Innovation centres began springing up in the 1980s, often in response to local university spinout companies needing flexible business environments. Offering a high level of business support, they were aimed at incubating the spinout company while it developed a product or idea into a commercial business.

Helping embryonic companies to grow, which in turn provides a boost to the local economy by creating new high value jobs, is what characterises an innovation centre. The UK Science Park Association (UKSPA) now has over 100 Innovation Centre member locations across the UK, providing space and services for high-tech companies to flourish.

So what makes these unique facilities different from other forms of multi-occupied or managed workspace?

1. They support the economic growth of the region

A key difference between innovation centres and most other business space is that they deliver regional economic growth so appeal to public authorities as being the ideal vehicle to stimulate local regeneration. Many, including the three Cornwall Innovation Centres, qualified for European Regional Development funding that helped cover the initial capital costs associated with the construction and early years’ operating costs.

That is why innovation centres are often located in areas requiring economic regeneration: they are set up to create new jobs and support the wider economic agenda. In Cornwall, for example, Pool Innovation Centre (which celebrates its tenth anniversary in 2020) has played a key role in breathing life back into a former tin mining area by creating a working environment for local business and enterprise to thrive.

The supportive environment offered by an innovation centre appeals primarily to high growth, early stage sector-related companies, rather than to anyone just prepared to pay the rent. As a result, they are often slower to attain high levels of occupancy compared to more traditional office space.

Public sector grant capital is normally required to construct and fit out the innovation centre. This ensures that it can focus on providing a supportive and nurturing environment without the commercial pressures associated with more conventional financing methods.

2. They attract a certain type of business

Companies based in innovation centres have specific qualities. They are not always start-ups, but tend to be SMEs with high growth potential that are led by their founders.

The entrepreneurs and business owners who choose to base themselves at an innovation centre are not just looking for office space. They are likely to be interested in collaborating with other like-minded companies who share the space (more on that later). Crucially, they have the potential to grow and provide new jobs for the region.

Each innovation centre has its own sector strategy for attracting the right kinds of businesses, but it is likely to rent out space to those companies which have spotted a gap for an innovative product or service and are expected to grow and create jobs.

3. They’re designed to encourage collaboration

A business owner or entrepreneur who chooses to relocate to an innovation centre is looking for more than just high quality office space. When you join an innovation centre you become part of a community of dynamic companies.

Research shows that around half of Cornwall Innovation Centre businesses have collaborated with one another. This joint working often happens within the same building, but interaction can occur between innovation centres located within a region to create a new product or service.

For example, Everest Media in Pool Innovation Centre recently teamed up with Cornwall IT, based at Tremough Innovation Centre, to develop a new and innovative way of controlling user access on PCs and MACs. In the Health & Wellbeing Innovation Centre in Truro, neonatal firm Dad Pad collaborated with charitable organisation Ella’s Memory to provide additional support to expectant families.

Having a cluster of like-minded businesses under one roof creates a culture of innovation and the consequences can be very exciting.

An innovation centre should provide an environment in which companies can innovate together. Many of the organisations that manage these work spaces encourage collaboration by running networking events and workshops, creating opportunities for businesses to mix and share ideas.

However, we know from our own experience in Cornwall that it is often those informal conversations – perhaps over coffee or just while passing in the corridor – that sow the seed for future collaborations. It is no coincidence, then, that with an innovation centre there is greater emphasis on providing communal space where customers can mix than in other multi-occupied office spaces.

4. They are connected to a local knowledge base

Historically, innovation centres have been intrinsically linked to universities. Many are built close to, or even on, a university campus, providing space for spinout companies that come out of research or ideas from within the university. In fact, many are owned by universities, helping them to bridge the gap between university research and outputs.

Some innovation centres leverage the local university’s key research strengths and choose to focus on one industry sector. For example, there are a number that are dedicated entirely to businesses that specialise in developing composite materials.

Dr Herman Hauser’s Review of the Catapult network describes innovation centres as having “especially strong relationships and ‘fuzzy boundaries’ with universities”.

Another quality of a typical innovation centre business is that it has a desire to engage with an academic knowledge base to deliver innovative new products or processes.

The Cornwall Innovation Centres are run by the University of Plymouth, on behalf of Cornwall Council. This brings a number of benefits to those companies based here, including having the opportunity to tap into the University’s wealth of knowledge and facilities. The link also creates work experience and employment opportunities for University students and graduates and the potential for businesses to attract new high quality talent.

5. They provide businesses with support to flourish

Perhaps the most important feature of innovation centres setting them apart from other forms of managed office space, is the way in which they actively encourage businesses to achieve their potential. For example, here at the Cornwall Innovation Centres we facilitate bespoke business support where it’s needed, including providing information on grant and funding information. Crucially, businesses based here are not tied down to long term tenancies, allowing them to move around the centre as they grow.

The role of an innovation centre is to signpost appropriate level of business support available across the region, depending on where the business is on its growth journey. Many of the businesses we work with are looking for networking and workshops that deliver business development opportunities, while others may need more specific technical advice.

Providing a supportive environment to our customers is the key ingredient to a successful and vibrant Innovation centre.

Across the UK, each innovation centre is unique and has its own strengths and priorities. Perhaps what unites them more than anything else is the emphasis they place on meeting the diverse needs of ambitious businesses in order to provide real benefits to the local economy.