Meet the UWSP Team – Dirk

Pictured: Dirk Schafer (left) with Simon Davis – Nimbus Property Systems


Job title: SME Engagement Lead

How long have you been at UWSP?

I have been here for 20 years full time. I did a work placement first in 1998, but then returned, and have stayed here ever since.

What did you do prior to joining UWSP?

I am originally from North Germany, from a city called Luebeck, which is close to Hamburg, and the Baltic Sea coast.

I studied business at a university in Bremen and as part of the course we had to do a placement in an English-speaking country abroad and that is how I came here to the University of Warwick Science Park.

I was interviewed and a couple of weeks later I was on the plane to the UK. I was here to work in Techmark, which is about helping UK companies export, primarily to Europe.

At that stage my English was good enough to get me through the interview and to start work – but clearly it is much better now. I imagine I must have sounded like a robot, using terminology that no English person would actually use but by immersing yourself into the language and country it quickly developed!

The placement was for six-months, before I returned for my final year to finish my masters degree in Germany.

During the placement I met my now wife. She is French and was working at the University of Warwick as a teaching assistant and we lived together in a shared house behind where Central Six now stands.

We were going to make sure we got to back together no matter what, so when I finished my studies, I put the feelers out to the University of Warwick Science Park and by coincidence they had an opening.

The rest is history!

North Germany and the UK have a lot in common so, apart from the language, it was not a huge transition. The sense of humour is similar and the way of life is similar too, so I did not really have to adjust. Even the weather is very similar – and I think the UK has less rain than its image would have you believe.

I think over the decades of living here I must have gone native as I now appreciate the custom of drinking builders’ tea!

Sum up your day-to-day responsibilities:

Today I am head up Techmark, which is the technical marketing agency of the University of Warwick Science Park and our access to market activity, which is a key pillar of what we deliver to help businesses grow.

I deliver market development projects for innovation-led businesses. They can be launching a product, requiring feedback about a product or service before launch and we carry out work which basically brings them closer to their target markets and, to put simply, points them in the right direction

Techmark is a consultancy service which is open to any company, not just tenants, on a fee-paying basis. It has evolved over the years but still addressees a real need as launching a new activity or product without suitable knowledge and access to the correct markets is a point of weakness for many companies.

Through Techmark we work with businesses from the UK and overseas to help them develop their domestic or foreign markets. We have worked with businesses from all parts of the world in Europe, the US, Australia and anywhere in between, At the moment we are delivering a UK Market Access project for participants in a scale-up programme in Cork in the Republic of Ireland which I am delighted about as it reinforces ties between the two countries in the time of Brexit.

I also run the Science Park’s start-up incubator service called Ignite, which is a programme of support and physical space for tech-based start-ups with high-growth potential that we nurture in the park and give them the best possible start. Although we are owned by the University of Warwick, this programme is open to any local start up but we are also supporting a number of exciting spin outs from the University of Warwick at the moment.

The Science Park and University take a long-term view on running an activity like this because start-ups don’t tend to have the necessary funding to be able to afford an office or a

business mentor. We are doing this to help and to do our bit for the local economy by subsidising start-up offices and business advice for companies that need it the most. The payback comes later for us as start-ups are the scale ups of tomorrow.

The model has worked as we have had many very good successes, which have turned into much larger, successful companies that became commercial tenants of the Science Park and went on to scale and become larger businesses

In addition, I am a Business Growth Advisor on our Business Ready support programme, and I lead on the access to markets and the access to incubation side. We are helping high-growth, high-tech companies with long term support which also includes support in skills and knowledge and access to finance support.

I also lead on the marketing of the park – focussing on the digital side of things. As a Science Park we operate in a competitive space where it is no longer enough just to do a good job, you have to shout about it or you get lost in the noise. Everything gets measured these days which then feeds into our impact reporting and the systems that enable us to do so.

As you can tell this keeps me busy and I am grateful to make my mark on so many activities of the Science Park. Anecdotally, I have started to refer to myself as the Swiss Army Knife of the Science Park due to the many areas I am covering.

Has Covid-19 seen an increase new ventures?

Historically, economic declines have seen a rise in start-up activity but it is a little early to say that at the moment. We need to see if the increased level of enquiries will translate into solid activity.

A place like ours is always a lagging economic indicator – and it may be a year before we know that for definite. In the recession of 2008, we did not feel a great impact on the Park until one or two years later so with furlough still in place along with some other restrictions, we will have to wait and see but overall the economy seems to be recovering ahead of expectations which is encouraging.

Certainly, our centres are a lot busier now as companies phase themselves back into the offices and some companies never left.

Which companies are some of UWSP’s biggest success stories?

There have been so many companies over last two decades that I worked with and that went on to do greater things.

Lyra Electronics, now based at our Wellesbourne site, certainly spring to mind. They specialise in power electronics for electric and autonomous vehicles. They are highly innovative and their products are often first to market.

They are very much seen as at the forefront of their industry and we have been with them all the way as they went from incubator space at the Venture Centre, to Blythe Valley Innovation Centre and then to Wellesbourne and they are continuing to grow rapidly.

Freestyle Games is another company that comes to mind that were later bought out by Activision and then Ubisoft. They are the company behind the Guitar Hero game and are one of the success stories of the digital gaming cluster which is so strong in this area.

One company that graduated from our incubator four years ago is Nimbus Property Systems. They are rapidly expanding, employing over 30 people in our Innovation Centre in Warwick, and are growing at a rate of around 100 per cent per year.

Nimbus are pioneers in property technology and developed a rich information platform for landowners.  Apart from combining different property information data sources in one searchable platform, their knowledge of the property industry helped them present that data in a meaningful and digestible way.

There are many other companies that started their journey with us such as We Are Digital, Petshopowl, Rant and Rave, Embed as well as many others and I am proud to have been a part of that journey.

Where do you live?

We live on the Leek Wootton side of Warwick – close to the Saxon Mill which is a good thing!

What do you do away from work to relax?

Away from work we love hiking. We walk locally as well as further afield – next week we are heading off to the Lake District.

My wife is from the French Pyrenees, and her parents live in Pau where there is an airport which is really handy, so once or twice a year we head out there

We have family there, in Paris and also back in my home and other parts of Germany so we probably get out to see them three times a year which keeps us fairly busy as well.

My father was a carpenter and this is where I have my passion for woodworking and general DIY from. At the moment I use a table and mitre saw and have quite a bit of equipment – but it is never enough! I have a proper equipped shed, that was one of the first improvements we made when we moved into our current house.

I had a few student jobs as a carpenter and as a shopfitter and I just love working with wood. Things don’t always turn out as they should, but it’s about more than that for me.

During lockdown I have also rediscovered going fishing, which is something that helped me stay sane and I will probably continue with this as a hobby going forward.