Centre of excellence is pointer to future

by Robert Andrews from BBC Wales News Online

The Technium centres due to roll out across Wales from 2002 are just the latest link in a new chain set up to put entrepreneurs into the spotlight.

Six sector-specific clusters of companies are planned to spread from Swansea’s Prince of Wales dock and off the drawing board with high ambitions to put Wales ahead in the knowledge economy.

The pilot building in west Wales has a generic remit and is already home to an eclectic mix of digital media production, research and development and aviation equipment manufacturing.

One start-up boss already resident at the Swansea site claims his fortunes have taken off, and recommends future software kings and telecom tycoons have a look.

Commercial move

Mike Bews, managing director of digital media production outfit s8080, said his company has had several high-profile clients sign web design contracts since taking up residence.

“We outgrew our premises at Swansea University and the university’s Innovation Centre, so moved into the Technium centre as soon as it was built,” says Bews.

“It has been good for us because it has allowed us to be much more commercially biased.”

The 14 staff at s8080, which has taken up half a floor at the centre, have benefited from the support of university staff and resident Welsh Development Agency advisers.

Rubbing shoulders

Bews is also able to rub shoulders with other start-up bosses and share ideas on hitherto uncharted commercial partnerships.

His company is also neighbours with a telecommunications company, a research firm for computer giant Hewlett Packard and an internet estate agent infrastructure manager.

A graphic designer works just next-door but, says Bews, there is “no animosity” in the docks air.

“We have a high-speed internet link via the university’s network, too, and all the connectivity was here and ready for us to use,” he adds. “For companies such as our’s, that is essential.

Cluster relationships

Company clusters and the synergy of ideas, then, are clearly a la mode.

Cardiff Bay has had a digital media incubator of its own since February.

The @Wales initiative is home to a small clutch of dot.com start-ups nurtured and suckled with advice, venture finance and office space.

But director of the Welsh Development Agency spin-off Evan Jones said the waterside development in Swansea is not a rival to the capital’s ambitions.

“There is a three-stage process going on here,” says Jones, a former telecom research and development manager steadily attracting a profile as Wales’s dot.com white knight.

“We help start entrepreneurs off; Technium, in the middle level, can now offer more freedom and more floor space; and pavilions, like, business parks, afford the commercial, office-based reality outside.

“The first Technium concentrates very much on the information technology sector and has done very well so far.

“But the new centres will try to cluster companies of certain types to create relationships.

“With developments such as this, we are heading to a point where Wales can rival anyone in the world.”

Economic challenges

With the world’s tech sector, however, perilously close to recession, conventional wisdom has deemed it is a wise man who invests in technology start-ups nowadays.

Many companies who invested heavily in ventures only to find the dot.com bubble bursting at their fingertips have had their hands badly burned.

Furthermore, Welsh businesses lag close to the bottom of the internet take-up league.

Bews, however, remains upbeat and adamant the new centres will help Wales avoid stormy economic weather.

s8080’s business is good with contracts from the Welsh Assembly and others, he says, and, bucking the trend of closures and lay-offs, the company is in profit.

“People will help bring about a recession if they hold back,” he says.

“I like to think of Wales as becoming the Silicon Valley of the UK. If the plans encourage a handful of entrepreneurs to come forward and one becomes a world beater, it will all be worth it.”