If Richard Gregory thinks he’s been handed a hospital pass with his appointment as the director Tech North, he’s not letting it show.
When Claire Braithwaite quit as head of Tech North in January after just a few months in charge there was much speculation that she was unhappy at the increasing amount of London interference.
Herb Kim stepped in on an interim basis to drive the North’s digital economy until Gregory was finally confirmed as Braithwaite’s successor in July.
Throw in the impact of Brexit on the tech community and it’s easy to see why Gregory describes his new post as a “challenge”.
Gregory is perhaps best known for the 12 years he spent building up North West-based Latitude Digital Marketing into one of the UK’s largest agencies, and which included two years in the hot-seat as managing director.
He also co-founded the Search, Analytics and Social Conference (SAScon) – an annual fixture in the North’s digital calendar that recently held its seventh annual event at Manchester Metropolitan University.
Gregory’s CV saw him elected to the Manchester Digital Council in 2015 and includes a role as chairman of Liverpool-based tech start-up Ruler Analytics. He knows the Northern scene.
And now he’s at the helm of Tech North, which was first launched during the distant days of the Coalition government to accelerate the growth of digital businesses in the Northern cities of Hull, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield and Sunderland.
Its creation followed the much-heralded success of Tech City UK in the capital, which had been launched by then PM David Cameron to support and champion the East London tech cluster emerging around Shoreditch.
Tech North’s brief includes promoting digital entrepreneurs and attracting investment and talent to the North of England.
It is fair to say that Gregory was carefully chosen to step into the vacant post.
Announcing his appointment, Kim, said: “The road to Tech North for Richard was a long one. He met with more than a dozen people spread out over nine meetings.
“We really wanted to get this appointment right and I think it’s safe to say Richard has been ‘vetted’.”
Gregory says he doesn’t know the details behind Braithwaite’s departure but he adds that Tech North was set up by Tech City UK “from day one”.
He says he is “absolutely fine” with the way the organisation works and adds: “It is about working together. The relationship has got to work and everyone wants it to work.
“It is a good relationship at the moment. I don’t believe we compete with London; we should be looking out to Europe and internationally.”
Gregory also believes that the North and the nation’s capital can be of real benefit to each other when it comes to the digital sector and its growth.
He admits to having lot of learning to do but is already full of positives, citing the region’s burgeoning digital health economy as a good example.
“We have got a team and an industry that is doing well. I am really excited about the community in the North,” he says.
“We are just here to help the industry. We know we can grow faster and we want to help people to do that.”
Below: Then-interim head Herb Kim on Tech North and London
Gregory spent his early days in the job “checking out” Tech North and embarking on a tour of businesses in major Northern cities to “to find out what their priorities are”.
Whether those priorities are business growth, access to funding or recruiting staff, he believes there are lots of ways Tech North can be of help, either directly or by supporting other organisations.
He will, he adds, be “led by the industry”.
Gregory also acknowledges there is a challenge when it comes to making sure resources are spread around all of the seven cities that Tech North is concerned with.
His operational experience, leading upwards of 120 employees spread out over four locations, makes him well qualified to deal with the geographical challenges of the role.
He points out that cities like Manchester and Leeds have already got good support networks in place and talks enthusiastically about the “fantastic job” being done by Manchester Digital, the independent trade association set up there. He doesn’t want to “step on any toes”, he adds.
However, he says for the sector to fulfil its potential in the North all seven cities have to come together and continue to build their own Northern digital powerhouse.
Gregory says: “I keep driving home to people that though we are talking about seven cities we have got to see them as a whole.
“They have a pretty big footprint and we have got to stop seeing them in terms of the North East or North West. I want to talk about the whole of the North.”
When it comes to the North of England and its economic future, the government’s so-called ‘Northern Powerhouse’ vision has led much of the thinking over the past few years.
Post-referendum there has been uncertainty over the future of that project, especially now that one of its chief architects and cheerleaders, Chancellor George Osborne, has departed from front-line politics to the backbenches in the wake of the nation’s Brexit decision.
Gregory is quick to stress that Tech North’s funding is secure – it will continue to receive £2 million per year for the next two years in line with the Government’s original commitment.
“Ultimately, if we are adding value, I can see a situation where we could even become self-sufficient at some time,” he predicts.
Gregory says that it is obvious that the decision to quit the EU has raised concerns among digital businesses, with funding and staffing two of the areas of uncertainty.
And he points to a Tech City UK survey, which found that 74 per cent of people working in tech believed the business environment might get worse as a result of Brexit.
Speaking about funding challenges, Gregory says Tech North, though not a funding organisation, can play a part: “We can help people create funds or create schemes that bring investors into the region.
“That’s where we are focused, to make certain levels of funding really accessible. Brexit means that it is even more important to have an organisation like Tech North here.”
Gregory also believes that the sector, with its strong entrepreneurial DNA, will rise to the challenges of the changed economic and political landscape.
He says: “The upside of all this is when you look at the tech community it thrives on challenges. This is where really great businesses are created.
“It is about getting the mind-set to find the opportunities. The important thing for us is to listen to see where we can help.
“It might mean a change in focus for us. Let’s see what happens as we start to get some sense of stability.”