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Bionow Cluster Programme

Connecting businesses to grow together

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This case study is part of Place Spotlight, which supports local areas in successful place making by taking each of the each of the eight components of great places and provides criteria for good, great and exemplary performance. Bionow demonstrates what place making means in practice and provides an exemplary example of performance under the Economy component.

Find out more about Place Spotlight and how it can help you make great places.


Nurturing new industry and specialism is increasingly seen as a priority to drive economic growth. Great places do not exist in isolation – they work alongside their neighbours to pool skills and attract additional investment.

Through the Bionow Cluster Programme, the North West Development Agency (NWDA) developed a thriving regional community of commercial and research organisations in the biomedical sector.

The programme is an exemplary example of economic development, and links to a number of the other elements of great places:

  • Governance – bringing public and private sectors together on a programme of co-operation and joint development, promoting the region as a venue for new investment
  • Transport and connectivity – using web technology to share knowledge, build networks and promote co-operation across professions and specialisms
  • Equity – promoting enterprise and new job opportunities in a region with a large number of deprived neighbourhoods
  • Services – improving the quality and coherence of industrial and business support services, helping institutions exchange knowledge and leading to an increase in employment and business start-ups

As with its counterparts across the country, the North West Regional Development Agency (NWDA) has a remit to improve the economic prosperity of its own region. At the heart of its strategy lies an objective to nurture and grow core industries that already have a firm foundation on which to develop. Out of the six sectors that provide 55 per cent of the region’s Gross Value Add (GVA), biomedical offered a secure starting point with excellent prospects for growth.

Northwest England already benefited from both a thriving biomedical industry and world-leading research. Seven multinational drugs companies are based there. Manchester, the UK’s largest university, has half of its research dedicated to science and medicine. And the oldest school of tropical medicine in the world is in Liverpool. In fact Liverpool was one of the first sites to manufacture penicillin during Wold War II.

Despite a healthy footing, the NWDA realised that growth couldn’t be taken for granted. If businesses were to continue to improve productivity and growth, and the region was to encourage new companies to set up shop there, it needed to provide support. By creating a cluster network, it could bring businesses together to improve their skills and knowledge, in the first instance, just by talking to each other.

But that was just a beginning. Setting up a cluster network provided a set of challenges, not least drumming up interest in it; after all, what use is a network with no networking? However the opportunities to stimulate the biomedical industry and develop more valuable activity seemed too good to miss.


In 2000, Bionow was established by NWDA as a cluster development project. The aim was to bring the biomedical business community together through networking opportunities, with the aim of fostering knowledge exchange and partnerships.

Before launching into uncharted territory, the NWDA realised that building a greater understanding of who is doing what would be instrumental in helping the community develop. Bionow’s four-strong team – a small component within a larger business relations team – set about mapping the industry landscape.

It put together a printed directory designed to give a snapshot of every company that worked in the related industries of pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, medical devices and healthcare. The publication also included features and news of events.

With the businesses identified, it was able to provide them with information about each other. For the first time, business managers could see who else was working in the region, understand what skills were available locally and approach other companies to develop self-supporting partnerships based on complementary services.

The team created a comprehensive website and a monthly e-newsletter to keep subscribers up-to-date with what was going on in the industry and related businesses.

It found that face-to-face contact was an effective way to build relationships. So Bionow established a variety of events where business people could meet up with their peers. Quarterly networking events proved good opportunities for individuals to share and generate ideas; as were other conferences and workshops – which had short presentations from industry leaders. It also established an awards dinner – with sponsors – which recognised the projects and the people taking the industry forwards.

Bionow set out to create a dynamic and successful regional biomedical industry, which can continue to provide a generous contribution to the wealth and employment of the region, as well as being a major contributor to the industry across both the UK and the world.

To succeed the team drew on a range of skills. These have included project management, research, communication and running networks. Of course the team has also needed the skills and knowledge to run events that are stimulating, efficient and relevant to the audience.

Frequently though, it’s the intangibles that make a difference, for instance having an open approach to people skills – listening to members’ thoughts and concerns and being able to introduce them to other people in the network who complement those ideas. By drawing on all of these elements, Bionow has played an important role in stimulating knowledge exchange amongst the northwest’s biomedical sector over the past nine years.


Bionow’s efforts have helped nurture the growth of the biomedical industry, with some impressive results. So much so that the Department of Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR – now the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills) recognised Bionow as an example of ‘best practice’ in cluster development.

In 2008, Bionow commissioned a review of business activity in the area. This was benchmarked against a similar review carried out in 2002, when the figures were previously collected. The Northwest provides a base to some 230 biomedical companies, including seven multinational pharmaceutical firms, and a number of suppliers. These companies employ 25,000 people and are the highest exporters of pharmaceuticals in the UK (£3.4bn).

These numbers include some positive trends in growth: there has been a 61 per cent increase in the number of businesses established in the region. Employment has increased too, with approximately 4,000 new jobs in the area. There are almost 19,000 who work in the core biomedical companies, compared to 14,000 in 2002.

Lessons Learned

The benefits of networking. The combination of ‘cluster’ and ’sector’ is a very beneficial partnership. Forging connections to support knowledge exchange can bring unexpected results for the local business community.

Small teams can achieve a lot. It is possible to have a big impact with only a small number of people. The knowledge gained by Bionow has been fed into other areas of the NWDA.

Connected thinking brings success. Isolated success can be enhanced by a strategy that can ‘connect the dots’. Building networks and releasing information can help drive innovation.

Making the most of what is out there. Connecting universities and research institutes with businesses has created the opportunity for new ideas to flourish.


Geoff Davison
Northwest Regional Development Agency
Renaissance House
PO Box 37
Centre Park

01925 400 011

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