Have we held three Tech Nation Talks events already? Our series of online sessions connecting (and shining a light on) the UK’s tech sector are running at full speed, with the South West playing host to our latest panel discussion less than 24 hours after an insightful and engaging Tech Nation Talks: North West.
Mike Jackson, Tech Nation’s Director of Entrepreneur Success, and a familiar face in Bristol’s tech ecosystem, kicked off proceedings with an overview of Tech Nation Report 2020’s key findings. Following on, South West Entrepreneur Engagement Manager Vicky Hunter placed the region’s digital tech activity under a microscope before handing the (virtual) mic to our three panellists.
Companies in the South West of England attracted £300m of VC investment in 2019 – equal to the South East and more than the Midlands (and Wales), but half of that seen in the North West. In total, £438m was invested in emerging tech between 2015 and 2019, of which £346m was invested in AI. It was revealed that Bristol, a driving force in the sub-sector, is in the top 10 European cities (coming eighth) for investment into emerging tech – which spans AI, robotics, cybersecurity, blockchain, Internet of Things, VR and AR. London and Cambridge are the only other UK cities to feature in the top 10.
With the scene set, 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 tech sector.
‘A big sense of community’
Founders in the South West feel a strong sense of connection to their region. Our panellists hailed the support provided prior to (and during) the pandemic by organisations such as TechSPARK and Engine Shed. “I’ve never felt more Bristolian despite not being from the UK,” said Zara Nanu, founder of Applied AI 1.0 alumnus GapSquare. “A big sense of community has been built around here – hearing other people’s stories is so important in both helping to overcome a crisis and build a business.”
Jenny Hall, Chief Marketing Officer at Fintech 1.0 alumnus LOQBOX, anticipates that her company will always have a physical presence in Bristol. “When we started, we actively took the decision to not base ourselves in London,” she said. “Being based in Bristol is a big part of our culture and it’s something that we want to protect.”
At the same time, Jenny sees a future where companies will increasingly adapt their culture to remote working, allowing teams to achieve work/life balance while taking out less office space in the process. LOQBOX is a case in point, having hired a new CTO based outside of Bristol.
In addition to helping with hiring, a remote-first world could unearth more opportunities from further afield. “I’ve never been connected to more people on a global level than I have in the past few weeks – particularly America,” Jenny said. “What’s becoming important are connections and relationships – and they don’t need to be physically based anywhere.”
In contrast to Tech Nation Report’s findings, a comment made by a viewer on Hopin (the platform hosting the event), suggested that Bristol’s “small” investor community places the region’s founders at a disadvantage. In response, former Reach Robotics co-founder and CEO Silas Andekunle said that an increase in virtual events post-coronavirus could help connect investors with companies looking to scale.
“The more unicorns and exits there are, the more you’ll have an angel network able to reinvest back into the ecosystem,” he said. “It takes time, which is why it’s important to build on our collaborative and supportive foundations as we grow. That way, we’ll have a much stronger unique selling point compared to other places.”
Unsurprisingly, considering the world is experiencing a pandemic, resilience has been a recurring topic at Tech Nation Talks events. Incredibly, Jenny built hers in 2017 by sailing 48,000 nautical miles over 12 months to complete the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race. The punishing schedule, which involved rotating in four-hour shifts to sleep and sail, was only half the battle.
“The mental side of it was like nothing I’d ever experienced – it was prime training to come and join a startup in Bristol,” she said, smiling. “With 20 people sailing to keep each other alive, as well as being competitive in a race, you learn about working with and building tolerance of others.
“All these things that you need in business come out – from having commitment to setting really clear goals, roles and responsibilities. There’s an interesting dynamic in being safety-first while also wanting to win.”
For Zara, resilience has been about finding a sense of purpose for GapSquare. The workplace equality software company has diversified some of its services, offering them on a ‘pay what you can’ basis to help businesses solve issues particularly pertinent during the pandemic – from pay fairness and workforce management to fostering productivity, loyalty and trust.
“I think this is a period when businesses that are driven by passion and purpose are going to be the ones that survive the crisis,” she said. “They will be the ones that help us reshape and reset the world in the way that we want to see it past COVID-19.”
Reinventing the impossible
Founders whose companies don’t survive long enough to see the end of the pandemic could take inspiration from Silas, whose company Reach Robotics went into administration at the end of 2019.
Describing last year as “super tough – almost impossible”, he says that the pandemic has offered a silver lining in that continuing into 2020 would have been “unfair” on his team and investors. Now, he’s grabbing the opportunity to launch a new cloud infrastructure-focused robotics company with both hands.
“While it’s a very challenging time that will be unfair to so many amazing businesses, many great new companies will be created,” he said. “If growth can’t happen for your company right now, it’s the perfect time to take a step back and look at how you can build your product.”
With a thirst for exciting emerging tech, a supportive community and companies that are proud to call the region home, the South West has built solid foundations to develop a digital tech ecosystem that has the potential to thrive.