It has been a big week for Cambridge Science Centre (CSC), a not-for-profit startup working to develop a permanent, hands-on science discovery centre in the centre of Cambridge.
Having brought on board a world-renowned name in the field and announced details of its first public event earlier this week, CSC - founded by Drs Chris Lennard and Katia Smith-Litière - is successfully converting potential into momentum.
Dr Goèry Delacôte, CEO of successful UK discovery centre, @Bristol and former executive director of the world-famous Exploratorium in San Francisco between 1991 and 2005, is as experienced and influential as figureheads come. As the new chairman of CSC’s advisory committee, it is hoped that he will attract more heavy-hitters to the cause.
Meanwhile, CSC’s first public event, Science Xchange, due to take place on October 23 and sponsored by Microsoft Research and Carl Zeiss will give it just the platform it needs to showcase its approach to potential partners, sponsors, funders and perhaps most importantly of all - the public.
And this is far more than just a bit of positive PR for the venture, because forward momentum of this kind is absolutely fundamental to Cambridge Science Centre’s business plan. Learning from previous failed attempts to set up a such a discovery centre in the city, CSC is taking a ‘modular’ approach, proving itself with a series of mobile exhibits and one-off events for the first two or three years before going for the grand prize of a permanent home in Cambridge city centre.
Having spent the past year or so planning, building relationships and even working in the odd road trip, CSC can look back on a job well done - but with many challenges remaining. That fact that those challenges are more clearly defined than they were previously and people both locally and internationally appear more than willing to help meet them, bodes very well for the future of informal science education in Cambridge.
"When I was a young kid years ago and far away in Australia, I thought of Cambridge as the pinnacle of worldwide scientific discovery, but when I first came here as a casual visitor it was not obvious to me where I could find out about it," said Chris.
"It's becoming more and more vital that youth is inspired to engage with science, connect concepts and have a space to create and use the advanced tools, products and services that will underpin the future economy. I want to create a physical and virtual space to help promote Cambridge as being at the forefront of public science engagement."
There is an argument that Cambridge has done more than any other city on the face of the planet to push back the boundaries of science, but for most visitors - and even residents, engagement will most likely come via a punt chauffeur or tour guide. Cambridge Science Centre wants to change that by providing year round hands-on activities, showcasing the rich scientific history of Cambridge and relating that to current active technology and science research and development.
So while inspiration for the Centre is the world-class science and technology that continues to flow out of Cambridge, the template is definitely the Exploratorium in San Francisco - as it is for most other such centres around the world. Founded in 1969 by Dr Frank Oppenheimer, the Exploratorium continues to attract major investment and lead the industry in informal science education.
To have the backing of the former executive director of the Exporatorium - an introduction brokered by the Exploratorium itself - is as powerful an endorsement as Cambridge Science Centre could have wished for, Chris says.
Over the first two years of operation, the Cambridge Science Centre will host temporary exhibits in different locations around Cambridge. Its new website will flag up where to find the next exhibit and also offer related online content throughout the year helping schools and the public stay engaged before and after their visit.
But the grand vision is for a permanent base in the centre of Cambridge, with reconfigurable science exhibit space and lab and a local workshop to develop and build exhibits: “In 2014 / 2015, following extensive experience in exhibit development and hosting and the results of a full and objective feasibility study, we hope to open our exhibit and public lab space year-round,” Chris said.
The space will accommodate a range of evening programmes for primarily adult audiences; support a web studio and content management programme; and an educational outreach and exhibit exchange programme. CSC will also host a café and gallery space to link science and arts and draw in a wider audience.
To accommodate a central location, the centre will be housed in a relatively small space in science-centre terms of around 1000sqm, 500sqm of which would be exhibit space. CSC intend to host focused short-run exhibitions to keep the space vibrant for locals and visitors to Cambridge alike, as well as enhance the opportunity for exhibit exchange with other science and discovery centres.
Around 4 million people visit Cambridge annually to experience its rich cultural heritage and it hosts the largest annual science festival in the United Kingdom for two weeks in March. However while Cambridge currently supports several excellent museums it has no centre focused primarily on hands-on public engagement with the sciences.
THE BUSINESS MODEL
Financial viability will be achieved through mixed income: admissions, programme fees, corporate sponsorship for the centre and exhibits, educational grants, location rental (e.g., corporate and parties) and annual profits gifted from on-site retail sales.
“We recognise that it is a tough economy, both in terms of competition for government grants as well as a general concern about economic growth for the UK and Europe. However, from our wide-ranging discussions since the beginning of this year with teachers, researchers, the public, corporations and funding organisations, the general level of interest in a science centre for Cambridge is very high.”
CSC believes its model of operating as an exhibit organisation through to 2013 offers a low-cost way for it to develop its exhibit style, the reputation for the centre, the critical support network, and operational experience needed for it to prepare for a centre to be open year round.
“Cambridge has a wonderful set of research and object-based museums. We see this network as crucial to the story of scientific discovery which can support the hands-on experiences that the Cambridge Science Centre will offer,” Chris said.
CSC sees the other museums in Cambridge not as competition for the attention of potential visitors, but rather as a potential source of them, as well as an adjunct to its own activities.
The partnership approach has served CSC extremely well so far and remains a vital thread in its long-term plans: “We would like to promote existing Cambridge museums by linking our exhibits to their displays. We’ll handle the ‘messy’ side. We believe the museums of Cambridge combined with the Cambridge Science Centre makes for a rich ‘museum day’ experience, and an alternative or complement to a day of shopping with the kids,” Chris said.
Founders, Chris and Katia had independently worked on the idea of a science discovery centre for Cambridge before being introduced by a key member of Cambridge AWiSE in April. While Cambridge could undoubtedly support one such centre, the case for two of them, competing, is considerably less compelling. Fortunately, the pair found that their visions coincided, their skills complemented each other - Chris is an engineer and Katia a life scientist - and they formally joined forces shortly after meeting.
As a former director of marketing at the services division of Cambridge semiconductor giant, ARM, Chris brings with him considerable marketing skills and experience and as co-founder of multi-partner standards organization, The Spirit Consortium some real nous in the not-for-profit arena.
With a PhD in Plant Biotechnology, Katia conducted research into cell polarity at the Gurdon Institute, Cambridge, before spending 8 years as a technology and innovation consultant at PA Consulting. Katia is also a founder member and chair of the Cambridgeshire branch of the British Science Association giving her considerable hands-on experience with science outreach.
CSC has successfully secured funding for the Science Xchange event showing corporate interest in the initiative and the management team is now working to secure £250,000 to cover the 2012 operational budget. This includes development of an interactive web presence and content development in support of Cambridge Science Centre programmes, funding for a small team with offices and infrastructure, marketing and design, and an independent 3rd-party market study into the feasibility of a science centre for Cambridge.
Making use of strong local enterprise networks such as the Cambridge Network to assist in kicking off these commercial discussions is key to the next stage of development for the centre, Chris says.
While it has laid down a rough timetable for the opening of the dedicated space, it has not yet publicly announced the amount of the capital development fund it will need to raise to cover that development. This, Chris says, is because there are many factors that will affect that final figure based on size of the site, location and the potential to partner with other Cambridge-based science outreach organizations. However, Chris noted that he would be very happy to walk through details of various options with potential funders.
If it is a space for Cambridge Science Centre to occupy on its own, the chances are that an existing building can be retro-fitted to meets its needs. The price tag of such a development would be not inconsequential but much smaller than for a purpose built facility incorporating organisations like local fab-lab, Makespace - which CSC is already partnering with closely.
Given CSC’s track record in building bridges, the smart money has to be on the latter.
One of the star attractions at Science Xchange will be the Cambridge machine, a huge multi-player chain reaction. Here's an explanation:
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