Sea, sand and silicon

Devon and Cornwall – for so long dependent on tourism – are now attracting significant investment from the information and communications, biotech and renewable energy sectors. Tim Richards reports

These are interesting times for commercial lawyers in Devon and Cornwall. Commercial work in the region is becoming ever-more exciting, with the recent trend toward knowledge-based firms specialising in areas such as renewable energy, biotechnology and the creative industries showing no signs of slowing down.

Indeed, the opposite is happening. Microsoft’s strong interest in the region is a case in point. The IT giant recently helped to set up and participated in a summit of leaders in the local information and communication technologies (ICT) sector to discuss its vision of the South West becoming ‘the new Seattle’.

ICT framework

The South West Regional Development Agency (SWRDA) sees ICT as highly significant and the summit discussed the agency’s draft framework for the development of the sector in the region. The finalised framework is due to be published in May.

The vision is for the region to be in the vanguard of the UK’s ICT sector, a project that will require significant public and private investment. Government and private finance is being poured into an area ripe for development. During December 2005 alone, the region saw 22 inward investments, with a capital investment of £176m. Similar figures were recorded for January 2006.

Science parks

Plymouth’s Tamar Science Park and International Medical and Technology Park are thriving, and plans are in place for the development of a science park in Exeter. Biotech research is on the increase. This has been assisted by the unique partnership between Exeter and Plymouth Universities and the NHS in Devon and Cornwall to create a new combined medical school – the first new medical teaching school in the country for more than 30 years.

A strong research base is fundamental to the project and has the potential for commercial spin-offs. Local universities are really taking advantage of their knowledge base in order to create and work with start- up companies, many of which are already showing signs of success. For example, Auxetix, a spin-off from Exeter University’s highly rated Innovation Centre, recently attracted major funding from Lacomp British Enterprise EIS Fund. The centre also has a number of other companies in the pipeline and this sort of development is expected to continue. Exeter University has a very entrepreneurial mindset and has recently invested more than £20m to create five new research centres.

Renewable energy

Renewable energy is an area in which the region excels. Wind farms are appearing across Devon and Cornwall and more are proposed, while the region’s universities are leading research into ocean-wave energy generation. Grants and private finance from both local and international providers are helping to expand wood-energy businesses. the SWRDA is also investing in the ongoing development of this area.

Recently, several major local law firms were involved in a management buy-in to Becosolar. The company specialises in the design, distribution and installation of solar power systems (partnering BP Solar). The deal ensured that ownership of the business will stay in the region. It was backed by the venture capital fund Finance South West, in what was the £18m fund’s first equity deal.

Another recent deal involved the Twofour Group, one of the largest broadcast television and corporate communication producers in the UK. It chose Plymouth as the site for its new headquarters and completed a seven-figure investment deal.

The growth has been aided by record levels of young people moving to the region, which is now really beginning to build on its unique assets of climate and natural beauty. Immigrants are attracted by a better work-life balance in an attractive environment and, in the case of business, a good, stable workforce that is less expensive than in other parts of the country.

Law firms are now succeeding in persuading local graduates to stay in the South West to build their careers. While previously there may have been a perception that the best work happened outside the region, it is now easier to demonstrate that it is possible to live a balanced lifestyle while not compromising on the quality of the legal work undertaken. Local law firms advised on the above deals and it is now rare for a South West business to feel the need to seek legal advice from outside the region.

Tim Richards is head of IP at Michelmores in Exeter