Posted on June 22, 2018 by staff

Is the North losing its tech voice?


Following the high of the recent London Tech Week, I can’t help but feel slightly envious. As always it celebrated the full breadth of tech; over 300 events were held, more than 55,000 attendees were welcomed and big hitters from across the sector headlined.

My RSM colleagues in London hosted their own event helping tech entrepreneurs to ‘prepare for exit’. However, where was the Northern representation?

I know the location is in the name and praise does go to how London Tech Week has grown and evolved. Due to geography there will inevitably be a south leaning to business attendance and speakers. However, the North must take all opportunities to shout nationally and globally.

It boasts a real mix of well-known players, such as Sage Group, UKFast, Chess and Daisy Group; but also, lesser known companies that are growing rapidly and that are making a notable contribution to the growing significance of the tech sector – seen each year through the Northern Stars programme.

Business Rocks organised by Jonny Cadden attempted to bring a SXSW type event to Manchester – so is a Northern Tech Week needed to celebrate all things tech in the North? Or perhaps a UK Tech Week, to demonstrate a true national strength, that is held in a different region each year?

To me there is a worrying theme. It was great to see the recent Tech Nation report highlight that the UK tech sector is growing 2.6 times faster than the rest of the British economy and that growth in the number of jobs is outstripping the rest of the UK by five times. But there was a distinct lack of Northern representation in this report as well.

The targeted approach of Tech North made great strides across the region and strengthened the tech ecosystem – encouraging talent, innovation, enterprise and investment. The report was the first following the amalgamation of Tech City and Tech North into Tech Nation, and it seemed that the Northern voice wasn’t as strong this year.

Tech North impressively bridged the gaps between Northern cities in an attempt to form one community and many had feared that extending the support to 11 clusters across the UK could diluted the impact; and I do hope the report isn’t evidence of this happening.

There are both national and Northern issues in the tech sector. The impact of Brexit will fundamentally impact tech business across the UK. We’re already starting to see the ripples hitting tech companies with EU state aid approval delays disrupting enterprise management incentives (EMI), venture capital trust (VCT) and enterprise investment schemes (EIS).

And this could be the tip of the iceberg; as what will be the future for other key incentives for tech businesses including R&D tax incentives and technology grants?

With a growing digital ecosystem, the North is a key destination for tech businesses and the community continues to grow – creating a vibrant, creative environment for tech businesses to thrive. The requirement for early funding is not being satisfied purely by local investors and wider networks are needed.

There is substantial progress taking place to help mentor tech founders, through bodies like TechManchester, and provide angel funding. However, as the sector grows at pace the race for talent is increasingly more competitive, requiring businesses to attract talent from across the region.

On a day-to-day basis I, and my colleagues, struggle to get around the North on the decaying system that we call a rail network. This is why businesses are crying out for more progress to improve transport links, key infrastructure and communication to ensure tech businesses can resource new start-ups.

We welcome targeted investment into the sector, such as the £3m into the creative industries announced earlier in the year, but in isolation this investment will be ineffective.

A combination of financial support and transformative changes is key to seeing the tech sector in the North flourish – without it, start-ups in the region will struggle to attract sufficient, appropriate investment and bridge the skills gap.

This is where the government needs to leverage initiatives like the Northern Powerhouse to step up and help the North to reach its potential to become a thriving tech hub on a national and international stage.

It will take collaboration across the North to tackle the issues effectively with partnerships between local and central government, as well as private businesses, investors and academia.

If this all comes together then the North has a real opportunity to maximise the scale of the opportunity and drive innovation across the sector; but we need to shout louder, collectively, to ensure our voice is heard. Perhaps a Northern Tech Week in 2019?