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UCLAN - Northern Lights

Background & Context


Type of Project


New build - Media Factory


Start/End Date


The Northern Lights initiative was launched in 2006 - and business incubation facilities were housed in classrooms on the main UCLan

campus in Preston.


The Media Factory building was completed in September 2007 and officially opened in January 2008.


The University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) has been acknowledged as one of the country's most entrepreneurial and business friendly universities.


The Northern Lights Enterprise and Business Support Programme has been a pivotal part of UCLan's vision for national and international recognition as a leading University for enterprise.

The development of the Media Factory was undertaken to provide a facility with the dual purpose of helping students nurture their creative talents, whilst also providing a base where fledgling local businesses could be incubated and grow


Case Study tags: university of central lancashire, new build, learning spaces, business start-up, north-west england, business and community engagement (bce)higher education 


UCLan's remit for employer, business and community engagement.


The success of this remit can be illustrated by the results of the 2010 Higher Education Business and Community Interaction Survey (HEBCIS) (which reports on the level of knowledge transfer between universities, businesses and community partners) which placed UCLan top in the North West of England and fifth in the UK for generating start-up businesses. The HEBCIS data for 2007/8 showed that UCLan supported regional regeneration projects to the tune of £6.47 million. It also indirectly contributed close to £250 million to the North West economy as a whole.

In 2010 UCLan came top in the North West and fifth in the UK for generating student start-up businesses. Out of 300 registered student start-ups in the University at the time of the HEBCIS Survey, 131 had been established in the previous year alone. A significant number were housed within the Northern Lights business incubation unit at the Media Factory.


The survey results revealed that UCLan provided over 100,000 learner days to businesses in 2009. This placed it in the top five nationally. The survey also placed the University in the top four nationally for the value of its consultancy services to small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs), based on the advising of 422 businesses at a value of £2.35 million.


UCLan provided £12.5 million worth of Continuous Professional Development (CPD) courses to industry in 2009 and offered £6.1 million of consultancy to 889 businesses.


Also in 2010 UCLan, working in partnership with three other universities (Northumbria University, Manchester Metropolitan University and the University of Salford) was awarded a Times Higher Leadership and Management Award for Outstanding Knowledge Exchange/Transfer Initiative for an initiative called Urban Regeneration: Making a Difference.


The four partner institutions were responsible for delivering the Making a Difference initiative which involved over 200 academics in the tackling of a variety of social issues in Preston, Salford, Manchester and Newcastle.


The universities and their academics worked with 621 organisations on more than 46 projects tackling community cohesion, crime, health and encouraging enterprise. It was reported that a total of 1,265 community training days were provided by the collective with sessions covering social entrepreneurship, leadership and business skills. The initiative resulted in the creation of 81 new jobs.


What is it?

The Building

The Media Factory is a state-of-the-art development that makes a striking addition to the Preston skyline. The building houses an impressive array of specialist rooms and equipment which includes; a fully-equipped television studio, a sound stage, 3 theatres, 2 photography studios, dance/rehearsal studios, recording studios and editing suites.


Business and Community Engagement


UCLan has been quick to realise the importance of supporting students in their transition from university to industry, and the Media Factory provides support for students in the creative and digital sector with the additional benefits provided by the business incubation space on the top floor of the Media Factory.


Northern Lights


The Business Incubation Unit, known as the 'Northern Lights' Enterprise and Business Support Programme is a pivotal part of UCLan's vision to be 'recognised nationally and internationally as a leading university for enterprise'. (Source: UCLan)


The programme was launched in 2006 and aims to develop entrepreneurial graduates and, through working in partnership with other agencies, support enterprise development across the North West of England.

Northern Lights is based on the fourth floor of the Media Factory. The Northern Lights suite comprises of individual office units ranging from 19 to 55 square metres and a spacious open plan work area and provides a full-service facility for student and graduate entrepreneurs, including hot-desk, rent-a-desk and self-contained business units, as well as access to networking opportunities, specialist advisers and one-to-one mentoring. The variety of accommodation available means that different budgets of a wide range of start-up and early stage businesses can be accommodated.


The facility is accessible 24/7 and offers clients access to PCs and internet connections, the 'Northern Lights' mentoring programme and the 'Sandbox' ideas centre.


Other Facilities


The Media Factory also includes the £4.5m Centre for Employability Through the Humanities, established as a Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL). This was the only 'designated centre of excellence for employability in the UK's creative & digital sector' featuring its own publishing house, theatre space and art house cinema. These facilities help support 'Realistic Working Experiences' (RWEs) offering a range of opportunities to help students develop their employability skills.


What happens in the space?


A range of companies, involved in a variety of work areas, operate within the space; including in - TV, filming, eating disorder consultancy, vehicle tracking technology. The general breakdown of primary activity of the companies operating within the space is roughly 70% creative/30% other.



The space is supported by a small Northern Lights team numbering 6 people.

The support programme and facilities available to users include:

  • Access to business workspace, including 'hot-desk' and 'rent-a-desk' options
  • Use of computers with broadband access
  • Telephone, fax and printing facilities
  • Bookable boardroom/meeting room
  • One-to-one business mentoring and group learning sessions
  • Networking events and opportunities
  • Business competitions
  • Enterprise and Business Skills workshops
  • Awards and recognition



A range of workshops run throughout the year to help entrepreneurs develop their business skills through the "Managing Your Business" series of events which includes topics such as:

  • Business Foundations
  • Tax and Insurance
  • Finance and book keeping
  • Intellectual Property
  • Legal issues
  • Marketing
  • PR, networking skills and sales training
  • Clients on the programme can also tap into the Enterprise workshops which look at developing the individual and personal skills of would-be entrepreneurs.



A team of in-house mentors and support from a wide range of private sector partners provide support through 1-2-1 mentoring, action learning sets and specialist advice clinics. Expertise within the team covers a wide range of areas including:

  • Risk management
  • Strategy
  • Continuous improvement
  • Coaching and Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP)
  • Process analysis and design
  • Presentation skills
  • Confidence building




The team at Northern Lights recognises that establishing and developing businesses can be quite a lonely experience and, in order to combat this there are regular networking events organised in the space at the Media Factory which give entrepreneurs the opportunity to both meet and share ideas with other entrepreneurs and also to meet with potential new clients, suppliers or collaborators.


There are also social activities, for instance mulled wine and mince pies at Christmas and cake and coffee events. Peter Rawling, Business Incubation Manager, reports that generally there's enough going on in the space to encourage contact with others so there isn't the need to push too much to socialise, it tends to happen organically.

A Boardroom is available to clients at no extra cost. It tends to be very busy. There is currently a good spread of use across companies. There are also meeting facilities available in the open-plan space. Noise can be an issue in the open-plan space at times.


Further details on the space


Film of official opening

Media Factory vodcast

The Media Factory Virtual Tour (see from 4 minutes 42 seconds for overview of the Northern Lights). Produced in-house by Media Technician Marcus McNulty (graduate in Film and Media at UCLan) - music provided by Verbal Vigilante, a business located at Northern Lights.

Northern Lights Client Directory

Northern Lights has the following business national and regional affiliations:

UKBI - The professional body for the UK Business Incubation Industry.

NWIN - The North West Innovation Network, representing all organisations hosting and supporting business innovation in the North West of England.


Funding Sources


The bulk of the £15 million costs of the development of the Media Factory were met by UCLan itself, with additional funding as follows.


The CETH (Centre for Employability in Humanities Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning in Employability on the 3rd floor of the Media Factory was established as a result of funding from HEFCE.


The Northern Lights Project was part-financed by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF).

Northern Lights has also been awarded a small pot of funding from the local council that funded 31 non-digital companies.


The Northern Lights facility is part of UCLan's Knowledge Transfer activity. The Knowledge Transfer Service coordinates funding received via HEFCE's Higher Education Innovation Funding. The careers, placement and knowledge transfer and related functions at UCLan have been brought together under an umbrella section called Futures.


Knowledge Transfer team helps to promote funding opportunities at UCLan and beyond, including Enterprise Awards, NWDA Innovation Vouchers (to help Northwest business owners, entrepreneurs and social enterprises to purchase UCLan's expertise to develop innovation and enhance business), and the j4b database (European grants, UK Government grants and other sources of funding for business).


In the 2010 HEBCIS survey Higher Education Business and Community Interaction Survey (HEBCIS), UCLan's Knowledge Transfer Service was recognised as coming top in the North West for securing regeneration grants from the UK Government and in the top two nationally for successfully obtaining funding from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF).


Northern Lights Fees


Hot desk - free.
Rent for other desks - £60 per month.
Units - cover service charge.


Cost of project


The Media Factory building cost in excess of £15 million. The building was part of a rolling multi-million pound capital development project at UCLan.


What technology is being used and how is it being used?


The space provides printing, faxing and copying facilities and high speed Internet access. Desktop machines are available and users can also bring in their own laptops.


There are a number of technology-enabled Business incubation Pods in the main open-plan flexible space. The pods have been produced by Volume Products of Huddersfield. The 'macropods' are a self-contained pod, which opens up into a screened working area, with space for a computer, accessories, documentation, storage and electrical connections, all built into the framework. When the user is finished with their tasks for the day the pod can be closed and locked, without the need remove the computer, unhinge shelves or make any other physical adjustments to the pod. (Volume Products is now part of Orangebox International)


IT Cluster Groups are a joint initiative with Business Link. Groups are based at the 3 campuses in Preston. Lancaster is also involved in the initiative. Burnley has 6 desks, Whitehaven 4 offices and 12 desks.


Sustainable Technology


The Media Factory benefits from Solar Photovoltaic panels - a green way of generating electricity from solar radiation.


How does the technology add value?


The technology provides the users with a degree of flexibility. Users are supported within the comfortable incubator space area but can also work remotely from other locations as a result of internet facilities.


What makes the space successful?




The space is backed by business organisations such as the Institute of Directors.


Sarah Booth, Chair of the Lancashire Branch of the Institute of Directors, commenting on the facilities at UCLAN: 'Business incubators such as the Media Factory must be supported, as setting up a company is a daunting prospect for any graduate - but may also be one of the only options available to them in the current economy. The North West has a rich heritage of strong companies and business personalities who have made their mark through the media sector and the work of UCLan is nurturing the next generation of talent.' (Source: UCLan hailed as business friendly by national survey. 27 July 2010)


UCLan's Northern Lights Enterprise and Business Support Programme came runner-up at the 8th Annual SFEDI (Small Firms Development Initiative) Advisory Board UK Enterprise Training and Support Awards in 2010.

SFEDI is the UK Sector Skills Body for Enterprise and is dedicated to bringing enterprise know-how to enterprising people across the UK and internationally and its awards showcase the individuals and organisations which have done most to help start-ups, the self-employed and small business owners.


The Northern Lights Enterprise and Business Support Programme was placed second in the Enterprise Training/Support Organisation of the Year category.




Northern Lights receives regular local press coverage and has a good national profile too. Northern Lights is second in the UK for longevity of businesses within similar University-run spaces.




Whilst the space is located on the fourth floor of the building it is easily accessible via lifts.


Space - 24/7 access is available to users of the incubator space. The building's general opening hours are from 7.30 am-8.30 pm Monday to Friday. Incubator clients have authorised swipe access beyond standard visiting hours. All incubation facilities are open extended hours. Northern Lights' clients can also use specialist rooms at weekends. Also users can have 24 hour membership card to university facilities- and can borrow up to 4 books from the UCLan library.


The spaces within Northern Lights offer a mix of social and formal environments. The main space is large and flexible with a variety of furniture that is easily stackable, moveable, comfortable and practical. There is formal, private and informal space for meetings. Clients in the main space work in an open area where networking and discussions are easily established and encouraged. Refreshments are available close to the space. The kitchen facilities are part of the open plan area adding to the general buzz and warmth of the space.


Support and Activity within the space


One of the business advisers is a strategy specialist with a wide experience of consultancy in private sector. Not everything is provided in-house - the incubator space also has a co-location agreement with Business Link who provide a Clinic every fortnight.


Private sector support in the space includes advice and guidance on Patents, Intellectual Property and accountancy. Regular 'market day' events are held which are supported, and attended, by local commercial enterprises including banks.


The region has a high growth programme.


Northern Lights holds a Business of the Month Competition every month with a £250 prize. The competition is open to anybody registered. There is also an Investment Scheme with a £1500 prize - this is supported by a joint endowment fund with BNFL/UCLan. The Northern Lights works very much as a community - cross-trading, networking. There are even examples of companies merging, for instance the vehicle tracking company merged with a web company - web interface - there was lots of synergy - so 2 small units were made into 1 big unit.


Access to other University Resources


As well as using Library facilities, registered clients can also use other facilities including Media Factory sound stage, recording spaces, and photography provision.


Companies using the Northern Lights space have used placement students from UCLAN to support particular activities.


Teaching staff - there is a division between academic and start-up activity. The Knowledge Transfer, marketing and start-up expertise come from a bigger team - Enterprise and Employability, consisting of 120+ staff, with 2 dedicated mentors within the team. Also Business Support Administration gives guidance and financial advice, and other support. One-to-one support has been found to be very labour intensive so support activities have moved to one to many to cover clients.


University Activity around Enterprise


Intellectual Property Exploitation - there is now a Specialist in post at UCLan. There is a move towards developing spin-out opportunities. The opportunity is run as commercial project. UCLan Business Services Ltd - the university's trading arm - academics can licence software, etc, so not in space as such.


Entrepreneurship - enterprise embedded in much of curriculum - role of Futures specialist modules. Starting a business - most of new courses at UCLAN have an enterprise element to them. There are business enterprise-related extra curricular activities available too including the Flying Start event and business games.


UCLan has an enterprise project champion working to embed enterprise into the curriculum. Northern Lights and students and staff enter national and international competitions. For instance, Northern Lights worked with 4 fashion students on a business plan competition in China.


What principles were behind the design?


The main principles are based around the supporting of the transition from study to industry. The University is rightly proud of its growing success in this area and the links that it has forged, and is continuing to develop, with businesses and the community.


UCLan's model for sustainability supports the activity at the Media Factory. The building has green and sustainable aspects including The Solar Photovoltaic panels for the generating of electricity from solar radiation.


What is innovative about the design? And use of the building?


The use of creativity throughout the space - both within and outside of the building.


The Media Factory is a bold and distinctive building in the middle of Preston. It has a striking grey and lime green colour scheme making it stand out in its urban surroundings.


The environment within Northern Lights reflects the creativity within the Media Factory as a whole and the interests and talents of the client base. The displaying of artwork is a key element of the presentation of the space. A picture rail was hung around the top of the walls throughout the open plan space so that artwork and posters can be displayed without the need of nails, pins, screws, etc. One of the Northern Lights clients is a curator, Tony Knox and he has liaised with local artists to provide artwork to display. Once a month at networking events the artists are invited to come along.


View the Incubation Gallery website


Top Tips


Pilot your ideas first - so that you can learn and develop before moving to larger projects. Northern Lights started out in much smaller teaching space on the UCLAN campus before taking up residence in the Media Factory.


What changes have you made as a result of receiving feedback?


There had been some teething issues around some areas of IT within the space but a robust IT infrastructure is now in place.


Lessons Learned


The internet connection was not as robust as it could have been at the start which resulted in some of the companies making their own internet arrangements.


Anything else you wish to add


There was a pilot space in a teaching room (size approximately 35 square metres) set up with smaller pods. A dozen companies helped to work out what was needed for the new building. A small cohort from the pilot then moved into the new building.


Contact Details


Peter Rawling, Business Incubation Manager, Northern Lights Team


Further details

Peter Rawling
Business Incubation Manager
Northern Lights Team
Media Factory, 4th Floor Business Incubation Space
Knowledge Transfer
University of Central Lancashire
Preston, PR1 2HE

Telephone 01772 895950
Email northernlights@uclan.ac.uk


Case study written March 2010.