City analysis: Newcastle community and networks key to tech success

Kane Fulton, June 28, 2018 4 min read

As Tech Nation on Tour comes to Newcastle, we’ve heard from a panel of local figureheads about the issues affecting the North East’s tech ecosystem.

There’s drive to thrive

We heard that the North East is well-equipped to deal with challenges ranging from skills to diversity and finding investment thanks to the region’s support network of organisations and welcoming tech community.

That was the sentiment shared by the panel at the latest Tech Nation on Tour event, which noted the region’s traditionally strong business support while recognising an opportunity for tech in the region – described by one panelist as “currently a bit of a niche” – to thrive.

There was recognition and appreciation for the work previously carried out by the Newcastle-born Ignite accelerator, which was based out of the Campus North coworking space. One panelist saw the advent of EU Jeremie funding as one potential way to make up for any momentum lost by its closure.

David Dunn, CEO at Sunderland Software City, said:

“Five years ago the sector was mainly made up of clever tech people who built shiny products but didn’t know how to sell them. Now it’s more people coming out of a business with a black book of contacts who are spotting a problem and an opportunity to sell, but they can’t build tech. Rarely there’s the co-founder in the middle who knows about both the tech and business side of things.”

Starting startups

At the same time, active organisations such as Newcastle Tech Trust, Sunderland Software City and the upcoming North East Futures UTC were held up as examples of support to new startups in the region. Colin Tan, director of operations at TusPark, which hosted our event, announced that one floor of the building would become a Barclays Eagle Lab.

The region has seen no shortage of startup births in recent years. The number of digital tech businesses started in Newcastle soared by 154% from 2011 to 2016, according to research from Tech Nation.

Some 134 digital tech businesses were founded in Newcastle during 2016, the fifth year to see an acceleration in the number of digital tech businesses started in the city.

Tech clusters are springing up in other cities in the North East region as well, with digital tech jobs growing on average by 13% across the region. The number of digital tech jobs in Newcastle grew by 8% in 2017, by 12% in Sunderland and by 19.5% in Middlesbrough.

Jo York, Newcastle Tech Trust steering group member and co-founder of Ricochet Technologies, said:

“The North East has a great track record of helping businesses. Ignite was a huge part of my learning, and a key part of that was the exchange of ideas from peers. We’re trying at Newcastle Tech Trust to bring together that peer support where anybody who has a tech startup can come to us to say ‘How can I do this?’, ‘Why is this going wrong?’ or even ‘I’m having a hard time’.”

No daft questions

In Tech Nation Report 2018, tech workers based in the North East voted the region’s helpful tech community as the number one reason to start a tech company, with second named as proximity to a university.

One panel member who came to the UK five years ago said that they felt like an “adopted Geordie” who could lean on the region’s numerous support systems while “asking the silliest questions without being judged”.

Newcastle Startup Week, which sees its sessions run by those in the local tech community, was praised for its inclusiveness and efforts in shining a spotlight on the region’s tech sector.

Doubling down on diversity

The panel was asked for its thoughts on how to increase diversity in tech companies after research by Tech Nation revealed that that 19% of the UK sector’s workforce are women.

We heard praise for North East initiatives Tech For Life (run by the team behind Campus North) and Sunderland Software City’s Go Reboot. A desire was expressed for more female leadership programmes, in addition to ones that pair entrepreneurs with experienced mentors.

The upcoming mentor programme set to launch at the NE Futures UTC will also play a role in “inspiring 14-19-year-old students and breaking down the stereotype of the traditional ‘white 50-year-old male in tech'”.

Ravneet Kaur Sahni, Co-Founder at Equiwatt, said:

“We need to have a broader perspective bringing in people of colour and age – including millennials – to tackle all the kind of unconscious biases we have in the tech and digital industries. I think we are working towards it, but it is a barrier and can be intimidating when you are in a room full of investors who are middle-aged white men. It’s great to be sitting here on a panel that features three women.”

Jenn Hartley, Head of Tech Sector Strategy, Newcastle City Council, said:

“I think across the region we have a diversity and skills problem, but there are pockets of activity that are massively inspiring and really helping. It’s no secret these days to know that being more diverse brings greater productivity.”

Community, Data & research, Newcastle, North East, Tech Nation Tour