When you think of UK tech hubs which places spring to mind?
In London it would probably be Silicon Roundabout and Shoreditch. Manchester has the Northern Quarter and MediaCity; Leeds has the Round Foundry; Liverpool has the Baltic Triangle; and Newcastle has Campus North.
Of course there are countless other places, but how many people would think of Birmingham? I for one didn’t until I paid it a visit this week.
When I think of Birmingham I think of Jasper Carrott, The Bullring, the NEC and some fading football teams – but not any more.
Admittedly the likes of Aston Villa FC may still be in the doldrums, but Birmingham’s tech sector is buzzing – and it’s only going to grow when HS2 comes to town.
The first surprise was the Custard Factory, which is home to 400 digital and creative companies. As the name suggests it used to be the Bird’s Custard factory but the 15-acre site has been given a new lease of life as the home to a vibrant tech sector with a bit of attitude.
I was shown round by Dave Peebles, who has worked at the Custard Factory so long (23 years and counting) his work colleagues painted a huge mural of him on the side of a building – complete with a cigarette. The Custard Factory likes to be different!
What’s really interesting is the range of companies in there. You expect the small start-ups but I was shocked to see international architects Gensler there – complete with a drum set in the waiting area!
The Custard Factory isn’t aimed at the corporates. There’s no sexy underground car parks to speak of but that’s reflected in the price. I spoke to one company of seven staff and they pay £900 a month. For a tech start-up that’s a big pull.
However Birmingham isn’t a one-trick pony. I paid a visit to Innovation Birmingham. The campus is home to more than 400 tech and digital businesses and has some impressive conference facilities.
The campus is right next to Aston University and a lot of businesses there have spun out from the university. Dr David Hardman is Innovation Birmingham’s impressive CEO and he’s absolutely passionate about tech. The venue is home to everything from start-ups on rent-free deals to £5m turnover businesses employing 30 people.
So why are Birmingham’s tech credentials largely unknown outside of the city? I spoke to a range of businesses and Birmingham doesn’t shout about its achievements. One person I interviewed described Birmingham as the “UK’s quiet city”, which I agree with.
When it comes to tech Birmingham needs a narrative and a story, which will help attract VC funding, investors and innovators.
A lot of the pieces of Birmingham’s tech jigsaw are already in place but it’s time to create a single picture and a message that can’t be ignored.