As part of Paris Smith’s 200th anniversary celebrations The Business Magazine finds out how the firm supports the University of Southampton Science Park and the entrepreneurial start-up businesses based there that are developing tomorrow’s technology breakthroughs.
The University of Southampton Science Park (USSP) is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the University set up in 1983 as an independent commercial operation. Its role is to accommodate, empower and nurture businesses to succeed in the highly competitive global science and technology sector. There are around 100 companies based at USSP at its Chilworth site.
“Our aim is to help companies that are capable of high growth deliver to their maximum potential,” explained USSP’s chief executive Peter Birkett. “It’s the place where the University of Southampton has an interface with the business world. One of my roles is to act as an ambassador for businesses on the Science Park to help them develop close links with the University and its graduates.”
USSP’s annual impact on the local economy is in the order of £300 million-£500m in terms of the revenues it generates and the supply chain linked with it. Businesses range from start-ups to global leaders.
One of USSP’s success stories is Fibercore, a University spin-out set up in 1982 that today is a world leader in the design and manufacture of specialty optical fibres. Another is Promega, a life sciences company that outgrew its original premises and is currently building a new UK headquarters at the Science Park to accommodate the expanding business. Pharmaceutical giant Merck, too, consolidated its technical research sites across the south of England into a single building on the Park.
While the big business success stories grab the headlines, one of the really exciting dimensions to USSP is the companies just starting out on the road to success and it is with these that Paris Smith also plays an important role.
Laura Trapnell, head of intellectual property (IP) at Paris Smith, and Crispin Dick and Richard Atcherley, partners in the firm’s commercial team, regularly run seminars for USSP tenants covering subjects such as company law, setting up a company, protecting IP and GDPR.
“Paris Smith presents various seminars that are highlights for our early-stage ‘incubator’ businesses. These highlight the strength of our relationship with the firm,” said Birkett.
“Many of these dynamic companies have limited understanding on legal topics like IP. However, Laura is a very engaging communicator. Attendees come away enthused about looking after their business assets,” he said.
“In the past six years we have welcomed 34 incubator companies and 95% of these are still trading, which we regard as a pretty good success rate,” he added.
Another significant initiative undertaken by Paris Smith to help USSP’s business community has been to streamline and simplify property lease paperwork. The firm’s banking and finance team worked with Birkett to negotiate with USSP’s main lender on agreeing less onerous obligations for granting permission for leases.
“We were able to relax the previously tight controls, so that now only in limited circumstances is bank consent required. It means USSP can grant more flexible leases,” said Tom Georgiou, partner in the commercial property and planning department.
Paris Smith has devised a ‘precedent lease’ for smaller deals. This standard document offers incoming tenants a template that is both landlord and tenant friendly. Tenants can take a three-year lease with a three-month rolling break, so they only have to give a short period of notice.
Birkett commented: “This is hugely significant for us. With small, growing, companies as tenants we need to be agile and flexible, so they can expand and move around the Science Park when they are ready to.”
Paris Smith was first instructed by USSP in 1996. Malcolm Le Bas, managing partner at the time, together with Mark Howarth, head of Paris Smith’s commercial property department, and James Snaith, commercial property partner, successfully tendered for USSP’s commercial property work.
Birkett commented: “USSP had enjoyed a decade-long relationship with Paris Smith when I joined in 2007. One of the things I valued most when I arrived was the corporate experience that the firm brings. They have been involved in many of the key deals that underpin USSP’s success, and set precedents in their legal work that help us to expand our operations.”
Since those early days, Paris Smith has expanded the range of services to USSP to include company commercial work, IP advice, employment services, banking services and property dispute resolution.
The wide range of buildings on the Science Park includes single occupancy and shared premises, each undergoing regular refurbishment to keep it fit for modern high-technology entrepreneurial businesses.
In 2003, USSP took a long lease of immediately adjoining land to develop its Benham Campus. Four of the five plots on Benham Campus are now completed or under construction, including Promega’s new head office.
Mark Howarth and Tom Georgiou have led much of the work in this area. James McNeil, partner in the banking and finance department, was involved in negotiating a new mortgage on the Science Park to raise capital to fund further development.
One of the more complex property projects was re-purposing a laboratory building for multi-occupancy. The leasing arrangements were unusual, in particular, having to cover specialist regulatory compliance, as well as health and safety regulations.
“These leases were one of the bigger challenges we have faced, with lots of businesses carrying out different activities in the same building, but with no links to each other. We had to put in place a management regime that would meet regulations, but also be flexible and not so onerous that it stopped companies carrying out their business activities,” said Birkett. “Paris Smith worked closely with us and our property agent, Vail Williams, to achieve the best outcome.”
Another major contribution was the firm’s work negotiating with the local authority on updating Town & Country Planning Act rules on what types of activities can be carried out at USSP. Birkett said: “The substance of the agreement hadn’t changed since the Science Park was set up 30 years ago and needed to be updated to reflect today’s challenges in commercialising new technologies.
“Paris Smith really went the extra mile for us in the negotiations, putting forward our case and getting the local authority to feel confident that we will only allow the right types of companies to come here. The pragmatism shown by the team characterises the Paris Smith way.”
USSP is a member of the UK Science Park Association and shares best practice with other parks. “Re-purposing our laboratory for multiple tenants was trail blazing. Other Association members visit us to see how we manage our labs, and are also interested in our contracts for high-speed fibre optic broadband. They want to find out how we manage the complex legal aspects of shared services like these,” said Birkett.
Another interesting legal structure involves the Science Park’s nursery for the children of employees working for businesses based there. Paris Smith worked on the ownership structure of the land, the granting of a long lease by the University and a 20-year lease to the company that runs the nursery.
Paris Smith has a team of four property lawyers supporting USSP and other lawyers in their IP, company, property litigation and banking teams.“Given the volume of work, we felt it was important to have a range of expertise available whenever it is needed,” said Georgiou.
He added: “For Paris Smith, the great aspect of our relationship is being part of the strategic side of the development of USSP for over 30 years. We feel close to Peter and his team, especially in our support for the entrepreneurial businesses on the Science Park.”
Birkett noted: “I always know I can call with any legal issues and they’ll direct me to the right person to talk to. Paris Smith is a local firm and knows the region. They are on site with us when we need them, and they understand our history. That’s very important to us as we look to support tomorrow’s innovative businesses.”