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Posted on December 1, 2016 by staff

Challenges facing Lancashire’s disparate tech community

Lancashire is 100 miles wide but has a thriving, if disparate, tech community.

Tech hub Cotton Court has been supporting young businesses for six years and currently works with around 100 organisations, from offering a mailing address to providing office space.

On top of providing cheap space, the idea was to give young entrepreneurs access to the fellow professionals they may need to do business with, says owner Rob Binns, whose team also mentors the businesses they come into contact with.

One business which started life there was Preston-based Vibe Tickets, founded by young entrepreneur Luke Massie, which successfully raised £600,000 via a crowdfunding campaign.

“It’s not just a business, it’s a community for sharing ideas and even when people have left they still work together,” Binns told BusinessCloud.

“The one thing with tech companies is that you can win clients but you don’t always have the skills you need to satisfy them, and it’s great if you can reach across the aisle and find someone to help you.”

Yet for all the good work that goes on at Cotton Court and in the wider county, Binns believes more should be more to promote those who reside there and attract investment.

“The one thing we’re not good at in Lancashire is saying how good we are at what we do,” he said.

“People are looking at asset finance, VC and angel investment and Lancashire doesn’t figure on the radar of a lot of private equity funds.

“You can have a start-up with a great idea but without the funds to deliver that and people don’t know which way to turn.”

Recruitment is another widely voiced issue and one that faces Preston neighbour Skiddle.

“Even though we’ve got a university on our doorstep we find it very difficult to get graduate developers through because they tend to graduate and then go off to other places – whether it’s back home or to London,” director Ben Sebborn said, adding that work may be needed from the universities to encourage their students to use their skills in the county they have studied in.

The business began in 2001 as a hobby project for Sebborn and Rich Dyer while at the University of Central Lancashire, starting as a website to promote events.

In 2006, the company was formed and began selling tickets as way of generating income, with the now-graduated Ben and Rich going full-time.

Today the business has 30 staff and purchased its own building two years ago in nearby Longridge. It grew organically over the years to encompass different cities and now classes itself as the biggest events guide in the UK. It also covers Ibiza and Croatia and, following a rebrand, has big plans to widen its reach overseas.

“We’ve got two million unique users a month on the website and that doesn’t include the app, which puts us within the top 250 websites in the UK,” Sebborn said, adding that Skiddle differs from other ticketing websites in the content that it offers and the way users can search for events they may be interested in.

In the north of the county, Lancaster University provides incubation facilities for tech businesses in its InfoLab21 and Lancaster Environment Centre and has supported and worked with around 5,000 in its lifetime.

Colin McLaughlin, technology transfer manager, is also working with schools to encourage coding through the BBC Micro:bit. He admitted there is a talent drain to other areas but the county still has a powerful tech community.

“We have had a number of strong, innovative businesses that have left Lancashire and gone to Manchester, which may not always be a bad thing because at least they’re staying in the North,” he said.

“For Lancashire the challenge is how we build an eco-system that creates what Manchester has, because when the BBC moved to Salford and recruited digital staff it created a skills shortage here.”

Part of the reason is that young tech firms are often run by young people who are “wooed by the bigger networking opportunities” elsewhere, McLaughlin said.

The university works with local tech firms, including some that have grown up at one of its centres, to offer internship and work experience opportunities to students to show them what’s available nearby.

He agrees with others that another issue is perhaps one of PR.

“There are lots of big interesting companies here but we don’t seem to sing about them and highlight the opportunities in Lancashire.”

One of those businesses which has grown from Lancaster University is NuBlue, a web design and hosting company and e-commerce specialist.

The business, set up by Michael Ashworth, started life in InfoLab 21 and now, with a workforce of 42, is in Lancaster city centre.
Ashworth praised the support from the county’s universities, including Lancaster and University of Central Lancashire, and the facilities available for start-ups.

“It’s a cheap way to start an idea and there are some interesting things going on in these spaces, with entrepreneurs and academics together,” he said.

Though there are like-minded businesses in Lancashire, he says partnership working is still lagging behind other areas.

“We have a community of tech businesses that exists but there’s always an invisible wall between a lot of them, they compete and we’ve not got a culture of collaboration,” he added.

“However, Lancaster is healthy and thriving and, for Lancashire, there’s a lot of innovation and new opportunities springing up.”

He echoes others’ thoughts on recruitment, but says the quality of life in Lancashire and its proximity to the Lake District should be used to its advantage.

“Businesses can create some exciting opportunities by bringing in big name clients and offering competitive jobs and a lot are starting to do that,” he said.

“Universities also have a role to play in attracting young people from an early age and linking them up with businesses.”

NuBlue plays its part in this, offering work experience to students so they can experience the work the business does for big-name clients such as Lowe Alpine and Toni and Guy.

It reveals that geographical location isn’t important to the customer, Ashworth said, and being in Lancashire actually helps businesses such as his offer competitive prices.