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The Old Vinyl Factory becomes a major design incubator

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The ground-floor of the Old Vinyl Factory in Hayes, West London, which was at the forefront of UK technological development for much of the 20th century, has been reimagined as an incubator space for start-up product design businesses. The site was originally owned by EMI records, and was also home to the company's R&D department, the Central Research Laboratory, which developed technologies such as radar, stereo sound and, in the early 1970s, the CT scanner for medical imaging. This ground-breaking heritage is being honoured by Cathedral Group and Development Security, which is turning the site (which eventually became a business park, and was acquired by the group in 2011) into a mixed-use development, with buildings taking on names such as “The Shipping Building” and “The Record Store.”

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The site is still mostly under development, but the ground-floor space has already been reborn as the NEW Central Research Laboratory. CRL programme director James Nettleton said of the project: “We’re reigniting an amazing heritage brand. The old Central Research Lab was effectively the experimental R&D division of EMI and HMV when they were the world’s most innovative technology companies. That’s an awesome starting point from which to build a new, innovative community of designers and engineers.” The CRL is backed by the Cathedral Group and is part of the developer’s ambitious plans at both the Old Vinyl Factory and the wider area. The focus on product companies is a clear way of tapping into the heritage of the old EMI development teams and the inventions they created on the site. The CRL team said: “Creating CRL has been about putting Hayes back on the map again as a hotbed of innovation in a special part of west London.”

The ground-floor of the Old Vinyl Factory in Hayes, West London, has been reimagined as an incubator space for start-up product design businesses

As well as its Cathedral Group funding, the CRL programme is also backed by Brunel University and the Higher Education Funding Council for England, who have helped to shape it. Alongside Nettleton, the executive team features non-executive director Daniel Charny, and former Design Council chief design officer Mat Hunter, who recently joined as strategy director. Operations director Ashley Sayed is a former head of design at Tom Tom and also once successfully pitched a product on the BBC’s “Dragons’ Den.” CRL has already brought in the first 11 start-up businesses to its fully-funded incubator programme, with these start-ups to receive access to the studio and equipment, mentoring and support and valuable industry help getting investment. They will all get to keep full equity and IP rights. Nettleton said: “We’re the only place in the UK that offers start-ups that design and make physical products a truly comprehensive support structure. It’s the comprehensive nature of what we do that makes us special.”

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As it grows, CRL says is also developing relationships with private investors, crowd-funding platforms and other financial support networks and also plans to rent out desks and spaces through a paid membership model. The aim is to eventually open a sort of campus for start-ups, catering for more than 100 designers, makers and engineers. Among the initial designers using the CRL space is Torsten Sherwood, who was a Design Museum Designer in Residence last year. He is working to develop the NOOOK modular construction, which he created as part of his Design Museum residency. Brunel University graduate Solveiga Pakstaite, who won the UK leg of the James Dyson Award last year, is also using the space, to develop a food label that degrades as food goes off. Jim Rhodes, Barney Mason and Jamie Wieck are using their CRL tenure, meanwhile, to develop “Woodpecker,” a robotic drawing system that draws and writes with pens, pencil and ink and has already been used as part of a rebrand project by Cullinan Studio.

CRL is currently focusing most of its efforts on the initial 11 start-ups, but as the programme develops, the aim is for CRL to grow with it

CRL is currently focusing most of its efforts on the initial 11 start-ups, but as the programme develops, the aim is for CRL to grow with it. Strategy director Hunter, said of the potential for the future of the programme: “CRL has made some great progress already in attracting a pilot cohort of ventures which is currently receiving support, next comes the work to evolve the long-term strategy and to grow the facility. Digital technologies have transformed the way in which we manufacture, finance and market physical products and it’s exciting to be constructing some of the support system that will help create a new generation of product businesses.”

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