Tech Nation Talks Midlands: down to earth with a bright digital future

Kane Fulton, June 2, 2020 5 min read

The sixth in our series of online events held to bring the digital tech ecosystem together, Tech Nation Talks: Midlands marked the halfway point of our virtual tour of the UK.

Last year, we hosted an animated panel session that heard how towns and cities in the region – such as Malvern and Nottingham – are innovating in sectors including cybersecurity and fintech respectively. Strong opinions were voiced, with one panellist declaring that Birmingham’s tech ecosystem had “finally woken up” and was beginning to live up to its potential.

Fast-forward 12 months, and Covid-19 is requiring digital tech founders to be alert in more ways than one. Many are in survival mode, including two of the three founders on our most recent panel who pivoted to serve a rapidly changing market.

Before we begin, we would like to thank our partners Openreach and Barclays for supporting our Tech Nation Talks events. Both are pivotal in supporting digital businesses through the provision of valuable infrastructure, and in championing the UK sector.

The event was opened by Tech Nation’s Director of Entrepreneur Success Mike Jackson, who highlighted innovative companies in the region – from Coventry-based online doctor consultation service GP Doctor to Leicester’s LoyalFree, whose app helps shoppers find local deals and information on retailers in towns and cities.

Naomi Nash, our Entrepreneur Engagement Manager for the Midlands, followed with an overview of the region’s performance. Tech Nation Report 2020 showed that digital tech companies in the Midlands attracted £200m of VC investment in 2019. And between 2015 and 2019, £9m was invested into emerging tech, of which £6m was invested into AI companies. The Midlands is home to two digital tech unicorns and three high-value tech scaleups.

Results of a poll conducted with event attendees

A pivotal moment

So, how are companies in the Midlands coping in the current crisis? LoyalFree pivoted from taking consumers on guided trails of shops across 15 towns and cities to helping them instead retrieve practical information – such as which retailers are open, delivering, or currently have offers.

It also brought forward an ecommerce marketplace that it had been developing to help independent retailers and the leisure industry. Businesses can use the platform for free to sell everything from gift vouchers to “experiences” (such as a cocktail masterclass) which can be enjoyed post-lockdown.

“People have more disposable income as they’re not going on holiday, and we wanted to lock that spend into local independents which, after initial concern, people are realising will make it through the crisis,” said cofounder and CEO Sophie Hainsworth. “We took it to market in about a week, which is probably why I have huge bags under my eyes!”

As a result, LoyalFree has signed up five new towns and cities and is looking to expand its team. The company has doubled down on digitising its processes to take advantage of its existing remote working practices.

“Six weeks ago, I would have probably been crying about what I’ve been doing with my life, and now I think the business is in the strongest shape it’s ever been in,” said Sophie. “Covid creates such uncertainty for everyone, but if you’re a business owner then you’re used to that. It’s just life, isn’t it?

“It’s made us more digital, using Zoom instead of driving four hours to meetings, which makes you question the way you were operating your business before. It’s been really motivating while reminding me why I love doing this.”

Sophie, who spoke on mental health and business at TEDx Leicester, hailed the city for its “down to Earth” people and central location, which makes travelling to Southampton or Scotland similarly affordable. Recruitment, on the other hand, is a challenge.

Highs and lows

Suzanne Edwards, Founder/Director at Tamworth-based Enlighten, called the pandemic a “double-edged sword” for her augmented reality (AR) solutions company, which specialises in the practical application of AR in education; training; marketing; education and mental health.

Enlighten has provided resources for the West Midlands Combined Authority’s mental health toolkit, and it has also provided guidance and resources to the South Korean government for development of its mental health strategy.

While the business has seen an increase in enquiries for its e-learning solutions focused on remote working and staff well-being, fewer have come from small businesses who may perceive emerging technologies as, “a luxury they can’t afford”, said Suzanne.

In a similar manner to LoyalFree, Enlighten has catered for its existing clients by amending its AR platform to provide them with Covid-specific isolation support resources – some of which have been supplied by mental health charities – free of charge. This has been added to existing AR experiences so clients don’t need to reprint support materials.

In looking to the future, Suzanne is hopeful that her company will continue to employ within the Midlands to help it grow. She sees a “really bright” future for digital tech companies in the region on the back of opportunities including the Digital Catapult’s 5G Testbed Accelerator Programme and the 2022 Commonwealth Games. On an ecosystem level, she praised work by networking group Silicon Canal and Bruntwood’s Innovation Birmingham Campus.

“I think that with a little bit more investment, the opportunities for small tech companies to grow is immense – and it could really put the region on the map,” she said. At the same time, Suzanne is concerned that not enough is being done to take advantage of emerging tech in the region, pointing to Tech Nation Report 2020’s stat that shows “only” £9m was invested in the area in the second half of the previous decade despite a significant spend nationally.

“It seems to be a very small amount, and with the 5G testbed implemented, it’s a real wasted opportunity unless that can change quite significantly over the coming years,” she said.

Finding opportunity

Sticking to the theme of opportunity, Go Bookey founder Richard Bookey is confident that there’ll be plenty of it for digital tech companies that have “strong and adaptable” business plans. “Crucially, it’s about understanding what people want and need in post-Covid Britain,” he said.

Go Bookey helps businesses acquire customers by operating as their marketing arm. Having seen the company’s revenue drop sharply in the first week of lockdown, its founder began to think about which sectors have a bright future – and how their businesses can capitalise. Some of his US-based clients, he revealed, have been less affected by the downtown.

“When consumer and business behaviour changes, there’ll be an opportunity for those companies that can provide either utility or entertainment in this world, and whoever can figure that out first is going to succeed,” he said.

A Tech Nation poll conducted during the event showed that 42.9% of attendees plan to prioritise recruiting new UK customers in the next six months. That was followed by growing the team (28.6%) and improving cash flow (28.6%).

“Tech companies now have a much larger potential target market,” Richard added, addressing how social distancing has accelerated consumerism. “My 78-year-old dad is now attending webinars and playing bridge online. The poll results show that we are well-positioned to use our imagination and entrepreneurial spirit to capitalise on these new opportunities.”

Richard called for the Midlands’ tech community to lead the charge in finding a way to cope with the pandemic and put the region on the map. “It’s great that we’ve got the investment infrastructure, skills, training and government support here, which is all fuelling the growth of this critical sector,” he said.

Community, Midlands