 2016 finish). That’s for the shell, and the core depends on the kinds of companies that are going in there. This is relatively raw space so we can work with tenants as they come in and decide how it should be fitted out.”

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

The centre will house between 100 and 200 highly skilled employees, and project partners are predicting the capital investment will generate a minimum of £38 million of additional investment within the local economy over the next six years. The centre will be a combination of labs, workshops, office technical equipment and shared working space, and will be targeted towards engineering and manufacturing businesses.

“We’ve designed the building to be incredibly flexible. Around 50% of it can be used as category one laboratories. We’re really keen on it being utilised for the supply chains that we think are important for Lincolnshire. Some of those are obviously around engineering, and clearly there are links to firms like Siemens, but equally we’re very interested in materials development in the supply chains for people like Dynex. I’d like to see between eight and 15 firms in there over the course of the next three or four years.

“The centre is a very speculative build, and the reason we’ve designed it as we have is because we think in Lincolnshire there is a real absence of what are called ‘champion firms’. These are firms with 25-50 employees who are highly innovative, but if you look back over the last 15 years have been responsible for creating some 50% of the private sector jobs in the UK. We need to attract those types of firms and build small firms like that, and that’s what the Boole Technology Centre is designed for.

“There’s about 15,000 square metres set to go up over the next 10-20 years. The way Boole sits on the site, it actually acts as a gateway to phase two, and that’s really important. The whole building is designed to be the kind of high-tech facility that currently doesn’t exist in Lincolnshire right now, but also to be a springboard from which we can talk about the rest of the site.

“In basic terms, it’s all about coffee and broadband,” he adds. “Innovation is not a synthetic process, it’s not something that happens by putting a researcher and an entrepreneur in a room and saying ‘innovate’ because they don’t understand or trust each other. That’s why our masterplan also includes a coffee shop and social spaces like a running track and green areas so groups can meet, play team games and talk about problems and solutions.”

More than 5 hectares of land is available for single occupancy, bespoke developments ranging from 10,000 to 65,000 sq ft in phase two of the project, which will be an equal-sized investment to that of the last three years. Tom said partners will continue to broaden expertise with the university, and are talking to a number of businesses who are considering locating wholesale on the site – however he’s keeping those close to his chest for now.

This feature interview was first published in issue 23 of the Lincolnshire Business weekly magazine.