No man is an island, no idea a masterpiece – if a new startup is going to thrive it will happen much quicker with the right help. Likewise, investors need projects as much as startups need mentors. But finding the perfect investor/startup combo is more complicated than it sounds. Since 2013, Engine Shed, the tech incubator housed in Brunel’s Temple Meads train station, has been one of the most successful catalysts to build these relationships, helping businesses thrive in Bristol and beyond.

Engine Shed is made up of several components each with a different focus, from mentoring tech startups to attracting investment. We caught up with Nick Sturge, Director of both Engine Shed and one of its components, SETsquared, to tell us a bit more about the organisation and how you can get involved with their work.


TechSPARK: How did Engine Shed come to be formed?

Nick Sturge: Desperation is the mother of all invention. SETsquared needed a new home in a short time frame but we [economic activists in Bristol] had been talking for a while about the need for a stronger focal point of tech/innovation. So, at the back end of 2012, the University of Bristol agreed with Bristol City Council to form a collaboration and then lease and refurbish Engine Shed to create a multi-faceted innovation hub. We wrote the business plan in January 2013 and opened in December.

TS: Tell us about the different services you provide.

NS: Engine Shed is made up of a number of distinct and independent ‘components.’ We host the Bristol SETsquared Centre which is University-run and incubates high-tech, high-growth businesses through coaching, mentoring, workshops, review panels, professional services, investment showcases and more. WebStart Bristol is a privately funded accelerator that takes in cohorts of 10 internet startups, invests in them and hot-houses them for a fixed period. Then there’s the Invest Bristol & Bath team who market the city region to inward investors and ensure new and current investors thrive. And the Shed also incorporates the main office of the Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP).

In addition, we have meeting and seminar spaces to hire, a public innovation showcase (“Platform 14”), a membership-only business lounge and our new ‘Arrivals Lounge’ where we host companies moving to, or investing in, Bristol and Bath on short-term lets. We will also be a node on the Gigabit Bristol and Terabit West experimental networks.

In some respects we are an incubator of incubators – the whole premise is that the components each do better by being a part of Engine Shed and get accelerated in their own growth as a result.

TS: What are the aims of the organisation?

NS: Engine Shed is operated by the Science Research Foundation, a subsidiary of the University of Bristol (my employer), and our mission is to stimulate economic growth in knowledge-based industries for the long term.


We will not only be delivering on short-term job growth – doing what we can to help grow current businesses – but also engaging with young people (including primary school age) to inspire and inform them about opportunities in science, technology and entrepreneurship, as well as stimulating local investment activity, new ways of doing business and encouraging innovation.

TS: What have you learnt from your first year in operation?

NS: Loads! I’ve learnt so much more about partnership working – with local authorities, government agencies and universities. Did you know that SETsquared has had more senior academics visit it in Engine Shed in seven months, than it did when it was on the [University of Bristol] precinct for 10 years?

“I’ve experienced the phenomenal goodwill that exists in the South West that enabled this to happen. This has not been a battle, more of steering a fleet of surfboards in roughly the same direction!”


I’ve also learnt a lot about managing complex and chaotic projects where the parameters are very loosely defined and stakeholders’ involvement is fluid. But over all of that, I’ve experienced the phenomenal goodwill that exists in the South West that enabled this to happen. This has not been a battle, more of steering a fleet of surfboards in roughly the same direction!

TS: How can people get involved with your work?

NS: We are keen to work with people at lots of levels:

  • Corporates, government agencies and institutions – we are keen to have you on board as partners and/or sponsors.
  • Schools, youth groups, players in the education/youth agendas – we want to work with you to help engage young people in science, technology and entrepreneurship.
  • Anyone – we have a public innovation showcase and are looking for partners to take over this space for two-month slots to use your own interpretation of innovation and enterprise through whatever medium you like.
  • Investors – we have piloted a concept called Silicon Gorge which is a pitching event for local tech companies to pitch to investors. We plan to continue running these throughout the year so we’re looking for potential investors to add to our mailing list for these events. SETsquared and WebStart are always looking for investors for their companies, of course.
  • Networks and event organisers – we have a great venue with a captive audience and we are keen to use that to host events which stimulate or innovate in the ecosystem.
  • Entrepreneurs (in the broadest sense) – there are always new ideas popping up in and around Engine Shed, we are always interested in volunteers to pick up ideas and run with them.

A huge thanks to Nick for speaking to us, and a happy first birthday to the Engine Shed. Take a look at the Engine Shed Events page for more information about the activities going on in this innovative Bristol hub and give them a Twitter follow too. While you’re there, why not say hi to us.

Images: Andre Pattenden

Kathryn Evans