Bus tour finds tech enterprise thriving

Tech Nation: National enterprise campaign StartUp Britain hit the road again this summer for its bus tour, as part of an effort to boost the nation’s startup rate to 600,000 in 2015. Tech business featured heavily, as Kosta Mavroulakis and Josh Neicho report. First published in TechCityInsider.

Across 2015, TechCityinsider has been on tour, visiting 21 key tech business clusters across the country, meeting 200 people who are helping to redefine digital Britain on the way.

This summer, StartUp Britain set out on its own tour of the UK, its fourth since 2011, in board an iconic 1966 Routemaster bus.

After a prime ministerial launch from Downing Street, StartUp Britain had experts on hand at 28 city locations across the country, looking to support many thousands of aspiring and early-stage entrepreneurs with free mentoring, workshops and guidance on starting or growing a business.

As Tech City UK’s Tech Nation report demonstrated so clearly back in February, the technology startup phenomenon is truly UK-wide. TechCityinsider’s tour has set out to pursue the detailed stories inside the regional business clusters.

It’s by the nature of the sector that the map is changing rapidly and the strength of any one ecosystem is a matter for hot debate. What that should hopefully signal to policymakers and investors is the extent of opportunities, and the diversity of ways to skin the cyber cat of Britain’s tech entrepreneurial infrastructure.

At StartUp Britain we worked hard to set up dozens of local partnerships, including with tech organisations like Bournemouth Silicon Beach, while tech entrepreneurs like Oliver Mochizuki of Bristol-based FundSurfer.com acted as mentors on the bus.

The opportunities for the local partner organisations and the entrepreneurs supporting the campaign to meet and network with each other proved as important a part of the tour as the delivery of free business mentoring.

Right across the country, we met entrepreneurs and other leading figures on the tech business scene, from Nick Sturge of the SETsquared incubator, based at the Engine Shed in Bristol, to Rick Messitt, client director of Dundee-based digital agency Zudu.

Bus Tour tech highlights

Colin Tan started RentLord in Manchester because “the North is a great place to live and work” and because for business in the digital age, “geography is less important, but community [still] is.” Andrew Jervis, co-founder and CEO of ClickMechanic.com, which started life in Manchester, calls it “the ideal place for any tech startup to get going. It’s got some great programmes and networks ranging from the Masters of Enterprise at the University to the SpaceportX space in the Northern Quarter…an abundance of talent, a close network and very affordable house and office rentals helping you keep that all important burn level down!” Young tech founder Tony Xu visited the bus. With Perfocal he has created a peer-to-peer platform to connect photographers and their clients, and he wants to give back to aspiring entrepreneurs. Other tech players and activities include UP Accelerator, Accelerate ME, Drinkabout Manchester and Manchester Inward Investment. An Entrepreneurial Spark hatchery and a fintech accelerator are soon to land.

Sheffield was a special bus stop to help launch the fifth annual MADE Festival to educate and inspire thousands of entrepreneurs, taking place in October at Sheffield City Hall. We had a regional partner in the Dotforge impact accelerator for social tech ventures, which works in partnership with Yorkshire-based Key Fund, the UK’s largest social investor by number of deals and part of the Cabinet Office’s Social Incubator Fund. The Dotforge programme is now expanding into Manchester, based in Central Working and the Barclays Escalator. Other players in the tech scene include Sheffield Digital Campus and Electric Works. Tech startups coming out of Sheffield include The Floow, Deliverd, Receptive.io, PiP Payments and Mobile Power.

Meanwhile down the motorway in “data city” Leeds, Dotforge is soon to open an accelerator to create tech companies to address the needs of the health sector. The launch of Google’s Digital Garage project at Leeds Dock earlier this year, as part of its multi-million pound initiative to help 200,000 British businesses learn digital skills, will soon be followed by the opening of Sky’s digital hub. RoundFoundry, Duke Studios, Leeds Data Mill, Leeds Hack and Open Data Institute Node are all further evidence of a rising cluster in the city.

Newcastle, where the bus looked like a toy vehicle parked under Grey’s Monument, is home to a blooming software development and gaming industry, support organisations such as Campus North, North Star Ventures and the DIBI Conference, and one of our tour’s sponsors, Sage. With a £1.3bn turnover, employing 13,000 people worldwide and delivering its software to 800,000 UK companies 34 years after it was founded, it has blazed a trail for today’s Newcastle-based tech startups. Down the road in Middlesbrough, Digital City is expanding its network of attractive work and live-work spaces for digital and creative entrepreneurs with incubation, project and informal space in Boho Five in the Middlehaven regeneration area.

Liverpool has had one of the lowest rates of business formation in the UK until now, but for the tech sector that is starting to change, thanks to organisations such as Baltic Creative, the Santander incubator, Liverpool Vision and Liverpool Chamber of Commerce’s SparkUp Accelerator. Latest addition to the ecosystem is the Launch22 Liverpool co-working space, which recently opened in the city centre, offering a large hot-desking area, a rooftop garden overlooking the city, indoor swings and beds for those wanting a nap. Among the startups based in Launch22 are Innovators Hub – which works with leading digital companies to create paid internships for young talent – New Collective and World Merit.

At the other end of the scale, Birmingham saw 18,337 new businesses registered in 2014 according to the StartUp Britain tracker – an increase of 2,000 on the previous year and more than any other UK city outside London. Initiatives like Innovation Birmingham, Entrepreneurs for the Future (E4F) and BSEEN and Oxygen Enterprise partners drive the process onwards. One recent Brum export is Joel Gascoigne, who after being aided through early business steps as a University of Warwick student by Warwick Entrepreneurs Society, built the popular social media management tool, Buffer, and is a vocal promoter of the lean startup movement. Gascoigne has moved Buffer to the US, where he employs a distributed global team of 35 people and has achieved $6.8 million annual revenue, but enthuses that Birmingham is a great place to start out and grow. “There’s so much happening now. There’s everything you need right here to be able to create a startup and get customers, there’s a big market here and you test things out and make things happen”. A more recent Warwick graduate, Henry Jinman, says Birmingham is “fast becoming the home” of his crowdfunding and support organisation CrowdFund Campus, thanks to free office space provided by Entrepreneurial Spark. Startups seeking to be the next big thing to emerge from Birmingham include Droplet, Hopper, Whisk and Virtalent.

The StartUp Britain Bus Tour ran between June and August. More highlights to follow.