Silicon Gorge comes of age

TECH NATION: Bristol & Bath is busily staking its claim as one of the UK’s fastest-growing tech clusters. Nick Sturge, director of the SETsquared business acceleration centre – a collaboration between five universities: Bath, Bristol, Exeter, Southampton and Surrey – says the cluster’s success lies in its diversity.

From Roman Baths to Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge, the cities of Bristol and Bath are known for their rich history of engineering, creativity and innovation. In recent times, the cities are often collectively referred to as ‘Silicon Gorge’ – reflecting the growth of the region’s tech sector. With a high quality of life, a skilled workforce and a diverse range of connected industries, it is no wonder businesses, from startups to multinational companies, are being drawn to the South West.

clifton suspension bridgeA recent report from think tank Centre for Cities hailed Bristol and Bath as the fastest-growing high-tech sector outside of London. However, it would be unjust to say that the area is one of the UK’s emerging tech clusters. The region has long been attracting successful businesses. It’s a cluster that has already convinced tech giants HP, Toshiba, IBM, Orange and aerospace specialists Airbus, GKN, Rolls Royce and BAE to base themselves here.

Only 12 miles apart and boasting 1,100 tech companies between them, the two cities have formed a partnership to support technology startups in the area. This includes two incubators of the SETsquared Partnership, rated together (by the University Business Incubator Index) as the top university business incubator in Europe. The partnership taps into the resources offered by five universities in southern England: Bath, Bristol, Exeter, Southampton and Surrey.

From bright young graduates and world-class research to facilities and new technologies, the incubators promote young businesses – most of whom do not come from the universities – and connects them to wider support networks of mentors, investors and talent. Entrepreneurs and startups can also benefit from the partnership’s mentor programme and co-working spaces through a new initiative, the Engine Shed.

In addition to its historic location in one of Brunel’s original buildings, the Engine Shed is based next to Bristol’s train station, providing fast connections to London.

A lot can be learnt from the success of London’s Tech City and we should not necessarily view London or any other tech cluster as a rival. At SETsquared we are also committed to promoting greater collaboration along with the sharing of best practices between Bristol and Bath and the UK’s respective tech clusters.

Other important facilities include the Bristol and Bath Science Park, a lively business community designed to actively create opportunities to share expertise, and the TechSPARK networking events, a chance for like-minded local people in the tech industry to meet for a drink and a chat. Although we can’t forget that incubators and initiatives such as SETsquared are enablers and cheerleaders – it’s the people in the businesses here who make all of the magic happen.

Recently we have seen an exciting new trend emerge – demonstrating the maturity of the region’s tech ecosystem. This trend has seen young startups thrive alongside the increasing presence of large corporates that have opened offices in Bath and Bristol.

This year saw high-growth technology company and online takeaway service Just Eat open a new specialist innovation hub in Bristol as they look to take advantage of the region’s dynamic technology talent pool. This follows Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications equipment maker, which opened a further UK office and £125 million R&D centre in Bristol this summer, praising the region as “forward-thinking, progressive, and fostering innovation.”

The expertise of such companies trickles down to all parts of the ecosystem. Their presence has created the improved supplier and talent networks at the heart of much of the growth in the area. These corporates, who are making the South West their second home, provide an impetus for development as well as a pool of high-quality advisers who are prepared to invest in their cities, to the great benefit of the younger companies.

Making the most of this comprehensive support network and the high concentration of skilled tech workers, the Bath and Bristol cluster houses a wide selection of startups. From Wriggle, who offer on-the-day offers at handpicked independent eateries, watering holes and happenings; Maplebird, who develop very small flapping-wing UAVs; to the delightfully named Potato, who build complex and scalable web applications.

Some startups are already succeeding in their markets, such as Bristol-grown YourWealth, which was acquired by Momentum earlier this year and Coull, also born in Bristol, which has attracted $12.2 million from angel investors to fund their US expansion. Industrial Phycology, Zynstra and Smart Antennas are all great Bath businesses on the up. And they’re not the only success stories I expect to see this year: both Xmos, a fabless semiconductor company, and Brightpearl, a cloud-based business management app, are destined for big things.

Bath_Royal_CrescentSo what’s the key to success? I think it lies in the diversity that pervades this ecosystem. Bristol and Bath is home to a range of flourishing industries: we have everything from the international strength of financial services, software developers and an emerging gaming industry, to a thriving creative arts scene. Some 30 per cent of global natural history TV and film production come from Bath and Bristol, home to the BBC: Future Publishing and YouTube leader The Yogscast. In addition, an impressive 1 billion plus set-top boxes are powered by silicon chips made in the area.

We’re working hard to make the most of this diversity by connecting the different agents in the area. SETsquared’s open innovation programme offers long-term relationships to corporate partners, which enable us to develop a deep understanding of their innovation requirements and respond with a tailored approach to each Partner. SETsquared’s network of researchers, innovators, entrepreneurs and investors provides corporate partners with access and insight into the latest developments in Open Innovation globally. And this is just a small part of what we do.

It’s exciting to be part of the growing tech sector in the Bath and Bristol cluster. Not only is the area a wonderful place to live, it boasts established support networks and access to skilled workers, making it an ideal place to start and grow a business. The increasing collaboration between the region’s established companies and the startup community offers further proof of the growing maturity of our tech ecosystem.

All things considered, the Bristol and Bath cluster is well on its way to establishing itself as a world-class tech, creative and digital destination.

Tech City UK’s view

Bristol and Bath rightly deserves its title as one of the UK’s fastest growing tech clusters outside of London, says Katy Turner, chief marketing officer at Tech City UK.

Tech City UK logo“From silicon to telecoms and robotics to aviation, Bristol and Bath has a rich heritage of innovation across a diverse range of industries. It’s also very encouraging to see increasing collaboration between the startup community and large corporates moving into the area. The recent influx of established companies such as Just Eat and Huawei have helped to attract talent, expertise and investment into this rapidly growing cluster.

The success of Bristol and Bath is based upon advanced support networks and collaboration. Through initiatives such as SETsquaredBristol & Bath Science Park and South West Founders, the region’s entrepreneurs and businesses are connected with investors, advisors and the area’s world-class universities. The development of co-working spaces such as the Engine Shed and the Guild provide a physical focus for the tech community.

With its close proximity to London and other regional tech hubs, Bristol and Bath are well placed for collaboration with other clusters. As a member of the Tech City UK Cluster Alliance, Bristol and Bath work with the Alliance’s 14 members from tech clusters across the UK, sharing best practices and helping other clusters understand how best to drive their own development. Whilst we should celebrate our individual successes, there is no doubt the UK’s digital economy can be more powerful when we work together. Bristol and Bath’s evolution is proof that when clusters collaborate, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

Tech Nation is TechCityinsider’s regular look at the tech clusters outside of London. It is produced in partnership with Tech City UK.