BEYOND TECH CITY: Once regarded by many as London-by-sea, the Sussex coastal city of Brighton has fast grown into one of the UK’s most vibrant tech business clusters, with a distinctive focus on creative digital and gaming. Phil Jones, managing director of tech business agency Wired Sussex, explains why Brighton is special.
It’s sometimes said that, if you throw a pebble in Brighton, you’ll hit four startups. This claim is backed by recent statistics from the Centre for Cities 2015 Outlook, which found that Brighton has the highest number of startups per capita outside of London.
We are a city attractive to visitors and businesses alike. In particular, Brighton is famous for its creative scene. In the early 2000s (back when owning a Mac was the preserve of the creative elite), there were more Apple Macs per head in Brighton than anywhere else in Europe.
What was once a town with a large number of individuals working on Macs in their bedrooms has evolved into a city destination where fast-growing businesses of all sizes thrive. The bedroom entrepreneurs have been joined by some of the world’s fastest growing businesses. One example is digital marketing firm iCrossing, founded in 1997, which now has offices across the UK, Europe, and both North and South America.
If there’s one thing unique to Brighton, it’s this fusion between creative arts and tech. A huge proportion of the businesses started here have founders with a background in arts and humanities – they represent nearly 50% of digital businesses. Anna Lewis, founder of self-publishing platform Completely Novel and pay-as-you-read website ValoBox, is just one example, with her law and politics degree.
New ideas, no matter how crazy, are encouraged in Brighton and this supports a willingness to take risks here, which I believe is one of our strongest assets. Our creative talent is unafraid of launching tech businesses, and the result is a unique type of business that has no problems standing out from its rivals across the country.
There’s a strong sense of belonging in Brighton, which strengthens the ties between companies. It has been said that collaboration is our greatest competitive advantage. We have two local universities that provide us with a valuable talent pool.
The support network in the region is particularly good, and reinforces this feeling of belonging to a tech cluster. Wired Sussex is a Brighton-based membership organisation for companies and freelancers operating in the digital, media and technology sector here. We work to help our members create, innovate and grow.
Through our work with Tech City UK’s Cluster Alliance, we are partnering with other tech clusters across the country to share best practices and open spaces of collective opportunity.
The Brighton Fuse project was born from collaboration between the University of Sussex and the University of Brighton, Wired Sussex and the National Centre for Universities and Business. It’s a three-year research and development project, set up to analyse the growth of Brighton’s successful creative, digital and information technology cluster, and pilot schemes to promote further innovation and economic development. This research and spirit of collaboration are an essential part of the growth strategy for the area.
The Fusebox, a studio space designed specifically with innovators in mind, was launched in 2014. In 2015 we’re seeing a new innovation centre open next door, bringing the expertise of the University of Sussex into the city centre and the heart of the business community.
The explosive growth of Brighton’s business community has created infrastructure challenges. For example, we have experienced issues with access to high-speed broadband. But this is where the Brighton can-do attitude kicked in, and we are now building our own digital exchange, to meet the broadband needs of the city’s digital and tech businesses. This has been made possible by forming a cooperative with local internet service providers and funding from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
Another industry benefitting from Brighton’s creative digital innovation is e-learning. The city is home to well-established firms such as LEO, as well as promising young startups such as MakerClub, who make 3D printed robotics for the education market.
Ultimately, though, Brighton is thriving because talented people want to live here. A few years ago the online network Second Life surveyed developers across Europe, asking them which city they would ideally like to live in, and Brighton came out top.
Coast to Capital, the local enterprise partnership for the area recently won a bid to host one of the government’s Digital Catapults, in Brighton. This R&D centre will open in March 2015, bringing together in new ways small innovative digital businesses, corporates like Gatwick Airport and American Express and University expertise.
Brighton is no longer just known as a seaside resort. It has emerged as one of the UK’s fastest-growing digital destinations. We are proud of our creative approach to digital businesses and expect to see the cluster come of age in 2015.
Tech City UK’s view
From advertising and marketing, to software development, Brighton is a shining example of a how a cluster’s core capabilities can mature with time.The area has seen a successful creative collision of art and tech, transforming a diverse pool of talent into a thriving digital hub. From social media monitoring and analytics platform, Brandwatch, to the UK’s accountancy innovators, Crunch, Brighton’s strong heritage for creative arts combined with professional qualifications, is helping to produce some of the UK’s most exciting digital entrepreneurs, CEOs and founders.
With close proximity to London and an excellent quality of life, Brighton is already benefitting from a unique DNA, with strong ties with the capital and other south east England tech clusters. However, the region is also enjoying the results of stronger relationships with clusters across the UK. For example, Manchester provided valuable advice on the city’s Digital Exchange project. In the coming months, the cluster will work closely with the other successful bidders for Digital Catapults in Sunderland and Bradford.
As a valued member of the Tech City UK Cluster Alliance, through greater collaboration, Brighton has the opportunity to accelerate the growth of its own digital ecosystem, whilst also sharing best practices with other clusters.
Beyond Tech City is TechCityinsider’s regular look at the tech clusters outside of London. It is produced in partnership with Tech City UK.