June 12, 2015
For decades, this pocket of Oxfordshire countryside operated under the radar. But with a little help from property experts, Harwell Campus is stepping out of the shadows.
On the way out of his office, Angus Horner pokes his head through a door belonging to another company. Just visible in the background is a courtyard that looks distinctly other-worldly, intentionally so: the outside space
is designed to replicate conditions on the surface of the moon. In the foreground sits a young man in casual clothes with a space exploration robot at his feet, a soldering iron in his hand and a remote control resting beside an Iron Man-shaped mug on his desk.
Welcome to Harwell Campus, which has for decades been a mecca for the best scientific minds that the UK – and now the world – has to offer. This scene is typical of what goes on in this obscure piece of Oxfordshire countryside a few miles outside Didcot that Horner has made his home.
The problem is that hardly anybody knows it exists, in the UK or internationally.
Despite boasting approaching $2bn of cutting-edge technology, the campus has, until the last couple of years, lacked effective strategic management and marketing. Horner’s mission is to change that by bringing industry understanding and property know-how to the hugely important, if little known, site. The question is: how?
Harwell’s location was at first intentionally obscure. A former World War Two RAF base – the first British planes to support the D-Day landings took off from the site – Harwell became the base for the UK’s civil nuclear research in the 1940s at a time when international espionage was at the forefront of government minds.
Creating a community
Since then, however, the site’s fortunes have waned – it now employs only half the number of people it did at its peak – although not for want of investment. The British government has continued to bankroll the sort of kit private companies can rarely afford and Harwell now boasts a collection of facilities that, combined, cannot be found anywhere else in the world.
But even with the best technology in the world, Harwell still requires the input of the property industry, which is where Horner enters the story.
A chartered surveyor with a strong track record of project delivery, Horner established his core business Prorsus in 2009 when he became interested in the reorientation of UK plc towards the knowledge economy.
In 2011, he teamed up with Gordon Duncan, an accountant with huge experience of supporting both multinationals and start-ups in the life sciences. Duncan helped rewrite London Stock Exchange rules to allow for the listing of companies with fewer than three years’ worth of accounts – a move of incalculable value to fast-growing, cash-hungry young firms.
The purpose of the partnership was to acquire the Pfizer campus in Kent, but the deal fell apart and the site was instead acquired by Palmer Capital. Then in 2013, Horner’s phone rang. “Some of the people involved in Kent called and asked if I would be interested in looking at Harwell instead,” says Horner.
Aware that he needed additional private sector firepower, Horner approached Development Securities, which jumped at the opportunity to acquire a stake in Harwell. The company had already been moving towards greater involvement in the knowledge economy, as well as more complex regeneration projects, so Harwell was a good fit.
“Angus approached us in 2013 and we thought it was a fantastic opportunity,” says Duncan Trench, head of delivery at Development Securities. “We are working in a similar field in Cambridge and think it’s an important sector to be in. We teamed up to provide the resource and the finance and here we are.”
The result was a limited partnership, the Harwell Science & Innovation Campus, owned 50% by Prorsus and Development Securities and 50% by the public sector in the form of the Science and Technology Funding Council, which owns the heavy-duty research equipment on the site, and the UK Atomic Energy Authority, which owns the freehold on the land.
In short, the public sector put in the land and the private sector put up cash to match the value. The priority now is to capitalise on this for the benefit of UK plc, the taxpayer and the global scientific community in five areas: space and satellite applications; life sciences and healthcare; big data and supercomputing; energy and environment; and advanced engineering and materials.
Doing so will probably not in the first instance be achieved by marketing the current crop of buildings on the site – it can’t be denied that at present Harwell isn’t much to look at. Yes, the latest bit of kit – the Diamond Light Source particle accelerator – is an impressive structure (infinitely more so when one considers what happens inside). But for the most part, the campus is laid out in a similar fashion to other previous generations of science parks, with little thought given to amenity or where workers or visitors might rest their heads at night.
That, of course, is where Horner and Trench come in. The partners currently have a planning application lodged for the next phase of development – around 500,000 sq ft of mostly commercial space, but with some leisure elements – and the idea is to make Harwell a functioning community, as it was in its heyday.
Trench says the project fits with Development Securities’ interest in regeneration schemes, as exemplified by its acquisition of regeneration specialist Cathedral, in May last year. “We’re looking at this from a point of view of what we can do in terms of housing, leisure and education,” he says.
The partnership has plans for at least 1,000 homes on the northern fringe of the site. However, the amount of land available means it could accommodate many thousands more workers in millions of square feet of new commercial space. The current working population of the site is around 5,000 and with the plans on the table that should increase to 10,000 – about the previous peak –
but the ambition is far greater.
“Companies need to be able to land here with hundreds of people, so we have to be able to provide the infrastructure,” says Horner. “We need homes, bars, cafés and so on. But it’s also about providing all that at a quality that makes a point of difference, not just with other facilities in the UK but internationally.”
The kit that makes Harwell unique
- Diamond Light Source
The Diamond Light Source (main building, left) was the UK’s biggest investment in science for a generation. It is a particle accelerator machine half a kilometre in circumference that speeds up electrons to near light speeds so they give off a light 10 billion times brighter than the sun. These bright beams are then directed off into laboratories known as ‘beamlines’. Here, scientists use the light to study a vast range of subject matter, from new medicines and treatments for disease, to innovative aerospace engineering and other cutting-edge technologies.
There are only four of these facilities in the world and the UK has one of the best. Particle acceleration generates a source of neutrons that are fired into materials to study their atomic and molecular scale structure in order to help solve a range of challenging industrial problems. The facility collaborates with a wide range of companies, from SMEs to multinational corporations, with sectors as diverse as chemicals and plastics, healthcare, aerospace, transport, manufacturing, automotive and the energy industry.
- Central Laser Facility
Harwell hosts the most powerful lasers in the world – they can recreate the conditions inside stars. The CLF works in physics, chemistry and biology, accelerating subatomic particles to high energies, probing chemical reactions on the shortest timescales and studying biochemical and biophysical processes critical to life itself. Vulcan is a Petawatt (10¹⁵ watts) laser facility that delivers a focused beam – which for 1 picosecond (0.000000000001 seconds) is 10,000 times more powerful than the National Grid.
- Technology Space Cluster
Harwell is the UK’s “Space Gateway” site for national and international companies. RAL Space is resident on campus along with its major equipment, including two five-metre diameter vacuum chambers for testing space hardware such as satellites and landing craft by exposing it to vibration and thermal vacuum. RAL has sent hundreds of items into orbit and regularly supports NASA and the European Space Agency.
The knowledge economy
This much could arguably be expected from any property team worth its salt. What sets the partners at Harwell apart from the pack, however, is the depth of their understanding of the science and technology being developed on the campus. Such understanding, says Horner, is essential to building on Harwell’s success.
“We weren’t selling a property vision; we were selling our interest in the knowledge economy and in science and technology,” he says. “We’ve immersed ourselves in it to understand what’s going on. To accelerate the growth of a place like this isn’t about some great new buildings. The benefit to most companies is being associated with clever people and amazing equipment.”
The idea is to understand which companies globally could benefit from a permanent or transient presence at Harwell. “This is about creating balance between major multinationals and start-ups in the five sectors we’ve identified,” says Duncan. “It’s all about creating clusters to accelerate growth.”
The team at Harwell isn’t just enthusiastic, it’s evangelical. Harwell is vital to “making the UK a prosperous place for the next generation” and a means to “improve the human condition”, proclaims Horner. Trench chips in with the only slightly tongue-in-cheek remark: “We’re saving the world.”
If you consider the scientific discoveries that have been made at Harwell over the past six decades, such statements don’t sound too over the top. From major advances in areas as diverse as genetics and space exploration, scientists on the campus have already changed our view of both the human condition and the universe beyond Earth.
For Horner and his team, the task ahead is to provide the environment to ensure that other such revolutionary discoveries don’t just follow, but grow exponentially in number.
Add to that the desire to facilitate the commercialisation of the science done at Harwell – something that would generate substantial revenues for HM Treasury – and his evangelism isn’t just understandable, it’s infectious.
Harwell: a history
1937 – RAF Harwell built on former farmland to accommodate various bomber squadrons on the eve of, and during, World War Two
1945 – First Medical Research Council (MRC) labs open on Harwell Campus
1946 – Ministry of Supply takes over the site and establishes Atomic Energy Research Establishment
1947 – MRC sets up its Radiobiology Research Unit
1953 – World’s first transistorised computer assembled by Harwell’s Electronics Division
1961 – Dr Mary Lyon discovers X chromosome inactivation, which led to greater understanding of diseases such as haemophilia, Duchenne muscular dystrophy, Fragile X syndrome and certain cancers
1963 – Work by MRC Harwell Radiobiology Research Unit leads to ban on atmospheric testing of atomic weapons
1975 – Frozen Embryo and Sperm Archive first established by researchers at MRC Harwell
1985 – Researchers from MRC discovered genetic imprinting in mice
2000 – Harwell Innovation Centre opens with support from the UK Atomic Energy Authority, becoming the centre of the civil nuclear programme
2002 – Diamond Light Source Ltd established and prepared to run the Diamond Light Synchrotron under construction at Harwell
2006 – Lord Sainsbury announces a £26.4m government investment to fund construction of the Research Complex
2007 – The £260m Diamond Light Synchrotron produces its first user beam and was officially opened by the Queen
2010 – MRC Harwell discovers gene that leads to obesity
2012 – Diamond Light Synchrotron allows British researchers to engineer new synthetic foot-and-mouth vaccine
2013 – Inauguration of European Space Agency’s (ESA) first UK facility: the European Centre for Space Applications and Telecommunications
2014 – For the first time in history, ESA’s Rosetta mission succeeds in rendezvousing with a comet and lands Philae probe on the surface
Author: Adam Branson, Property Week