Director Jane Hutchins discusses the future of Cambridge Science Park and says: ‘We want to break down barriers in a new era’
When Jane Hutchins turned up nervously for a temporary role at Southampton Science Park, it was meant to be a two-week gig.
Eighteen years later, she’d risen to business development director and helped to put it on the map so much that she was headhunted to lead Cambridge Science Park into an exciting new era.
“I’d cited Cambridge as a uniquely dynamic and exciting ecosystem for years as part of my general talk to visitors in Southampton, so to get the chance to come here and actually experience it was irresistible,” Jane tells the Cambridge Independent as we chat in her office at the Bradfield Centre.
In many ways, her goldfish bowl of an office – in full view of those milling around on the ground floor at the successful deep tech hub – is a symbol of how science parks, and Cambridge’s in particular, are evolving.
“Traditionally, we’re regarded as a genre, as closed environments – otherness. In fact, what we should be is very much integrated within the community where we sit,” notes Jane, against the hum of distant conversations from the Bradfield Centre’s excellent cafe.
“Our vision is to break down barriers – physical and perceived – and to welcome lots of people into the Science Park. And the buildings, the built environment that we create, have to facilitate that.
“You can’t just put up buildings that are secure, imposing and don’t welcome you, and then say to people ‘Come in’. How can they if they can’t get into a building? How can they learn what is going on there? How can they overhear some of those conversations that are so fascinating? When you sit in an open cafe and ask ‘Can I have a chat with you?’, that’s how innovation happens.”
The six-year-old Bradfield Centre, of course, is built around that concept, with start-up entrepreneurs bumping into each other over coffee or chatting at one of its networking soirees.
And the process of renewal on the wider site is well under way, thanks in no small part to Jane’s predecessor – the inaugural Cambridge Science Park director Jeanette Walker, who took on the role in 2017 with the aim of injecting “more soul” and creating a “community where people genuinely enjoy working”.
Prior to her departure at the end of 2021, Jeanette oversaw a major period of redevelopment, particularly through collaboration with Chinese science park development specialist TusPark. Some 350,000 sq ft of office and lab space was developed for five new buildings on Cambridge Science Park, including the 40,000 sq ft Bio-Innovation Centre.
Frontier Developments and Cambridge Consultants took on major new space and US streaming giant Roku became a tenant of a 120,000 sq ft office. Meanwhile, a new relationship was forged with The Grove Primary School, opening the eyes of pupils to life and careers on the park.
Jane arrived to take up the mantle as the new director in August 2022.
She was invited to apply for the role following an eventful and successful spell on the south coast.
“I went as a temp for two weeks after a seven-year career break,” she recalls. “I was there for 18 years.
“My background before that was in business to business sales – always with fairly specialist or high value-added products. Then I worked in financial regulation in the city, which is exactly the same skillset. It’s persuading people to do something that will do them good – they will benefit from it, but they may not be willing to part with the money, or make the effort.
“It’s that same persuasive communication skillset that you use in sales, which you also use in dealing with highly qualified individuals who resent the imposition of regulations on them!”
After a “fantastic” six years at the Institution of Chartered Accountants in London, Jane took a seven-year career break.
“My then husband got a job in Southampton, which shocked me to my core. I never thought we’d leave London, ever, but we did,” she recalled.
“After we’d be down there for some years, I was going up the wall being a stay-at-home mum. It was a very isolating experience and I was bored once the kids were in school.
“So I signed up with the University of Southampton temp bank, and of course I had no skills as a temp – none that were any use to anybody,
“Months passed, and then I got this call: ‘There’s a really basic job at the Science Park, where the parking is really easy. It’s one or two weeks. Are you interested?’ So with fear and trepidation, because I was really nervous going back to work, I rocked up on my first day. It was working to prepare a university spin-out company for flotation on the AIM.
“John, who was the company accountant, said: ‘You seemed to understand what I am talking about?’ I said: ‘Well, I am a chartered company secretary’. ‘Ah, I could use you,’ he said.
“So I stayed for three years. I never worked a school holiday so I had great fun with the kids. I worked very part-time and earned so little I couldn’t open a bank account very easily because people didn’t want to know.
“It was eye opening to understand the challenges of people who need a bank account to be paid. Nobody would touch me because I was very part-time and on under £1,000 a month.
“I moved as my available hours increased, and as my knowledge of the business increased.
“So fast-forward 18 years and I was their business development director and absolutely loving the job.”
Under Southampton Science Park’s new CEO, Jane move into handling lease processing and lease negotiations, then took on events and a successful business incubation programme called Catalyst.
She was persuaded away briefly into the financial services sector, only to discover it was not the role she’d hoped, so Jane “took the risk of walking away with nothing to go to”.
“I thought I might go into consultancy, but Southampton Science Park got in touch to say ‘Can you come back?’ They needed my market knowledge. So I was there just before Covid.
“Coming out of Covid, under the lead of the current CEO, I had gone out and spoken to companies at events far more than we used to.
“We used to wait for people to come to us. But I took the view that actually we need to get out there and spread the word about science parks, not just wait for business to come through the door.”
Speaking on podcasts and at conferences raised her own profile, so when Jeanette announced she was leaving, Jane was invited to apply to the director role at Cambridge Science Park, and since arriving last summer has been embedding herself into the Cambridge ecosystem.
“It’s a real challenge, because it’s so huge, but I’ve been made incredibly welcome, not just by the people in the Bradfield Centre, or Trinity College, or Bidwells, who run the Science Park, but by the wider players in the network,” she notes.
“From day one, people made the effort to come and see me and they’d say ‘I’ve been working in the Cambridge network for 50 years… I’m now retired but here is my knowledge and here are the people I will introduce you to’.
“So I’ve been proactively welcomed and absorbed but in some ways I’ve barely scraped the surface. There’s so much more to do, not least to get around the 140 companies based on this Science Park and meet with all of them.”
Created on land owned by Trinity College since its foundation by King Henry VIII in 1546, this was Europe’s first science park, established in 1970.
“The downside of that is that some of the buildings are old and tired and have outlived their usefulness. Building technology has moved on, building performance has moved on and company requirements have definitely moved on. It’s a very different place from the Science Park that opened 50 years ago,” notes Jane.
“But one of the things that attracted me so much was coming to be part of that regeneration and renewal of the estate.
“That process of renewal is under way and those fantastic buildings at the entrance to the park set the tone for where we are heading.
“They were developed with TusPark as a joint venture with Trinity College, collaborating and working together to make sure what was developed was in line with the vision for the future of the park, but most importantly in line with the vision of the community based here, or that wants to be based here.”
Brockton Everlast, the London-based real estate investment firm, has begun discussing its vision for redeveloping 210-240 Cambridge Science Park, home to six 1990s buildings within the inner ring road.
It notes that 40 per cent of the site is car parking and that the site is “inward looking with a sense of enclosure that fails to connect with the wider landscape and setting”, adding: “We believe there is an opportunity to revitalise a closed-off part of the neighbourhood.”
Jane says: “There is no masterplan drawn up there yet, but their vision is very much in line with our vision for future science parks. We are looking at creating a much more open and welcoming physical presence here without losing any of the green space which we value highly.
“We are looking at retail environments on the ground floor – not unlike what you see in CB1, by Cambridge central station, where you’ve got retail outlets, cafeterias and bars at ground level, which the community already based here say they want.
“We want to make the experience of coming to work here for their staff a really good quality experience and we are a little bit out of the centre of Cambidge here.
“We are really excited about creating that vision. Part of that will be redeveloping the first area you come to when you come onto the Science Park. The ideas behind that are beginning to take shape, but it’s very early days so watch this space.”
What will be key, of course, is sustainability.
“There is a quite unattractive mound of crushed concrete, which is the relic of a previous building that used to be on the site,” says Jane. “I arrived and thought that’s appalling, and should come out. But, of course, it is carbon capture.
“Sustainability has now been adopted formally as running through the heart of the Trinity mandate, which is the governance framework for their endowment fund that funds all of the college’s activities, and the Science Park feeds into that.
“Sustainability has to be a part, and we want to be an exemplar. So that rather unattractive rubble mound is in fact carbon that has been captured and is being retained and it will be reused when we redevelop the front of the site.
“We would love to roughly double the floor area of the existing Cambridge Science Park site, which means going up rather than out. If we want to double the density, we have to go up, because we don’t want to lose the green space.”
Jane is talking to the Wildlife Trust in Cambridgeshire for advice on enhancing the park for nature.
“We don’t want to get it wrong. It’s actually a beautiful landscape here. When I first came and drove around the inner ring road I found some ageing buildings and some brand new impressive buildings – an interesting mix. It wasn’t until I got out of my car on my first day and walked through that I saw the string of lakes here. We’ve got very fat rabbits bounding around, we’ve got deer, long-tailed tits and I’ve seen water voles here, which are beautiful creatures,” she says.
“Post-Covid, we’re all acutely aware of how important it is for people to have access to green space during the day. We have that here in abundance, not just for the people who work here of course but for the local community.
“If we can enhance it and activate more of that landscape for the benefit of local people as well, that will help break down that perceived barrier that there’s nothing here for them.”
Meanwhile, there are longer-term proposals for a complementary Cambridge Science Park North site, north of the A14, to cater for midtech jobs. The concept has been submitted for consideration during the Local Plan process.
With an exciting short, medium and long-term future ahead for the Science Park, Jane’s message for those organisations thinking of opening in Cambridge is clear.
“It’s one of the world’s best ecosystems. You can’t think of a better place to come. There are those who say it is hard to navigate but my experience as a newcomer and complete outsider is that if you ask someone and they don’t know, two phone calls will get you to someone who does know and will help you,” she says.
“There are so many initiatives and programmes here. And there are also so many people who have succeeded who just stay around and want to get back and they pop up in the most unexpected places.
“The founders of unicorns will turn up at a drinks event after work one evening and you suddenly realise you’re in the presence of someone who is almost legendary. And they are just giving back.
“That is what makes Cambridge unique.”
Cambridge Science Park’s vision to connect to the wider community is a key reason for its involvement in the 2023 Cambridge Independent Science and Technology Awards.
It is sponsoring the STEM Initiative of the Year, which Jane helped to judge.
The winners will be revealed at a ceremony at Anglia Ruskin University on May 18.
Finalists have been given free tickets and others who wish to attend can now purchase tickets via Eventbrite.