Spotlight on: 2017 and the future of tech in the South West

Highlights from the the tech and digital cluster of past and present and a peak into the future from the South West's thought leaders
14th December 2017

Another year in the South West tech and digital cluster has past and, as the region continues to thrive despite an uncertain political climate, confidence is rising, projects and plans are getting the green light and growth continues at an impressive rate.

And it’s no surprise really, given the success of 2017 which saw accolades ranging from Tech City UK’s report that ranked the region in the top three for its digital economic turnover to Bristol being crowned the UK’s top smart city. The city was even ranked as having the 12th highest amount of investment in tech in the whole of Europe in a recent report by the State of European Tech.

But with community-focussed tech also at the heart of the South West, it’s not just financial growth we’ve seen. The past year has seen some of the biggest progress in terms of inclusivity, diversity, education and social enterprise.

This has been highlighted by TechSPARK’s own success. The hub’s already thriving network of tech and digital professionals looking to collaborate and foster growth has increased – meaning we’re sharing more astounding research, innovation news and tech startup success stories than ever before – reflected well at the fifth SPARKies tech and digital awards this year which saw a record-breaking number of nominations.

But TechSPARK is only one of the cogs in a huge wheel of the South West tech cluster – and we’ve gathered twelve thought-leaders from across the region to share some of their thoughts and highlights from 2017, as well as their predictions for the year ahead.

World-class innovation

Some of the most impressive investment raises were seen by companies in the South West tech cluster in 2017. These include £30M from Bath-based renewable energy firm Green Hedge, £18M from Bristol’s haptic feedback tech stars Ultrahaptics and £11.5M from Bristol-based microprocessor and microcontroller designer XMOS.

Tatjana Humphries (pictured left) senior business executive at inward investment company ‎Invest Bristol and Bath (IBB) adds: “IBB has seen a record number of investments over the past year. 2017 kicked off for us with the launch of Oracle’s Startup Cloud Accelerator (OSCA) – IBB worked with Oracle to organise the launch, including creating a startup expo. Since then we’ve seen a number of high-level investments including Dyson and their connected home team.

“We’ve also seen the opening of Natwest’s Digital Studio, the establishing of the Global HQ for Cookpad Ltd and a new tech centre for Secret Escapes.”

“We are at the start of a new era of computing”

 

Of course, one of the most impressive of all was from artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning chip design startup Graphcore, whose world-leading chip attracted a total of over $110m from global investors. Commenting on what this could mean for future tech, Nigel Toon (pictured right) Graphcore’s CEO and co-founder says: “We are at the start of a new era of computing. Our first Intelligence Processing Unit’s (IPU) unique architecture means developers will be able to run machine learning applications in orders of magnitude faster in 2018.

“More importantly, it will allow AI innovators to undertake entirely new types of work, not possible using current hardware, to drive the next great breakthroughs in general machine intelligence.

“Graphcore’s IPU is going to be transformative across all industries and sectors whether you are a medical researcher, roboticist or building autonomous cars.”

Showcasing technology

The South West has also seen some of the UK and Europe’s biggest tech and digital events, showcasing some of the most innovative tech to thousands. This includes the fifth TEDxBristol – now the largest independent TED event in the UK – Venturefest Bristol and Bath on the theme of smart cities, Collaborate UX and design conference, Pixel Pioneers and plenty more.

One of the biggest was VR World Congress, coined the biggest virtual reality conference in Europe, which saw the likes of international VR and technology leaders AMD, Unity, Google and Microsoft in attendance – along with speakers and demos from the South West’s booming VR talent.

“[VR World Congress showcased] how Bristol and Bath are at the forefront of the UK in key evolving technologies”

 

Richard Godfrey (pictured left), co-founder of Bath-based software consultancy and tech startup incubator Rocketmakers agrees: “VR World Congress was a huge success and a highlight for South West tech for me, really showcasing how Bristol and Bath are at the forefront of the UK in key evolving technologies.”

It’s events like this that have seen rise to whole new opportunities for local talent. For the team behind VR World Congress, this came in the wave of funding it received to set up Bristol’s first VR Lab. Due to open in January 2018, the lab will support companies wanting to explore the possibilities of virtual reality or augmented reality technologies.

A future for virtual reality: Bristol VR Lab officially opens in 2018

 

Richard adds: “With the new Bristol VR Lab giving us a real focal point for virtual and augmented reality we should really celebrate the impact that it will bring in 2018.”

“Bath Digital Festival saw a record number of tech-themed events hosted in venues across the city”

 

As well as showcasing advanced technology, 2017 has seen to the promotion of ‘tech for all’ – the theme of Bath’s sixth Digital Festival and the biggest ever.

A highlight for Rosie Bennett (pictured right) director of the University of Bath Innovation Centre (UBIC), she adds: “Bath Digital Festival saw a record number of tech-themed events hosted in venues across the city.

“This depth and breadth of the events and the high turn out was a testament to the vibrancy of the tech scene in Bath.”

Incubating success

Dr Harry DestecroixThe past year has also seen a boost to the region’s incubators and support networks which will continue to roll on into the New Year.

In an exciting move for Bristol, one of the region’s newest incubators, and the city’s first ever scientific incubator UnitDX, officially opened this year. Harry Destecroix (pictured left), director and co-founder at the incubator says: “We opened the doors in May, and have since hosted over 30 events and started our outreach programmes, which have seen over 220 local schoolchildren visit the facility. We are also on track to have 14 tenants by the end of the year.”

Incubating talent: UnitDX is slowly filling with the science startup
geniuses fuelling the future 

 

Adding to the upward trend, Rosie adds: “Bath SETsquared university incubator is particularly excited to announce a new ERDF funded programme to support startup and scale-up companies in sustainable technologies which will start to rollout early in 2018.

“We also have plans to launch a new investment network for early-stage tech companies, so watch this space.”

“The BRL has secured funding… to establish a cluster network for Robotics and Autonomous Systems”

 

Tom Beasley (pictured right) head of the Bristol and Bath Science Park tells us: “The highlight for us will be mid-year when the third building project starts in support of the University of Bath’s Institute of Automotive Propulsion Systems (IAAPS). We are already making plans to further support growing tech and engineering companies meet their accommodation needs.”

And for the booming South West robotics community, things are only going to get more exciting, as David Lennard (pictured right), the Bristol Robotics Lab‘s (BRL) business manager, explains: “The BRL has secured funding from Invest Bristol and Bath and South Gloucestershire Council to establish a cluster network for Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS).

“The inaugural meeting of the West of England Robotics Network takes place in early 2018 and will provide a focal point for the West of England RAS activity, bringing together a diverse range of interested stakeholders through regular meetings, workshops, events and site visits to generate and enable collaborative opportunities and more.”

Prioritising diversity and social good

The region has also begun to take action on issues surrounding the lack of diversity in tech. Practically speaking, in order to grow, technology and innovation must stem from as wide a demographic as its end users. But, with the problems surrounding gender inequality unabating and tech one of the most well-paid (and male-dominated) industries in the world, it’s an area where improvements could trigger huge positive change.

“We are also starting Women’s Tech Founders Bristol in January and hope it will engage and encourage women to start up and work with one another in a supportive network”

 

Serrie Chapman (pictured right) co-founder of the Women’s Tech Hub (WTHub) Bristol tells us: “We have moved from a more panicked ‘OMG we have a gender imbalance, fix it’.  To a more reasoned conversation on how we can go about fixing it.

“It can’t be sorted out by pushing STEM students into companies that have an issue with a less than perfect culture in this area, so we have engaged with some very enlightened companies who really want to do something other than just pay lip service, which is great to see.

“We are also starting the WTF ~ Bristol (Women’s Tech Founders ~ Bristol) in January and hope it will engage and encourage women to start up and work with one another in a supportive network. We also have training and some products that we will be launching to ensure that we can stay around long term and help the tech industry close its skills gap and realise the steps needed to ensure it continues to improve.”

“I hope that we continue to grow both inclusively and ethically”

 

As well as a diverse tech community, the region has seen a rise in the number of projects and startups with the goal of doing social good – and specific funding for this area too. The start of the year saw the launch of two new meetup groups Tech4Good Bristol and Tech4Good Bath which aim at gathering tech talent to help charities and non-profits keep up with the rate of innovation seen in the commercial sector.

Promoting diversity: WTHub Bristol held the first ever ‘Diversity in Tech’
conference in the summer of 2017

 

2017 also saw the growth of several Bristol-based tech for good companies with help from support and funding from UnLtd for Social Entrepreneurs. UBIC has also recently announced it will be running its Social Enterprise and Innovation Programme again in 2018.

For Richard at Rocketmakers, tech for good is also a fast-growing area in Bath, as he explains: “We’re continuing to work with some amazing entrepreneurs in 2018 such as social good startups like Food Drop, 100% renewable energy market disrupters Pure Planet and a few more who are still ‘under the radar’.”

Nick Sturge (pictured left), director of Bristol’s tech hub Engine Shed agrees: “I hope that we continue to grow – inclusively and ethically. We want businesses to thrive and we want to help them make their growth work for everyone in the city. By helping to get people from all communities to get into the world of tech – through friends and partners such as WTHub, DigiLocal, Boomsatsuma and others.”

Guaranteeing future growth

Needless to say, it’s not all been sunshine and rainbows for the region’s tech sector this year. Its substantial growth and success has also brought about a few difficulties – largely surrounding the increasing number of growing businesses (scale-ups) finding space for their small to medium-sized teams.

Although in some senses these are good problems to have, it’s been highlighted in a series of recent events held by Engine Shed’s scale-up enabler Briony Phillips (pictured right), that if not solved could spell disaster for future growth and a dramatic slowing in the region’s progress towards being one of the top cities for technology and innovation both in the UK and globally.

Despite fears, plenty is being done to make sure things are ironed out and the South West remains firmly on the scale-up map. Briony tells us: “We launched the Scale-up Ecosystem Map just a couple of weeks ago. The map is the region’s first attempt to pull together all the great initiatives and projects that exist for scale-up businesses and share it publicly.

“I’m also really excited to launch our Quarterly Investment Briefing in late January next year and to explore how we can further build the investment ecosystem locally in collaboration with people across the region.”

In addition, with the creation of new spaces for scale-ups on the rise, including the new Northgate House working space in Bath, and plans for Engine Shed 2 approved and moving full-steam ahead, it’s hoped that this won’t be a problem for the region for long.

Attracting talent

There has also been an increase in the number of large international organisations moving to the region to take advantage of the huge level of tech talent present here. But whilst talent levels are high, there is not enough of it to sustain the level of innovation these organisations are promising.

Attracting more talent to the region is therefore high on the list of priorities for the many companies struggling to recruit large teams of engineers and developers.

Nick Dean at AdlibThankfully, one of the projects being launched in the New Year that will start to tackle this is ‘Bristol Calling’. Nick Dean (pictured left), founder and CEO of recruitment agency ADLIB explains: “Bringing experienced talent to the region will be essential in supporting its growth – not forgetting all the of hard work that is going into creating the workforce of tomorrow.

“Bristol Calling, ADLIB’s collaboration with TechSPARK, should go some way towards the creation of a regional employer brand and a gateway for potential employees to learn exactly why the South West is the place to be when it comes to a quality work and life perspective.”

In addition, Nick Sturge tells us: “We will be launching our ‘Engine Shed on Tour’ bus which will take some of the tech entrepreneurship stories, as well as some real tech, out to schools in the West of England – helping raise the aspirations and opportunities for our future techies.”

Disrupting the future

Naturally, a big part of attracting talent is shouting about the amazing opportunities that are available in the region. And going a long way further to help with this is a new initiative launched just last month – Disrupt South West.

Nick Dean explains: “The launch of DisruptSW was a fantastic success and only the starting point. Working collaboratively with Tällt Ventures and Foot Anstey we gathered disrupters, corporate brands and investors under one roof and celebrated the launch of the South West Disrupt 25 – a regional index identifying and highlighting the top 25 disrupter businesses. The atmosphere was amazing, fuelled by warmth to celebrate, support and collaborate.”

Matt Connolly (pictured right), founder and CEO of Tallt Ventures adds: “Bristol tech startups are now truly playing on the global stage in 2017. In our Disrupt 100 – an annual publication tracking the world’s most disruptive ventures, three Bristol companies featured in the index.”

“There is building confidence that the science and tech sector is Brexit proof and can continue to adapt and grow”

 

So, as our thoughts slowly drift to festive celebrations and new year’s resolutions – and despite some challenges in the year ahead – there is plenty of optimism in the air. Tom tells us: “The tech sector in Bristol and Bath feels like it is booming with positive indications that the year ahead will be even better.

“There is building confidence that the science and tech sector is Brexit proof and can continue to adapt and grow.”

Nick Sturge agrees: “My prediction is that we will fight our corner, maintain our independence as a proud and vibrant tech cluster – complementing rather than kowtowing – to what is going on across the UK. Together this tech nation will thrive.

“I also think we will see a change in government. At least there will be a completely new set of faces running the country. That should be bad news as it means more uncertainty, but, frankly, we’ll just carry on regardless, won’t we?”

Big thanks go to all who contributed to these predictions – and to all our partners and supporters for helping us to continue getting the word out about the amazing tech cluster here in the South West.

To stay tuned to all the exciting plans for 2018 and see if our thought leaders predictions come true, make sure you’re signed up to the TechSPARK newsletter or follow us on Twitter here: @TechSPARKuk.