Grab a desk by the lab bench

The STFC is making space at its Daresbury facility available to firms wishing to work with cutting-edge scientists. Neha Popat reports

September 24, 2009

It has had its fair share of problems, but the plan to redevelop the Government's Daresbury Laboratory as a science and technology innovation park is now coming to fruition.

The laboratory, which is run by the Science and Technology Facilities Council, is renting space on the site to UK companies that wish to use its resources.

More than £3 million in equipment from Daresbury's Synchrotron Radiation Source - the main large facility on the site, which was recently decommissioned - is to be made available to businesses via the new Innovations Technology Access Centre.

The centre will offer 16 high-tech spaces, which will give businesses the chance to work alongside both the STFC's own scientists and staff from the universities of Lancaster, Liverpool and Manchester, the academic institutions that are already involved with the Daresbury Science and Innovation Campus.

This follows an announcement in July, which called for a private-sector partner to further develop the Daresbury site, which is located in Cheshire.

Keith Mason, chief executive of the STFC, said the centre was good news for the local area.

"I am delighted that we are able to keep this high-end equipment in the North West and create a facility that will stimulate the local economy," he said.

The centre is expected to cater for businesses working in the biological, imaging, materials and physical sciences fields.

Companies can rent space on the site for their exclusive use, or can share premises with others by paying an hourly rate.

STFC Innovations oversees the council's technology transfer activities. Paul Vernon, its head of new business opportunities, said that fostering collaborations between science and industry could prove to be very fruitful.

"The aim is for this to be an innovation melting pot, where people with the same goals can work side by side. Hopefully, this will lead to great successes in generating new ideas and growth," he said.

Question marks

There have been uncertainties over the future of the Daresbury Laboratory since the Synchrotron Radiation Source reached the end of its life in 2008 after 28 years of service. The Government's decision not to build a fourth-generation light source - a potentially revolutionary facility to study molecules and chemical reactions - at the site raised concerns about the future of the centre and science in the region.

The Government has ambitions to create a "dipole model" of two international-calibre centres of scientific excellence by developing both the STFC's Harwell site in Oxfordshire (which incorporates the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and the Diamond synchrotron) and Daresbury Laboratory.

Some academics, however, are uneasy about the plans, fearing that Daresbury has no future unless it can attract a large facility to continue making big breakthroughs.

This concern is expressed by John Dainton, professor of physics at the University of Liverpool, and founding director of Daresbury's Cockcroft Institute of Accelerator Science and Technology.

"At present, there is no key science driver on the campus - no major cutting-edge scientific project at Daresbury that will attract other scientists to the site," he told Times Higher Education.

The lack of government funding aimed at supporting such an initiative at Daresbury worries him all the more.

"The fact that funding is unlikely to exist makes me very nervous about the future," he said.

But he did see that there could be benefits to the Innovations Technology Access Centre.

"The UK has never been good at exploiting the many scientific successes it has had ... the centre is a very positive thing in that it will bring together businesses incentivised to exploit new technologies with the scientists who can create them," he said.

Companies interested in using the equipment available in the Innovations Technology Access Centre should contact the STFC.

neha.popat@tsleducation.com

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