Research Intelligence - New Horizons as Imperial Heads West

By Gibney, Elizabeth | The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE, March 7, 2013 | Go to article overview

Research Intelligence - New Horizons as Imperial Heads West


Gibney, Elizabeth, The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE


Private and state cash feed research giant's Pounds 1bn new campus in W12. Elizabeth Gibney writes.

People living and working near the BBC's former Woodlands site in West London may notice a distinct change in the feel of the area from 2015.

By then the low, brown BBC Worldwide building and its journalist occupants will have been long since replaced by shiny new facilities at the heart of a major new development for Imperial College London.

The Pounds 1 billion Imperial West campus, north of White City and alongside the famous Westway, will be a first for the capital, said Imperial's rector and president, Sir Keith O'Nions.

"It's not a campus that's basically a replacement of activity or a simple expansion of activity here in South Kensington (at Imperial's main campus)," he told Times Higher Education.

Instead it will be an "ecosystem" of interdisciplinary research, postgraduate activities and, crucially, translation and commercialisation, including space to "co-locate" spin-off companies and businesses, he said.

Translation is a "real imperative" of the UK government and a practice that Imperial, like other Russell Group universities, is increasingly adopting, said Sir Keith.

The campus will be unique in the UK, more akin to the set-up at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology - which hosts university spin-offs and multinational companies on site - than to the existing clusters and science parks in this country, he added.

"Given the huge density of research activity in London, (space for spin- off companies) is one of the things that is very obviously absent from our academic activity. So when we spin companies out, they often spin a hell of a long way out," Sir Keith said.

At the heart of the Imperial West development is a Pounds 150 million research and innovation hub, for which the college was awarded Pounds 35 million from the government's UK Research Partnership Investment Fund (RPIF) last year. The building will house around 1,000 researchers, working broadly in "next generation materials" in fields such as biomedicine and plastic electronics, as well as "incubator" space for 50 spin-off companies.

The government scheme requires that public investment is matched at least two to one by a private investor. Imperial's partner, real estate funder Voreda Capital, will put Pounds 90 million into the hub.

Preparedness (and a shovel) pays

According to Sir Keith, part of the reason the project was awarded a sizeable chunk of the Pounds 300 million government scheme - which has so far given money to 14 projects, 10 of them at Russell Group universities - was because the plans were "shovel ready".

Unless universities had "a fairly good idea of how they were going to do it ... and a few numbers lined up, it wouldn't have been possible", he acknowledged.

Private investment will also help to build a 35-storey tower block of homes for key workers, Imperial staff and private residents on the site, while further private money will be sought for a "joint venture" for an on-site hotel and conference centre.

Imperial West's funding model, in which a private partner makes a capital investment that it later recovers through rent over 25-30 years, is one that Sir Keith expects to be replicated across UK higher education in the future.

Government capital is scarce, he said, with Imperial's funding outside the UK RPIF scheme dropping in recent years from about Pounds 50 million to just Pounds 12 million a year. Meanwhile, global financial uncertainties mean that well- established universities are safe, long-term partners for private investors, he added.

"If we thought the government would be giving us Pounds 100 million in capital every year . …

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