In May we embarked on Tech Nation Talks, an 11-date tour of the UK. At our series of events, more than 1,000 attendees heard how scaleups are driving UK global tech advantage, as detailed in Tech Nation Report 2019. In addition to looking at the big picture, we invited more than 40 panelists onto the stage to chat with our Entrepreneur Engagement Managers about the opportunities and challenges facing digital tech around the country.
We kicked things off with Tech Nation Talks North East at Proto in Gateshead, where most people’s glass was half full – and not just of tipple. “Our economy’s in the middle – some are better, some are worse,” said one panelist, who painted the region’s size as a strength. “We all talk to each other and have an opportunity to design the ecosystem in a way that large, fractured economies can’t.”
Collaboration was a key theme. “The dream is that you have an environment that feeds startups until they have product-market fit – it’s all about accessing the ‘hive mind’,” another panelist said, reflecting on the closure of the coworking space Campus North. Ignite was praised for sourcing seed capital for startups, while support organisations Digital Union and Sunderland Software City were commended for matching companies with global customers.
Specialisms could form key differentiators for the region, it was suggested, with AI, deep learning, VR/AR, health and assisted living hailed. “We need to tell a story, one with a narrative based on our geographical advantage that’s compelling and believable,” a panelist said, “then we can get the best companies in the world to come here.” Another maintained that a “big exit” was needed to move on the story, “but that’s out of our hands.”
An unexpected word was coined at our following event, Tech Nation Talks North West. “We should have Mexit – Manchester’s version of Brexit – to maintain our ties with Europe,” one founder said. “Assuming Brexit happens, we’ll see a big drain of EU tech talent out of London, which will pull people down from Manchester.”
Manchester’s tech economy is booming and positivity was in abundance at the event, with the region praised for its collaboration; strength of community; investment; and rapid city-centre development. Highlighted opportunities for improvement included digital infrastructure, public transport (to connect the entire region), and a renewed focus on digital innovation to create social mobility.
There was also a call for more collaboration between public and private sector in developing new scaleup programmes to create “greater impact”. When the conversation turned to investment, we heard a desire to fund companies located not just in Manchester, but across the region. One bank said that it needed more fund managers to execute deals on the back of £2.5bn available to invest in SMEs.
Travelling south, Tech Nation Talks South West took place in Bristol’s much loved Watershed. The conversation started on a positive note with quick-fire responses from the panellists on what they felt the South West, as a tech ecosystem, is excelling at. Collaboration was central to that, with praise for regional body Tech South West which was set up to showcase business and talent. “By connecting the South West’s innovation ecosystems, we’ll see a greater impact on the global stage,” a founder said.
The panel also tackled sensitive topics, such as a need for more candid conversations to be had about diversity. “Let’s talk about the elephant in the room – I’m possibly the only black woman here”, said Joyanne Boyce of The Social Detail. The topic was further discussed during the networking part of the event, highlighting different ways in which to allow those with disabilities or mental health issues attend and feel more comfortable at tech events.
Heading across the Pennines to AvenueHQ in Leeds, Tech Nation Talks Yorkshire decided to do things a little differently by inviting a startup founder out of the audience to join the panel after a no-show. And their first words were particularly apt. “Yorkshire folk are really trustworthy!” they beamed. “That’s a really strong cultural component that adds a subconscious credit to organisations based here.”
One guest was keen to point out that Yorkshire has strengths in “every kind of vertical – from fintech, healthtech and hardcore data to super creative and media-focused people.” They also called for a Yorkshire-wide mentoring scheme led by the private sector that would see successful founders help smaller companies, lending their advice and sharing successes and pitfalls. Additionally, a call was made to local government to take less funding from central government in return for greater devolution powers.
It was then time for Tech Nation Talks Northern Ireland. The event was held at Ormeau Baths in Belfast, a city regarded by one veteran founder on the panel as ‘the best place’ to get a startup off the ground thanks to its plentiful funding opportunities and local support. However, follow-on funding for scaleups – particularly from the $4m mark onwards – was deemed in short supply.
“London and Silicon Valley are stealing people from us because they have the scaleup capital”, one representative said. “We’re really an ‘ecosystem 1.5’ as, despite getting healthier, we’re still very young and need another decade or two to keep growing and have more CEOs who have been through the wringer.”
“What’s really missing is a culture of failing,” a fellow panelist chimed. “We don’t have that – there’s no real failsafe culture or mechanisms for entrepreneurs to fail, then start again and keep going. That’s where real innovation and experience comes in.”
Tech Nation Talks Midlands heard how places like Malvern are looking to specialise in cybersecurity and is attracting scientists at the forefront of ‘future tech’. Nottingham, meanwhile, is proud of its fintech founders who have grown, exited and re-formed companies in a bid to rub shoulders with local giants Experian and Capital One.
When talk turned to Birmingham, spaces like our host venue Innovation Birmingham were commended for helping organisations and “making entrepreneurs realise they don’t need to move to London”. The city “woke up five years ago and is going places”, according to one panelist who was “delighted” with Tech Nation 2019’s approach of comparing the UK with international competitors.
“I don’t differentiate between cities here because, as the report says, we’re competing on a global scale,” they said. “What’s the point in comparing Birmingham to Coventry and Wolverhampton? We’re all one and there should be collaboration going on across the cities.”
Tech Nation Talks South East came home to Roost, a social event space at the top of Reading’s Thames Tower where we held Tech Nation Talks for the second year in a row. A tangible desire to promote startup and scaleup activity was detected in the room, where it was declared that “corporates have hogged the limelight in the region for too long”. Praise was given to the the Thames Valley tech community, and quality of life was held up as a key factor for the founder of one tech scaleup that opened its global headquarters in Reading last year.
Heading across to The Bradfield Centre in Cambridge, guests at Tech Nation Talks East of England were buoyed by the news that Cambridge raised the second-highest amount of tech investment in the UK between 2015-2018. “From the research I read, there’s never been more capital in the market,” one panelist commented. “It means that entrepreneurs need to recognise they’re in a really competitive environment, so they need to get out there, network and evangelise their company.”
There was a political presence at Tech Nation Talks Wales, held at TramShed in Cardiff, where Secretary of State for Wales Alun Cairns MP delivered the opening presentation. A wide range of topics were discussed on the panel – including finding innovative ways to tackle the skills gap in the tech sector, which included an anecdote from Confused.com who helped turn a personal trainer into a developer in a year. Others included the needs of tech scaleups in the country (raising the question of whether specialist scaleup marketing should be a thing), and how to capitalise on the region’s tech strengths – from fintech and AI to cybersecurity.
Last but certainly not least was Tech Nation Talks Scotland, held at the University of Edinburgh’s Bayes Centre. A country with “open and authentic” people and a strong legal and regulatory environment, Scotland’s tech ecosystem has been boosted in recent years by exits from Edinburgh-based Skyscanner and Fanduel. As was alluded to during the panel, there’s much to be excited about in the region beyond those two ‘Unicorns’ and Steve Ewing, of Informatics Ventures, wrote up an excellent post-event SWOT (or is that SCOT?) analysis detailing the ecosystem’s strengths and challenges.
And so, that’s it for another year. To connect with our Entrepreneur Engagement Managers and stay informed of the latest news developments in your region, visit our UK Network page and click through to your location.
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