Chief Executive of Mid and East Antrim Borough Council, Anne Donaghy, and Chief Executive of Catalyst Inc Dr Norman Apsley discuss their unique new partnership which they believe will provide a model of best practice for growing the knowledge economy across Northern Ireland.
In order to succeed and grow in the face of a changing global economy, Northern Ireland must proactively innovate in sectors where it has previously been underrepresented, explains Anne Donaghy. As Chief Executive of a borough that has experienced a rapid decline of its successful manufacturing sector, she is at the forefront of the Council’s drive to grow new industry sectors in Mid and East Antrim.
The recent blow of a projected 2,000 job losses across the borough is not something to take lightly, but rather than be daunted by the challenges posed, the Council has instead taken steps to position itself to adapt and thrive in an ever-changing economic landscape.
One of the cornerstones of this expansion lies in the newly opened Innovation Centre at Ecos in Ballymena, a project delivered jointly by Mid and East Antrim Borough Council and Northern Ireland’s next generation science park, Catalyst Inc. The unique partnership represents the first time a not-for-profit organisation has worked with a local authority to help deliver its objectives of developing Northern Ireland’s knowledge economy.
A £1.7 million refurbishment of the Ecos building has provided for almost 18,000 sq ft of lettable, high spec, agile workspace surrounded by an idyllic nature park for knowledge entrepreneurs.
Outlining the centre’s potential to encourage and nurture business innovation in the borough, Donaghy says: “Our Integrated Economic Strategy 2017-2030 reinforces the need to increase business start-ups and further support the growth of SMEs. It also recognises the need to attract new business investment into our limited population of digital and technology firms and increase our existing low levels of knowledge economy jobs.
“The people of Mid and East Antrim are resilient, hard-working and this is about supporting their transition to a changing working environment, where we will continue to support the manufacturing jobs which still exist, but further growth will require an investment in skills to support expansion into new industry sectors.
“As an ideal investment location, we offer a unique proposition with higher than average economic activity and employment, strong core sectors, strong education and housing provision and great accessibility via road, air and port infrastructure.”
The knowledge economy however is not just limited to a specific sector and its impact is far-reaching in a borough with a diverse array of businesses. Norman Apsley explains: “Catalyst Inc was established to develop and grow the knowledge economy in Northern Ireland. For the last three years Northern Ireland has been the second fastest growing knowledge economy region in the UK. Our proven model is to provide state-of-the-art facilities, exclusively for knowledge-based businesses, on commercial terms. The surplus we generate is used to provide the underwriting necessary for an independent, community-led suite of programmes through Connect, our network of experienced entrepreneurs, business professionals and top research talent.
“The concept is that an individual puts an idea into the pot and is then supported with all the other elements of creating a successful business. Our mission is bringing people together to inspire them to develop their idea and then support them to build it out.”
The Ecos Centre will be the latest addition to Catalyst Inc’s growing network of campuses, including locations in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter, Derry, Omagh and Letterkenny. Currently their 200 tenant companies, with over 3,000 engineers, researchers, entrepreneurs and executives working on these campuses, span the sectors. They include major technology corporations, indigenous scaling companies and start-ups, co-located with world-class research and interlinked with society at large, to create a fertile ground for economic growth.
As well as the impressive technical features within the Ecos building, including state-of-the-art telecommunications connectivity through Project Kelvin, businesses at the facility will also benefit from collaborative support and networking opportunities through Catalyst Inc’s connections with knowledge-based entrepreneurs, investors and global corporations across the world.
Donaghy explains that the economic transition the borough is undergoing is epitomised in the very building being used for the project. Originally built to mark the millennium, the centre led the way in showcasing innovations in energy efficiency and sustainability. As these technologies became mainstream, the decision was taken to refocus the building’s purpose whilst keeping true to its original core principles of innovation and sustainability.
“The Ecos Centre’s journey is very representative of the journey the borough is on. This project represents an acknowledgement that we are not willing to be left behind in times of change,” she says.
“With a key focus on retaining our skilled graduates and educated young people, the Council is creating the workspace and opportunities to inspire young people to start and grow their business on their doorstep.”
Apsley agrees that the centre has the potential to inspire similar innovation right across Northern Ireland: “We hope that this project can be a prototype for further partnerships. One of the key elements of the knowledge economy is opportunism and we as a company are opportunistic. We came on board with Mid and East Antrim around four years ago, simply to attend workshops and help foster ideas, but we saw an opportunity in the response from Anne and her team, so we stepped through.
“This project has two key dimensions. On one hand, we are developing a new model of working for a mini-innovation centre with potential for further growth, and on the other hand, it’s about integration with the community. As well as those businesses based here, we also hope that visitors to the surrounding grounds will come in and see what we are creating and be inspired. We especially want young people to be inspired and acknowledge that they want to, and can be part of, this exciting future.”
Donaghy states that the ability to form such a partnership stems as a direct result of greater powers being devolved to local authorities: “This council has a very pro-business stance. The package of powers that now lie with us, such as community planning and area development, have allowed us to create goals that are specific and tailored to the needs of the borough. This project is a great example of utilisation of those powers because there is no better use of community planning than allowing people to acquire the skills and opportunity to live and work in their hometown without having to seek growth opportunities elsewhere.
“We have already engaged in conversations with Catalyst Inc for the next phase of this model and that should serve as an inspiration for other local authorities. If we want to grow our economy, as every local council does, then we have got to instil confidence and innovation in our people. By supporting and inspiring them we will remove the fear and risk of failure through providing the space and expertise to be innovative.”
The demonstrator site for the commercial development of university research and spin-out companies will also benefit from the planned development of the nearby 47-acre St Patrick’s Barracks. This will include a health and wellbeing centre, housing, public services buildings and crucially, the new campus of the Northern Regional College, which will feed into the project. Catalyst Inc will also build on links to Queen’s University Belfast, Ulster University and the Open University.
Speaking about the benefits of locating the project outside of the core urban centres, Apsley outlines: “Innovators and entrepreneurs hail from across Northern Ireland. In the past they have been driven towards the major cities in search of connectivity for example, but it’s important that we provide the facilities and support to nurture ambition across the region.
“To rebalance the Northern Ireland economy, we need to grow the knowledge economy by at least a factor of three, and given the concentration of innovative companies in the Mid and East Antrim area and the partnerships with the council, Ecos is an ideal location for an innovation centre. Our latest knowledge economy report showed that knowledge economy companies are mostly concentrated in urban areas, suburbs and motorway corridors, which makes Ballymena an ideal location.”
Apsley appreciates that in order for the project to progress, the Council had to be resolute in their ambitions. He says: “Anne and the Council took the risk on behalf of everyone else but I think that risk was taken with the realisation that there was an even greater risk of doing nothing. If we in Northern Ireland don’t support our entrepreneurs, other places will. We have a track record of supporting and growing these businesses. The companies located on our campuses, on average, are growing by around 30 per cent per annum and we are engaging with over 600 entrepreneurs across Northern Ireland annually.”
Donaghy says that the experience and expertise of Catalyst Inc, through its connections and track record in partnership-building worldwide, helped mitigate the risk. “As a Chief Executive I have 40 elected members to consult with. Having seen the opportunity that Catalyst Inc was offering, I talked with our councillors and was met with courage and belief. With any vision, you need belief and I have no doubt that our pro-active approach to change will prove fruitful. As a council, we have experienced some of the hardest blows economically but we have consistently met these challenges head on.
“The traditional routes can sometimes stifle innovation and this project is not about levels of education, it’s about ideas and fostering those ideas towards success. The popular saying is ‘if you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep getting what you’ve always got’ and I think Northern Ireland as a whole needs to explore opportunities for economic change. Change is good because the biggest risk to Northern Ireland PLC is not to adapt.”
Asked how Catalyst Inc will measure the success of the project, Apsley responds: “By what we in the science park game call ‘buzziness’, we want to see a buzz around the place. That should equate to an increase in people, traffic and engagement with a sustainable impact. We are looking for people to have jobs of the highest quality close to where they live.”
Donaghy adds: “Success for me is that we become a best practice example and other councils start to have similar partnerships. In terms of output, it’s about creating jobs and attracting international conferences and foreign direct investment to our borough. I’d like the name Mid and East Antrim Borough Council to be synonymous with the word innovation.”
Set to support the growth of up to 125 high value jobs in the knowledge economy, Catalyst Inc is reporting high levels of interest in the centre including from companies who have been through their processes. As part of the integration of the centre, the 150 acres of parkland – equipped with trails and walkways – will remain open to the public, as will the newly refurbished café.
Concluding, Donaghy says: “Everything that has been achieved with the centre to date has been done because of the strong working relationships that exist. I think our centre is a fine example of the public sector working alongside the private sector to bring mutual economic benefits and towards the economic aims of the Programme for Government. Growing the wider economy is work that needs to be done in collaboration and the Innovation Centre is a prime example of how this public-private partnership, which in the past has been a method of building things, can be utilised to build services and create jobs.”
Anyone wanting to find out more about the space available to rent, which ranges from drop in space, dedicated desk or enclosed suite, please contact the Innovation Centre’s Business Manager on 028 9073 7926.