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Take a look inside the extraordinary new Future Space innovation centre at the heart of UWE's £16m University Enterprise Zone

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Written by: Bristol Post | Posted 25 October 2016 11:02

Take a look inside the extraordinary new Future Space innovation centre at the heart of UWE's £16m University Enterprise Zone

David Clensy takes a look around the new Future Space innovation centre at the heart of the University of the West of England’s new £16m University Enterprize Zone

Anyone who ever worked in the former Hewlett Packard components plant wouldn’t recognise the Sixties building today.

The huge 2,424sq m building was bought by the neighbouring University of the West of England last year as part of a 75 acre expansion of the UWE’s Frenchay campus – but the transformation of this particular building will not only benefit students.

The building has just undergone a remarkable transformation to create Future Space – an almost unique business incubation centre, which will soon house 70 start-up and early stage firms, ranging from tech companies to robotics manufacturers; from life sciences labs to workshop-based manufacturers.

From the moment you step inside the transformed building, you quickly realise this is about to become a most extraordinary, vibrant working environment.

The innovation facility is the jewel in the crown of the new £16 million University Enterprise Zone, with the Government injecting £4 million into the project and the West of England Local Enterprise Partnership channelling a further £4.5 million into what is hoped will become a sort of maternity unit for high tech firms as they start up in the city.

As the builders put the final touches to the exterior of the building, inside six new companies have already moved in, with dozens more expected to arrive in the next few months – within 18 months 250 people will be working here for 70 small companies.

Led by UWE Bristol, in partnership with the University of Bristol, the building is one of just four government-supported University Enterprise Zones in the UK, with the focus locally on businesses in robotics and autonomous systems, biosciences, health science and other related sectors.

For architect Gary Jemmett, of WSP-Parsons Brinckerhoff, “The Hub” at the centre of the building was his vision for where all these boundless individuals will intermingle around a coffee shop and public space with informal meeting desks and sofas, like electrons sparking together around a nucleus.

As he shows me around the new centre, Professor Martin Boddy, Pro Vice-Chancellor Research and Business Engagement at UWE, says it's this element in particular that excites him most.

“We’re going to have a real variety of exciting new and young companies in here, with people working on all kinds of different tech and sciences, but who knows what might spark when they get together informally like this.”

Centre director Elaine McKechnie, of Oxford Innovations, the independent company that will run Future Space, agreed that it's this potential for new networks to form among these bright young things that offers the most extraordinary possibilities.

“But we also won’t just be leaving these meetings to chance encounters at the coffee counter,” she adds. “We will be organising all sorts of formal events that the resident companies can take part in if they wish, to build up greater connections with the other organisations in the building.”

Martin adds: “The Hub is a good example of the extraordinary job that the architects did here. When we first took the building on, this was a dark space in the centre – far from any natural light. We had no idea what we’d be able to do with it.

“But the architect incorporated a series of brilliant new skylights into the ceiling, which have really brought it to life.

“The other thing you’ll notice about the space,” Martin says, “is that you can see in through the glass walls into the labs, offices and workspaces that surround it – so you can imagine how vibrant it is going to be here.”

One of the elements of the centre that makes it almost unique, is the range of wet laboratories on offer for fledgling firms coming in.

“We’re certainly the only place in the South West offering the sort of facility,” Martin says. “Which is why people are snapping them up so rapidly.”

Alongside the 70 offices, workshops and labs, there is a wealth of co-working space, and a literal pathway directly into the heart of the UWE Frenchay campus – the clear hope being that the facility will help to bring together business and academic expertise under one roof, as well as offering students opportunities to find their first footing in the world of work.

Indeed, one section of the facility has been put aside for incubating UWE students’ business visions, with a limited number of future stars being given the chance to get their company off the ground rent-free.

Aimed at occupiers with limited research and development budgets, there is also shared laboratory space, with advanced technical equipment and business support.

The first firm to move in was itself born out of UWE’s celebrated Robotics Lab. Reach Robotics has signed up to 111sq m, with plans for a further 93sq m next year, at the centre.

The 12-strong firm, backed by private investment, is poised to roll out its products on the international market as early as this December.

Reach Robotics, founded after chief executive Silas Adekunle graduated in robotics at UWE Bristol two years ago, develops custom-designed gaming robots.

They interact and battle with each other in real and virtual environments of the gamer’s choosing. In the future, users will be able to programme uniqueness in each robot.

Controlled by mobile devices, the figures merge augmented reality, robotics and entertainment in what Silas describes as a world first.

He said: “It was important for us here at Reach Robotics to remain loyal to Bristol, given the support we’ve already had from Bristol Robotics Lab and UWE Bristol.

“Our new address at Future Space means we can focus on work while the centre team at Oxford Innovation look after incoming calls, mail, cleaning, utilities and meeting room bookings, as well as supporting our growth with business support and strategic networks.”

Hugh Lyshkow, pictured above, is hard at work in his new office at Future Space as we make our way through the corridor. Hugh’s company DesAcc is developing software to improve medical digital data management.

“We were based in Seattle,” he says. “But decided to make the move to the UK, and specifically to this facility in Bristol, because it's so much more efficient for us to run the company from here than the US – where young graduate software engineers would expect $130,000 salaries.

“We’re very excited about working here, particularly because of the opportunities it opens up for us to build relationships with researchers in the academic community at UWE about the sort of work we’re doing.”

Another early arrival, Open Bionics, is another firm to be born out of the Robotics Lab next door. Open Bionics manufactures a range of electronically articulated false hands, coming in a range of colours and styles to help young amputees come to terms with the impact on their sense of identity after losing a limb.

Another exciting young company heading for Future Space is Esoterix Systems, a software developer looking at apps to transfer an Uber-like model to buses – with trials already being planned on bus networks in North Bristol.

Elaine said: “It’s when you hear about the work of young companies like this that you realise the name for the centre, Future Space, is really very appropriate – these people really will be developing the shape of all our future with the work they’re doing here.”

 

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