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Unit DX: a petri-dish of science and entrepreneurship

By aphra evans, Wednesday Jul 12, 2017

Bristol prides itself on public science institutions like At-Bristol, but behind this hides a chronic infrastructure problem. For science start-ups looking to grow, laboratory space here and in London is either prohibitively expensive or thin on the ground.

Graduates in need of funding and chemistry companies that require high spec infrastructure find it a problem that hits hard.

One company changing this is Unit DX. They’ve converted a derelict warehouse in St Philips into a science incubator with 17 laboratories and office space that supports fully operational companies, but their focus is on lowering the barrier of entry for young start-ups.

A few weeks after opening, they have welcomed their first two tenants. NuNano makes probes so small they are invisible to the naked eye, which can build images of microscopic materials like cells.

On the floor below is Ziylo, a chemistry start-up developing a device to test blood glucose levels that is more accurate and longer lasting than those diabetics use today.

Johnathan Matlock, senior scientist at Ziylo, is glad of their new home. “Before, we were based across several sites, and we needed to expand,” he says.

“Now, we have our engineers next door and we can customise our labs exactly how we want them. Being here is an exciting opportunity!”

Tenants at Unit DX receive 360 degree support to maximise the potential of their research. PhD-level consultants review the progress of resident companies, while entrepreneurs help newcomers plot their route to market. There’s even a marketing team to grow fresh brands fast.

Adam Finnimore, project manager at Unit DX, predicts over half of future tenants will come from the University of Bristol, making it a much-needed stepping stone from study to commercialising research and a reason for science graduate talent to stay in the city.

Accessible spaces like Unit DX are part of the fight against brain drain. Centre for Cities research shows just 2% of top-ranking new graduates from Russell Group universities moved to Bristol for work in 2014 and 2015, while 52% went to London.

SETsquared is a partnership between five leading universities in the South including Bristol which received the accolade of best university business incubator globally from UBI Global in 2015.

Of the 184 companies it has supported, 65 of those are housed by SETsquared, a key tenant of Engine Shed, while two are down the road at Unit DX where the focus shifts from strictly business to science and technology.

But while Unit DX focuses on young start-ups, Engine Shed II, like the original, will soon cater to an older market.

“There is a real shortage of flexible, attractive space for companies that are scaling aggressively. The commercial property market is constrained,” comments Nick Sturge, director at Engine Shed.

“By providing more space, we’re hoping to drive growth in the broader economy.”

Graduates studying innovation-led masters at the University of Bristol, such as the MSci Physics with Innovation programme, will be based in Engine Shed II too.

And, along with Unit DX, it will occasionally play host to a younger audience – by inviting school kids to visit and hear about exciting careers that don’t necessarily need a degree. Social media manager, anyone?

Between Unit DX and Engine Shed II is the site where the University of Bristol is building its new £300 million Temper Quarter Enterprise campus, which promises a digital innovation hub and a ‘business school of the future’.

The campus will serve to further reinforce Bristol’s offering for promising young talent within the broad but interlinked disciplines of tech, science and entrepreneurship.

The University calculates that the Temple Quarter Enterprise Zone has the potential to create 17,000 jobs and pump £100 million a year into the city’s economy during the first 25 years after completion.

On top of this, developments like Unit DX, Engine Shed II, and the Temple Quarter Enterprise Campus will provide space to nurture people and companies at every stage of their growth.

It’s fair to say that business will be booming.

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