MAT HUNTER, CO-CEO
As a Chinese philosopher once said: “When the winds of change blow, some people build walls and others build windmills.”
Today, there is little doubt that the winds of change are blowing. The digital revolution has already transformed our daily lives and upended traditional business practice: the internet of things is expected to take that disruption to new levels.
The pace and scale of change present incredible opportunities for companies of every size. But leveraging those opportunities requires innovation and collaboration – working together to build windmills, rather than hiding behind the walls of the past.
The Plus X concept has been created with today’s businesses in mind – from start-ups, to scale-ups, to multinationals. Much more than just shared office space, Plus X hubs are designed to drive innovation, forge connections and bolster productivity through a unique approach to collaboration, business support and wellbeing.
The concept was born when our investment partner, UK-listed regeneration group U+I, began redeveloping the Old Vinyl Factory, a long-dormant site in Hayes, West London, formerly owned by record label conglomerate EMI.
EMI was best known for music but the company also recognised the importance of innovation more broadly so they set up the Central Research Laboratory (CRL) in the middle of the Old Vinyl Factory complex. Over the years, the CRL was responsible for numerous inventions, including the CT scanner, airborne radar and high-definition TV.
Keen to draw on that legacy, U+I recognised that resurrecting the CRL concept with a modern slant could deliver multiple benefits to and local stakeholders.
The new CRL opened its doors in 2015, dedicated to helping entrepreneurs develop innovative, technologically focused businesses. On-site studios provide access to equipment ranging from saws and lathes to state-of-the-art 3D printers. On-site experts provide guidance on practical issues ranging from prototyping to patents. Open-plan office space encourages collaboration. And flexible membership allows individuals to use the space in a way that best suits their needs, while recognising that these may well change over time.
The CRL has achieved all that it set out to do and more. More than 100 young businesses have been supported, dozens of jobs have been created and some 25 start-ups have been established, several of which have already grown substantially.
BotsAndUs, for example, started out as two young entrepreneurs keen to develop a service robot that could interact with customers and deliver real-time insights to clients. The business has since grown to 12 people, it expects to add a further eight within the coming months and has won plaudits from some of the top names in robotics and AI.
Lauren Bell came to the CRL as a graduate from nearby Brunel University. She had an idea for a gadget to soothe young eczema sufferers. Cosi Care has since won multiple awards, Lauren counts Dragon’s Den judge Touker Suleyman as a key investor and she is in discussions with retailers and distributors around the world.
It is no accident that these and other start-ups have flourished at the CRL. The culture, ethos and in-house support are all curated to accelerate growth, giving members both the confidence to grow and the tools with which to do so. Crucially too, the CRL has shown budding entrepreneurs that they can develop world-class businesses outside central London. They can stay where they live, work or study, use local facilities, employ and up-skill local people and attract people to them.
At Plux X, we have taken this concept, learnt from it and developed something with the potential to deliver even more growth and innovation.
The first innovation hub, Plus X Brighton, opens early in 2020. A three-storey, purpose-driven building, Plus X Brighton benefits from world-class architecture, in-house workshops and media suites, high-speed connectivity, a natural café and a focus on wellness. Like CRL, the hub will also provide access to practical and professional experts to help members to grow.
While the CRL has focused on early-stage innovators, however, Plus X Brighton is designed for businesses of every size, recognising that, in today’s world, all companies need to innovate, if they are to avoid becoming inefficient and irrelevant.
As such, the site will house start-ups, scale-ups and established corporations. And the focus is not just on innovation but on collaboration too: collaboration between members; collaboration with nearby schools, colleges and universities; collaboration with local authorities, communities and service providers. In short, Plus X will create a rich ecosystem, centred on Brighton and the surrounding area. To encourage wellness, we will also offer mental health training to members, helping to build their resilience during challenging times.
Our highly curated approach is expected to deliver societal value far beyond that of conventional offices or shared workspaces. Independent consultants RealWorth estimate that Plus X hubs will deliver 160 times more socio-economic impact than traditional office blocks and 16 times more impact than simple shared offices.
These figures reflect the many ways in which Plus X is different. Plus X hubs will actively seek out, support and retain entrepreneurs, thereby helping talented people to stay where they have chosen to live or study and create world-class businesses. Plus X hubs will support scale-ups, whose development has often been neglected to date. Plus X hubs will foster innovation by encouraging companies large and small to learn from one another. Members will be selected on that basis and will also self-select. Young start-ups will benefit from the knowledge imparted by more established firms. Larger companies will benefit from the dynamic, risk-taking culture of the start-up community.
Just weeks away from opening, the signs of this symbiotic approach are already apparent and will become embedded in Brighton and elsewhere.
A product design graduate from the Sussex University, for example, has just won the Plus X Brighton Disruptors competition, focused on eco-inventors. Lucy Hughes has pioneered a way of turning fish waste into plastic film substitute and her prize is six months work space at Plus X Brighton. She has now set up a company, MarinaTex, which has the potential to make a global environmental impact. In the process, she can boost local confidence, employ local people and help put Brighton on the innovation map.
At the same time, larger businesses are applying to join Plus X Brighton, from manufacturers to professional services firms.
As businesses develop and expand, local communities will benefit from employment and up-skilling opportunities, bolstering regional productivity and economic growth. Partnerships have already been established with local authorities, grant providers and educators. More will follow.
But Brighton is just the beginning. Plus X Powerhouse in Hayes will open later in 2020, providing a larger, specially designed and more productive space for members of the Central Research Laboratory and others. Other locations will follow in Greenwich, Mayfield, Manchester and elsewhere.
These are all U+I regeneration sites. Over time, however, the concept will be rolled out more widely. U+I remains a key investor but Plus X is now an independent business and talks are already underway with local authorities, developers and universities across the country.
Their interest is logical. In the UK, only 5% of the workforce is employed within the high-tech space, compared to 30% in the US. In the UK, productivity is sluggish, lower than any other G7 nation. In the UK, economic activity is centred on London, particularly in the technology field.
Yet there are signs of change. According to the 2019 State of European Tech report, investment in European tech has more than tripled over the past four years to $113bn. The UK is at the forefront of this fast-growing industry, luring more capital, establishing more young tech companies and creating more billion-dollar businesses than any other country in Europe.
Plus X can help to accelerate this growth still further and encourage business creation across the country, boosting citizens’ quality of life and wellbeing. Rooted in local communities, Plus X hubs will foster technological innovation and support exciting businesses nationwide, regenerating towns and cities and creating high-quality, high productivity jobs.
When innovation and collaboration collide, great things can happen. That is the Plus X vision. Businesses need it, the country will benefit from it and Plus X have the tools and expertise to deliver it.