It might sound obvious — but for a start-up to develop its potential, workspace is key. For Alex Caccia from Animal Dynamics, “the availability of office space” is actually one of the key challenges entrepreneurs face in Oxfordshire (see our Entrepreneurship Q&A).
But often workspace is about more than a desk: for technology-based enterprises it’s about access to the right equipment, services, and facilities. And it’s about networking, too: being around other innovative project leaders, companies, and specialists can make all the difference.
New innovation investment in and around Oxford tackles these challenges. We’ve spoken to the BioEscalator team and the manager of the Agile Lab, two examples for shared lab space in Oxford. What do they offer, and how can start-ups best use their facilities?
The BioEscalator, Old Road Campus
The BioEscalator at the Old Road Campus in Headington is a bio-tech hub opened in August 2018 for emerging start-ups in- and outside of the university. Khwaja Islam and Bushra Nawaz of the managing team tell us that the BioEscalator offers space where and when a growing idea most depends on it: “You come up with a new idea and a new company, so you want to go and find a space where you can also receive some guidance. That’s why we’ve opened the BioEscalator.”
Various set-ups fit the BioEscalator: you can use hot desks for as little as half a day; lab benches in the shared space at the Innovation Lab can be rented by the month; but you can also rent your own lab if you need separate, non-shared space. The team is there to support projects starting from scratch as well as provide services and facilities to those already further ahead.
Those who have their own concept and are looking for lab benches will find bench rental at the shared spaces of the Innovation Lab a good match: “We have 12 of those spaces available for scientists on their own,” Khwaja and Bushra explain. “They can come along and rent it for a month, a day, a week — it’s up to them.”
For those looking for separate lab space there are medium-size and larger labs: “In a one-unit lab, you can have up to five people, in a two-unit lab you’re looking at up to ten scientists.” A one-unit lab is 22 m2; a two-unit lab varies from 34 to 44 m2. The initial lease for these is 12 months.
So altogether there are six shared facilities, six one-unit labs and seven two-unit labs. “On top of that,” the BioEscalator team add, “we have meeting rooms for tenants, hot desks and kitchen facilities for them.” Some restrictions apply: you are not allowed to do animal work or any radiation work. But there are no major qualifications required to rent the labs — the BioEscalator is simply an incubator for promising start-ups in need of the right “soil” to grow their ideas.
“We are looking for people who have funded their idea and want it to grow up to a size when they no longer require the incubator,” Khwaja and Bushra tell us. Once that has happened “they move on to a bigger scale, and eventually have their own labs with bigger employees.” Maximum tenancy is therefore three years.
Situated in the heart of Headington only one mile from the John Radcliffe Hospital, the BioEscalator is convenient for its location and resources: casual networking events are held most Fridays; and monthly seminars invite guest speakers to talk about entrepreneurship, team building, finance and more.
To apply for space at the BioEscalator, you put forward an enquiry first, then define whether you want to rent a bench or a unit-lab, depending on the size of your company, and the equipment you have/need. It’s not too difficult, the managers emphasise: “Just come by, take a look and see!”
Find out more about the BioEscalator at www.bioescalator.ox.ac.uk.
The Agile Lab, Begbroke Science Park
For chemistry- and engineering-based projects, the Agile Lab may be a good fit. This shared lab facilitates the work of newly formed companies developing their pipelines. It is situated in the Centre for Innovation and Enterprise (CIE) at Begbroke Science Park, which is a great location: With around 500 people working here, this is a real high-tech campus where academia meets enterprise. The CIE building has over 29,000 sq. ft of office and laboratory space, arranged over two floors, and currently houses 24 companies.
The Agile Lab, located within the CIE, comprises 548 sq. ft open lab space along with 230 sq. ft adjoining office space for science entrepreneurs at the early stages of their start-ups. Up to six companies at a time, usually with one lead scientist each, can use this space for six months, with extensions possible on a case-by-case basis (normally not more than one year).
Gas supply, an icemaker fridge, a number of on-site chemicals and lockable storage are all provided; and facilities from the Department of Materials such as a nearby 3D-printer prototyping lab can be used as well. A full list of facilities and services can be accessed here.
What is special about the Agile Lab is that it is EU-funded and thus subsidised. This means that a total of 12 hours of one-to-one support is available and that rent is relatively low at 400 GBP/month. Be it a university-affiliated spinout or a start-up from outside the university — the main prerequisite for using the lab is that your plan is a good fit with what Agile Lab has to offer.
From top left to bottom right: Shared lab spaces, the Begbroke campus, shared office space,
and the CIE coffee bar. By courtesy of CIE, Begbroke Science Park.
At the CIE, Agile Lab tenants become part of a vibrant entrepreneurial hub and benefit from a wide range of seminars and workshops, coffee mornings at the Begbroke Science Park, and other networking opportunities. As CIE shared lab space manager Claire Morgan puts it: “Here you’re one of the community. It’s a nice site with lots of entrepreneurs around and events happening — and it’s just good to be around that.”
The commercial environment enables tenants to get in touch with other start-ups in a similar situation, and also with more advanced projects. Claire Morgan explains: “You’re in the science park, so you’re around a lot of companies,” which allows for “a gentle breakaway from the university environment into industry.” And while the Science Park is not located in the heart of Oxford, a regular mini-bus service ensures an easy connection in and out of the city centre and there is ample parking.
Find out more about the Agile Lab at http://www.begbroke.ox.ac.uk/home/space-and-facilities/available-property/centre-for-innovation-and-enterprise-cie/ or contact Dr Claire Morgan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Growth hubs for tech-based enterprises
Both the BioEscalator on the Old Road Campus and the Agile Lab at the Begbroke Science Park’s CIE are fantastic examples of innovation investment in Oxfordshire. Each with a different emphasis, both provide generous access to a range of lab facilities, on-site services and networking opportunities.
Depending on the type of start-up, the stage of project development, and special requirements in terms of equipment, space, duration, and location, entrepreneurs looking for shared lab space will find great opportunities either way. Ultimately, they provide excellent settings to make tech-and knowledge-based initiatives grow — in both research and entrepreneurial spirit.
By Jan Eijking and Xiaoyi Ouyang (interns at Enterprising Oxford)