Conurbations are funny beasts. Take Greater Manchester for example. On the surface it appears well connected, with good public transport links giving people in its satellite towns easy access to one of the UK’s most thriving, important cities. Yet it’s easy to feel detached from all the action if you’re out in one of those small towns just 10 or so miles away.
Oldham was once a proud leader of global industry. It was early to embrace the Industrial Revolution and was hailed as the most productive cotton spinning mill town in the world at one point. Like many similar Northern towns, it faced decline in the late 20th century as textiles work moved overseas and there was nothing quite so lucrative ready to take its place.
It would be easy to write a town like Oldham off as a lost cause, but its leaders aren’t going to let that happen. At an event today the message was clear – Oldham isn’t going to sit back and play second fiddle any longer.
The future is open
One key part of this thrust of ambition is a new space due to open early next year, called Open Future_North. Operated by Telefonica’s globally respected accelerator offshoot Wayra, it will offer co-working space and a ‘pre-accelerator’ programme to give local tech entrepreneurs the knowledge and connections they need to compete globally from the town.
As Wayra’s UK director Gary Stewart noted at today’s event, talent is spread equally in a country, but opportunity is not.
He’s right. As tech becomes a key part of everything, the idea that technology companies have to be based in one of a few ‘hub’ cities around the world is not only outdated, it’s complacent. There’s room for companies from anywhere to succeed if they’re given the right support.
That’s what Wayra aims to offer in Oldham. Stewart said that the company hadn’t planned to do anything like this until they were approached by then council leader and now local MP, Jim McMahon. McMahon had seen a real opportunity to help kickstart more entrepreneurship in the town.
What Wayra will offer, supported by Oldham Council, is a pre-accelerator programme for a small group of startups, as well as co-working space for more. The pre-accelerator will offer mentoring, access to Wayra’s network and connections, and training in entrepreneurship and business skills. There’s also the opportunity to be invited onto Wayra UK’s main accelerator in London.
The first startups to take advantage of this programme in Oldham are:
- OfferMoments: Personalised advertising designed for retail environments. Just last week, this team was a winner in the Duke of York’s Pitch@Palace competition.
- iMechanic: A service that describes itself as “the future of diagnostics” for car mechanics.
- Metafused: A service to improve marketing performance by using social media data to assess potential customers.
- Tickets for Good: An event ticketing platform with charitable giving built in.
- Jobskilla: A startup that aims to be the first place unemployed people look to get the right skills to get them into work.
Into the fire
The Duke of York was in attendance at today’s event. He talked about the importance of supporting entrepreneurs all across the country, not just in London, Oxford and Cambridge. However, he made the point that entrepreneurs shouldn’t become too comfortable in their nurturing environment. Getting used to discomfort and challenges is a key part of entrepreneurship, said the Duke.
That point is important. Simply giving tech entrepreneurs a bit of advice and some office space isn’t enough – they need to be thrown into the fire of the global tech world to prove they can survive and thrive. Wayra, with its global reputation and connections, is an ideal partner for the town to work with.
Too many towns set up technology office spaces and immediately declare themselves ‘the new Silicon Valley.’ Oldham is going about things in a far more realistic, but simultaneously ambitious, way by giving its citizens a credible launchpad into the global tech market.
120 years ago, a company called Ferranti was born in Oldham. It later went on to produce the Mark 1, the world’s first commercially available computer. This year, the now Belgium-based company made a timely return to Greater Manchester. The Mark 1 won’t be Oldham’s only major contribution to the history of technology if Wayra, and the town’s ambitious leaders, have anything to do with it.
Wayra’s Open Future_North is a partner of Tech North’s Northern Stars competition.