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From Romans to Ruby on Rails, an insider’s guide to York’s tech ecosystem
York may conjure up images of history and chocolate, but there is a lot more to the city than Roman forts or Terry’s All Gold. Bubbling away just under the surface is a thriving technology ecosystem which is gearing up to compete with larger neighbours such as Leeds and Newcastle.
As you can tell, the writer of this article has a deep love for York and the wonderful tech community that is being built here. This is my attempt to provide a (hopefully) reasonably comprehensive view on what’s going on in the city and why York should be on your tech radar.
From humble beginnings to tech unicorns
York has been a technology hub since the early 90s when York Science Park served as a catalyst for a number of tech startups.
Some of the early companies that came out of this period include Piksel, which still designs and builds video solutions for global clients including Virgin and Sky. Revolution Games, founded in 1990, also achieved international success from York with their acclaimed Broken Sword series.
Tech unicorn Anaplan also started off in the city in the early 2000s and has now grown to over 20 locations around the world, reaching a billion-dollar valuation after raising Series E in 2016.
The fusion of entrepreneurialism and academic research also generated early tech success. University spin-out Cybula was founded by Professor Jim Austin to develop commercial applications for high-performance pattern matching and continues to have a close working relationship the Computer Science department at the University of York.
Education with an entrepreneurial vision
For a city of just over 200,000 people, York is lucky enough to have two leading universities – York St John and the University of York, alongside a large number of highly regarded schools and colleges.
As Andy Theyers, co-founder of York-based software development and cloud consultancy agency Isotoma, says: “York University was one of the most forward-thinking when it came to the Internet – every student was given full internet access as far back as 1988.”
Working with employers to design courses fit for modern-day work, York St John has recently introduced new degrees in Data Science, Software Engineering and Games Design.
Both universities have extremely well-regarded computer science degrees and produce world-class graduates across the sciences, arts and humanities, many of whom are looking to stay in the city and develop their careers here. This continual access to graduate talent drives the heart of York’s tech economy.
There is also support available to entrepreneurial students from both universities, ranging from office space and mentoring to pitching competitions and challenges.
As someone who got support for her first startup from the Enterprise Team at the University of York as a student, I can wholeheartedly say that York is an extremely welcoming place to come to study and found a tech business at the same time.
The original home of travel tech
Once home to the largest train station to the world, York has been at the centre of travel innovation for over 100 years. Building on this heritage, the city has become a hub for a newer generation of travel innovations, both from startups and established players.
For example, the software used in over a billion engines worldwide is developed here in York by ETAS, a subsidiary of Bosh who are about to move into brand new offices in the south of the city.
My own employer, Netsells, a technology development agency that works across web and mobile, is also leading on a number of travel technology fronts, from developing the back-office platform and mobile applications behind the YourParkingSpace platform to building Railguard, a delay repay startup that’s shaking up the rail industry.
Medieval to modern mercantilism
Again reaching out into the city’s historical past, York has always had an entrepreneurial Spirit. Craft Guilds such as the Merchant Adventurers (the proto-venture capitalists of their age) fed a vibrant economy which traded with the far corners of the globe.
More recently two of the biggest chocolate brands of the twentieth century were born and bred in the city, starting out from small city-centre shop-fronts and factories by the River Ouse.
While York may not be able to compete with the sheer scale of Manchester or Leeds, that’s what makes it stand out.
It’s small enough to be a city that works on the human-scale – which gives it a strong advantage when it comes to harnessing the power of networks and personal connections.
The tech community here is close-knit, held together through meaningful relationships and shared knowledge. Businesses and educational establishments in the city also understand that their success comes from working together to attract staff and drive inward investment.
What York lacks in size, we make up for in raw talent and a long history of entrepreneurial endeavour. If that’s not enough of an argument to consider founding or moving your tech company here, we also have over 365 pubs.