Southern comfort

It may be crowded, but London and the south-east boasts a wide range of hi-tech activity, from healthcare to satellite systems. Berenice Baker reports.

London and the south-east is perhaps better known as the government, transport and financial hub of the UK than for technology and innovation. But pockets of industries cluster around certain areas, supported by world-leading research and inspired investment.

ICT and other hi-tech companies line the M4 and M3 corridors. Berkshire houses the headquarters of several international car manufacturers, including Honda and Fiat, and BMW makes the Mini in Cowley, Oxfordshire.

Many international engineering firms have their corporate headquarters in London and the home counties. Surrey is home to F1’s McLaren and BP’s chemicals division, while facilities such as Farnborough Airfield and the Sandhurst military academy makes Hampshire ideal for military technology developers, including BAE Systems and Qinetiq.

What the region lacks in space, it makes up for in its concentration of innovators, a point exploited by technology transfer, company incubation and investment spin-out Imperial Innovations. Jon Page, director of new ventures, said: ‘Imperial College draws the best scientists in the world. London brings together all the components for unique technology businesses — talent, technology insight, transport, communication, facilities and financial infrastructure. The south-east also has a growing presence of successful entrepreneurs.’

Brian Graves, head of engineering technology at Imperial Innovations, added: ‘Management is very important to these businesses, and though it’s difficult to find space in such a crowded area, we are able to create new businesses on the back of that talent.’

One of Imperial Innovation’s most successful spin-outs is Crawley, Sussex-based fuel cell business Ceres Power, which is working with British Gas to incorporate its low-to-medium temperature solid oxide fuel cell into central heating boilers. Imperial also founded Novacem, which makes cements that extract CO2 from the atmosphere. It recently secured a Technology Strategy Board grant enabling it to work with Rio Tinto Minerals, Laing O’Rourke and the WSP Group to start production.

The London Development Agency (LDA), alongside its work for the 2012 Olympics, has not neglected other projects. It is providing £1.52m of funding to NHS Innovations London to support technology transfer from London’s NHS trusts to the proof-of-concept stage.

The Assistive Technologies Centre is an initiative funded through a three-year LDA grant of £2.35m with the aim of bridging the gaps between university research, the NHS and small and medium-sized enterprises and the market place.

In the wider region, the South East England Development Agency’s knowledge transfer manager, Colin Baldwin, said SEEDA is running a pilot for shorter knowledge transfer partnership projects, called Business Plus, a collaboration of nine universities headed by Portsmouth.

In one project, ADC of Aldermaston, which makes components for the aerospace industry, has been working with Reading University to introduce CAD so it can exchange diagrams with customers.

SEEDA has called for deeper collaborative R&D projects in nanotech, energy, intelligent transport and healthcare. Intrinsic Materials, for example, recently won a £1m grant for its work on antiviral nanoparticles which can be incorporated in hospital surfaces and face masks to kill the avian flu virus.

Marine technology is key to a region bordered on two sides by the sea. BVT Surface Fleet, based in Portsmouth, is a joint venture between BAE Systems and VT Group, and the UK’s leading provider of surface warships and through-life support for the MoD and overseas customers.

Ian Booth, managing director of BVT’s Fleet Support, said: ‘Having facilities within Portsmouth naval base is particularly significant to the support arm of BVT as it ensures we are on the same site as the home port for much of the Royal Navy’s fleet.

‘This will be particularly important when the first Type 45 Destroyer, Daring, which was constructed at BVT in Glasgow, sails into Portsmouth in January. The support contract means we can continue working with the crew and support the ship.’

The region looks to the stars, too. Surrey Satellite Technology the world’s leading provider of small satellite mission services, put the first working spacecraft into orbit for the Galileo European navigation system, GIOVE-A, and is working on optical hardware for an ESA mission called Earthcare.

Nanotech is an area where the UK leads. Newhaven’s Surrey Nanosystems was spun out with IP from nanoengineering company CEVP and Surrey University with funding from investor IP Group.

Ben Jensen, chief technical officer, said the main benefit of the region is the talent. ‘The quality of engineers that come out of Surrey is fantastic, and there are a lot of them looking for positions in UK technology,’ he said.

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