Allia to create more serious impact as it plots expansion at Future Business Centre in Cambridge
Caroline Hyde and Paul Hughes reveal big plans for not-for-profit organisation
Allia’s thriving Future Business Centre in Cambridge could almost double in size under plans for a new building.
The not-for-profit organisation, which supports start-ups and entrepreneurs aiming to making a positive social impact, has revealed to the Cambridge Independent that it is applying for planning permission to build on a section of land next to its King’s Hedges Road site.
It is a tangible sign of the rapid success of the centre, which will soon celebrate its fifth anniversary.
Others have been opened in Peterborough and East London, while a smaller space is in operation in Norfolk Street, Cambridge.
Caroline Hyde, Allia’s managing director of business viability, revealed that the organisation hopes to open a new Future Business Centre in Oxford, where there is similar demand for its unique offer.
Built alongside the SmartLife Low Carbon centre, the King’s Hedges Road building is a hub for ‘impact entrepreneurs’ in sectors such as cleantech and medtech.
“It was envisaged as a social and environmental innovation and incubation centre,” explains Caroline, who joined as employee number 11 when the centre opened. Allia now employs 54.
“What we’ve built is a centre that enables us to have fee-paying organisations, but also gives us space to support very early-stage start-up businesses.”
Entering the Atrium, an open space where people can work, meet or enjoy food from The Box Cafe – itself a social enterprise – there is an air of collaboration about Allia.
The centre’s 35,000 square feet contain a mixture of offices, studios and workshops, including ‘messy’ workspace for companies like Pavegen, the smart flooring company which produces tiles that can generate electricity from footsteps and capture data on footfall.
“It’s one of very, very few places in Cambridge where there is a dirty workspace and a serviced office. These are hugely in demand,” says Caroline.
Opposite Pavegen is DZP Technologies, which is developing innovative materials for sectors ranging from consumer electronics and wearables, to 3D printing and renewable energy.
As you climb the stairs, the building’s own green credentials become clearer.
Thin film photovoltaic panels from Cambridge company Polysolar are embedded in the windows, producing energy for the building, which is also home to Cambridge Cleantech, the membership organisation.
“When the building was constructed, they brought a lot of environment technology in. We’ve got rainwater and grey water harvesting and we have PV panels,” says Caroline.
Allia, which sponsored the Cleantech Company of the Year category at the Cambridge Independent Science and Technology Awards, intends to continue the theme with its new building.
“The grass outside was always marked for development but it was a big investment for a not-for-profit. But we have proven there is demand and sufficient businesses in the sector we’re looking at,” explains Caroline. “After seven months we were at 97 per cent occupancy, and we’ve been like that for five years.
“We are looking at some of the innovative building technologies, which will allow us to do a lot of off-site construction in a really environmentally-sustainable way.”
The building would provide space for those companies outgrowing their existing offices in the centre.
“It’s quite a big jump to go from here, where you are supported and you have the infrastructure, to somewhere where you are responsible for everything such as facilities management and fit-out costs,” says Caroline.
“The idea is to build something that near enough doubles the footprint, that would give us larger spaces for some of our more established businesses move into. We’re hoping to go for full planning by November 5.”
The centre has clearly carved out a niche.
“The original vision was around social enterprises and that whole space and sector has moved on quite a lot. We talk about impact ventures now and are very agnostic about business models,” notes Caroline. “We do still have charities and social enterprises.
“But what we are more concerned with is what is at the heart of each business coming in? What is the intention around what they are trying to do?
“We use the UN sustainable development goals and we ask them to show how they are working towards one of those. We are very clear about the kind of people we want to come in.”
Among them is Cambridge Bio-Augmentation Systems, a full-stack neural interface company creating interfaces between bionics and the human nervous system. Its Prosthetic Interface Device is described as being “like a USB connector for the body”, linking prosthetic limbs directly with nerves.
Elsewhere in the building, Cambridge Carbon Capture is tackling one of the world’s toughest challenges – climate change – with ingenious mineralisation technology that can lock away carbon dioxide in rock form, enabling zero emission electricity from fossil fuel power stations, and making ‘clean steel’ a reality.
In addition to its flexible workspace, Allia helps companies develop their ideas through Serious Impact – a series of workshops, accelerator and nine-month incubator programmes that has been receiving European Union funding.
“Our support changes,” says Caroline. “It might begin with kicking the tyres of your business model, then in the later stage it’s about working with the CEOs and founders to look at the challenges they are now facing. How do they prepare themselves for taking the company to the next level?”
Mentoring and expert sessions take place upstairs in the Hatchery, where ideas are, well, hatched.
“Future Business Centres have a self-subsidy model. We generate sufficient revenue to operate this space for the programmes.
“We have some paid co-working and it’s also the space we offer to all of our ventures on our incubator programme,” says Caroline.
Running the space is Paul Hughes, director of enterprise support.
He says: “We start with the premise that they will stay nine months. Some will stay longer because of the type of technology they work on. Many of them have an engineering or healthcare focus. It’s tech for good.”
A number of the companies are born from personal experience.
Among them is Goshawk Communications, founded by Matthew Turner, who has been hard of hearing since a childhood illness. The company is creating software for telecoms companies to improve call clarity for the hearing impaired.
And Will Jackson, whose son has cystic fibrosis, founded the social venture Playphysio, which creates innovative and fun games to improve the experience of respiratory physiotherapy treatment for patients with the disease, increasing adherence.
Nearly half of those on the incubator programme are female founders.
One of the first was Repositive, established by Fiona Nielsen, who was highly commended in the CEO of the Year category at the Cambridge Independent Science and Technology Awards.
The company, now based in Hills Road, has raised £3million to develop its global exchange for genomic data, aiding researchers around the globe.
“Fiona is a great example – not only as a female founder, but socially motivated. They used our support mechanisms and now they are absolutely flying,” says Paul, adding that Fiona has helped mentor others coming through the Hatchery.
There is plenty of advice on hand for those who need help to finance their venture.
“Connectivity is one of our core focuses,” says Paul. “If you need to access capital, let us understand what it is and we can connect you.”
Caroline adds: “We don’t take any equity and we don’t have any funds we manage ourselves, although it is something we would love to develop. But we do a lot of signposting. We work with the Cambridge Angels and a number of VC networks so where our ventures need funding, we can help broker that.
“We do have a loan fund that we worked with through the Cabinet Office, which a lot of our ventures used as mezzanine finance or development finance.”
Others have found help within the building.
“We’ve had quite a few collaborations, where companies have come together to go for joint funding bids like UKTI,” says Caroline. There is a lot of behind-the-scenes facilitation.
“Our business advisor and business support team work really hard at making those connections and we try as much as we can to bring together and tell them about what each other is doing.”
One of the centre’s bigger companies is Arcus Global, which produces cloud-based products to improve efficiency in the public sector and has quadrupled in size to nearly 100 staff. It took an investment in one of the centre’s start-ups.
“They made an equity investment but, rather than cash, they provided development capacity, which that company needed,” says Caroline.
“Allia has a whole other strand which is Allia Impact Finance, which deals with social finance and impact investing. That generates a surplus which contributes towards funding our business support programmes.
“As with most not-for-profits, we also look at grants, including European Union funding and city council funding.
“For us, it’s about ensuring our own financial sustainability and growing the programme.”
As Allia looks towards its 20th anniversary next April, it’s not standing still.
“We are looking at something on a bigger, maybe even national scale, to help celebrate that,” says Caroline.
In the meantime, there will be a real focus on developing the success of the Future Business Centre pilot in East London.
“It’s been really successful,” says Caroline. “The other ambition is to go into Oxford for a whole number of reasons. From a social impact perspective, it’s a really interesting place with lots of activity.
“With the new Oxford-Milton Keynes-Cambridge corridor, there is practicality there and there is the golden triangle with London.
“Everyone we speak to in Oxford is champing at the bit for Allia to bring a Future Business Centre there. The challenge will come down to real estate and finding the right location.”
Little wonder that councils up and down the country are encouraging Allia to come to their territory.
“It is an exciting model. One of the things for us is to work out how we take the programmes and support without having to have the centres there,” says Caroline. “That would enable us to work on a much bigger scale without having to find a building.”
Expect more serious impact from Allia.
Allia ‘among the best employers in the region’
Allia was among those honoured at the Best Employers Eastern Region 2018 Awards conference.
It won the Best Not-for-Profit Company Award and was gold accredited at the awards, founded by recruitment specialists Pure and held at Nemarket’s Rowley Mile Racecourse.
Rachel Coquard, head of HR at Allia, said: “It means so much to us as we won Best Small Business award two years ago – and since then, as the organisation has grown and we’ve welcomed in new employees, we’ve continued to work hard to ensure that our values and brand are embedded in the whole team.
“Allia is proud of its culture and values, and employee engagement is key. For us, retaining our talent is vital so we’re pleased that we can share we’re an award-winning great employer!”
Most Improved Company Award winner was Hundred Houses Society, the housing association based in Cambridge.
Among the Platinum Accredited were Mantle, the business spaces provider which has offices in Cambridge and Duxford, and Morgan Sindall Construction East, the construction and regeneration group with offices in Cambridge.
Among the Gold Accredited were Arthur Rank Hospice Charity, based at Shelford Bottom, Cambridge Commodities, based in Ely, University of Cambridge Enterprise, Cambridge Office Environments, Solarflare – the pioneering server connectivity company based in Cambridge – and Stratagem IPM, the intellectual property law firm with offices in Cambridge.
Ensors, which has offices in Cambridge and Huntingdon, was named among the Ones to Watch.
More by this authorPaul Brackley