Tech Nation Talks Yorkshire: productive and upbeat amid Covid-19 concerns

Kane Fulton, April 21, 2020 3 min read

Following a morning that saw the Treasury announce a significant intervention to support lending to start-ups and early-stage scaleups, Tech Nation kicked off a newly virtual Leeds Digital Festival with an online event called Tech Nation Talks Yorkshire.

Hosted on Hopin, a UK-based online events platform, the hour-long event was introduced by Tech Nation’s Head of Entrepreneur Engagement Liz Scott.

It led into a panel session moderated by Yorkshire Entrepreneur Engagement Manager Jem Henderson that saw founders and stakeholders from Leeds’ digital tech ecosystem discuss challenges and opportunities facing the city and county.

Additionally, stats were shared from our latest annual state of the nation report, titled Tech Nation Report 2020: UK tech for a changing world. The event followed a recent roundtable that saw topics discussed by leaders in tech from across the region. Here, we’ll shine a light on insights from both events.

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 tech sector.

Positive about productivity

Digital tech companies turned over nearly £4bn in Yorkshire and the Humber last year, making a huge local and national economic contribution. The region, which employs more than 53,000 people in digital tech, boasts higher than average productivity per worker (£115,000) compared to the rest of the UK (£99,000).

It was questioned why Yorkshire’s digital sector is thriving when it comes to productivity, as other stats tend to show it as having generally lower productivity rates across the whole of the economy compared with the rest of the UK.

Eve Roodhouse, Leeds City Council’s Chief Officer for Economic Development, said that Leeds’ tech sector’s willingness to collaborate formed one explanation. “We’ve worked on many things together for years – from Leeds Digital Festival, which has found a way to go ahead during the lockdown – to Fintech North,” she said.

Zandra Moore, CEO of Upscale 5.0 cohort member Panintelligence, likened the city’s size and geography to “a big village” – something that helps people connect and easily signpost one another to investors, advisors and other useful contacts.

Coworking conundrum

It was recognised that Yorkshire’s tech ecosystem – from Leeds to Sheffield, Hull, York and Barnsley – is markedly different to five years ago. The emergence of new coworking spaces and accelerators, in addition to other programmes for early-stage and scaleup digital tech businesses, has seen the landscape evolve.

Coworking spaces across the region were highlighted as essential drivers of productivity, which allow digital tech workers to “engineer serendipity” and are “vital to creating a vibrant digital sector.”

Eve noted that despite being less than a year old, Leeds’ R&D innovation space Nexus – which is home to Tech Nation Rising Stars 1.0 companies Vet AI and Antonym ­– has already become ingrained in the city’s tech scene. The high-growth companies located there are responsible for attracting a sizable chunk of the region’s overall VC investment.

However, despite an “explosion of activity” in Yorkshire’s coworking scene, the implications of Covid-19 has meant it’s not all positive news. One roundtable delegate, who is currently overseeing an extension to a coworking space, said that the pandemic had unsurprisingly delayed plans to get its hard infrastructure in place.

When the topic turned to digital skills, it was suggested that the digital tech sector could attract skilled individuals from other sectors who are looking for a new challenge after being furloughed – especially if they have been mistreated by their employers.

Covid-19: concerns and opportunities

When asked what they would like to see happen in the region once the sector emerges out of lockdown, our panellists spoke of a desire to build on existing collaboration efforts.

One highlighted of an opportunity for Leeds’ digital and legal sectors to collaborate, while another suggested an “almighty party” to help the sector restart quickly. Companies, it was said, will need to re-think go-to-market strategies, product ideas and ways that the city can build on its existing strengths in digital.

Antonym CEO Revaanth Murugesan called for Leeds to aspire to become more recognised on the international stage through exchange programmes after his company participated in the MIT Reap programme. “I once told someone from Australia that we’re running an autonomous vehicle company, and they asked us if Yorkshire has waterfalls,” he said.

In offering advice to get through Covid-19, Eve encouraged founders to think about how they might pivot to respond to rapidly changing conditions. “We’re seeing businesses who pivoted their model shoot through the roof,” she said. “If you already have an idea, think about how it might fit into the current climate.”

Eve gave the example of a Panintelligence customer called Every Angle, which pivoted from footfall monitoring for stores to adapting their software for social distance monitoring.

“There are six people in that business working with Cisco at lightning speed,” she said. “They don’t always need to be well-funded, crazy ideas ­– it can be a partnership that gets off the ground quickly.”

While there was a sense of ‘wait and see’ regarding how the sector will bounce back from the pandemic, our Yorkshire event delegates remained quietly optimistic about the future.

Community, Yorkshire