A market town on the South-west border of Norfolk could be the location of a revolution in the Agri-Tech and Biotech sectors. A 44-acre plot in Thetford has been allocated to the development of an enterprise centre for the past 30 years, but the project has fallen through on numerous occasions. In spite of this, recent improvements to nearby infrastructure has renewed hopes that the project may finally have a future. Last month, work began on building a £1.5million roundabout on the A1066 which would open up Thetford to Cambridge and Norwich via the A11. This follows news that the first phase of a 5,000-property development project is underway which could provide homes for prospective enterprise park employees.

Why Thetford?

Why is there so much excitement about Thetford? The simple answer is location. Being equidistant to Norwich and Cambridge (less than 40 minutes’ drive either way), Thetford is perfectly placed to utilise the culture of entrepreneurship at the heart of Cambridge to mould world-leading plant & animal research from the Norwich Research Park. The expertise in entrepreneurship offered by Cambridge cannot be overstated. The University recently topped a list comparing capital produced by spin-outs of research institutes across the globe, totalling $2.216 billion between 2013-2017. According to the Vibrant Economy Index, Cambridge also has the highest number of patent registrations in the UK (492 per 100,000 residents), coming in at 10 times the national average.

University of Cambridge produces more capital from spin-outs than any other research institute across the globe. Data published by Global University Venturing.

Excellence in the East of England isn’t restricted to Cambridge. The quality of science conducted at Norwich Research Park is world-leading. A decennial survey found that, between the years 1999-2010, the Norwich Research Park produced the most influential research in Plant and Animal science in the world. Despite this, Norfolk has one of the lowest birth rates of businesses in the UK (12% compared to the UK average of 14.6%) and only half of existing businesses in the East of England are actively innovating. Though inability to capture world-leading research is undoubtedly plaguing Norfolk, linking up with Cambridge could be the cure.

What could this mean for the East of England?

Lack of infrastructure is crippling innovation in Norfolk and Suffolk. Access to fast broadband is localised to major cities, with most rural areas unable to access download speeds greater than 10 Mb/s. Access to indoor 4G coverage is also inconsistent across the area and, as a region, the East of England is one of the most limited in England for overall coverage. Digital connectivity may just be the tip of the iceberg. According to EoE APPG, poor transport links in the region are providing a “significant barrier to economic growth”. In an effort to tackle this, the EoE APPG submission to the Autumn budget highlights several projects aimed at improving rail and road networks across the region that desperately require funding. A thriving enterprise park in the heart of EoE would certainly draw investment from central Government to give the regions infrastructure a much-needed boost.

Indoor 4G service is inconsistent across Norfolk, with most areas in the Midlands and South England outperforming the region. Areas in red/white have poor 4G access, green indicates good access. Data sourced from the ONS mobile coverage map.

Cost of renting lab space and equipment threatens success of Cambrdge start-ups.

A successful enterprise park in Norfolk could signify the beginning of expansion of the “Cambridge phenomenon” to the East of England as a whole. The booming Cambridge-based bio-businesses are threatening to suffocate the very start-ups fundamental to the city’s success. Renting laboratory space has reached the critical point where it is proving “challenging for start-ups and small companies several years away from making profits”. Cambridge Ahead estimates costs of ~£30-40/sq. ft pcm[1], compared to £5/sq. ft advertised at the Norwich Research Park[2]. Demand for low cost laboratory space is so high that expansion to other areas in the East, such as Thetford, could a prudent step for a budding Cambridge start-up. Alternative incubator space would not only be far cheaper, but offers start-ups a chance to step out of the shadow of the big businesses to gain funding and publicity in a less crowded market.

Future of the Thetford Enterprise Park project aside, there’s no doubting the huge potential of developing the Norwich-Cambridge Tech Corridor. Building links between Cambridge and Norfolk/Suffolk could be the first step in making East of England the global-leader in life science.