Spotlight on: a year in tech in the South West
Some might say 2016 was a somewhat turbulent year. Sure, it certainly had its moments. But for the South West tech cluster things have continued to develop, and its reach and influence has grown significantly.
From TechSPARK’s perspective, we have shared so many success stories from startups, established businesses, amazing research projects and tech events from across Bristol, Bath and the wider South West region. 2016 also saw the SPARKies tech awards run for the fourth year, for the first time in Bristol and the first ever SPARK Skills Festival brought 500 students, graduates and experienced developers to over 40 local companies seeking tech talent.
“We have continued to see the launch of some exciting companies and technologies, despite uncertainties”
But, of course, we want to hear what some of the South West tech cluster’s most influential leaders have to say about the year and what they think 2017 could bring. So we caught up with ten of them for their inside stories and a little look into the techie crystal ball.
Highs and highs
Something all our leaders agreed on was that there were many things to be thankful for in 2016. From an increase in diversity, hundreds of local tech businesses proclaiming great successes and incubators announcing record investment in its startups, to exciting plans fleshed out for the Engine Shed 2 (pictured right), it really has been an incredible year for the South West tech cluster.
Monika Gierszewska, who joined university startup incubator Bristol SETsquared in March as the new Centre Director, tells us: “We support 68 companies in our incubator – more than ever before. Our companies have raised £48m of investment and each one of these rounds helps to create further growth and create more jobs.”
Rick Chapman, High-tech sector specialist at inward-investment agency Invest Bristol and Bath, adds: “We have continued to see the launch of some exciting companies and technologies, despite uncertainties surrounding the political and macroeconomic environment. From ongoing growth at companies like Oracle, Cray and Just Eat, to new and significant investments in startups such as Graphcore.”
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Rosie Bennett, Entrepreneur in Residence at the University of Bath Innovation Centre (UBIC), tells us: “We supported UBIC members to raise a total of over £8 million of investment funding, ran bootcamps and workshops for 12 University of Bath graduates who won innovation bursaries and I got to chair a panel at the fabulous TechSPARK Skills Festival.”
The creative digital sector has also been thriving in the region as Clare Reddington, Creative Director at the Watershed, explains: “In the last year we completed REACT (which funded academic and startup collaborations) and it has been incredible to watch the companies we supported bring ground-breaking new products to market.”
One of the many industries that continues to put Bristol on the worldwide map has been the development of Virtual Reality and gaming in the region. VR World Congress 2016’s sell out event combined with a UK-wide campaign (pictured left), including London Heathrow, has Bristol in a firm place as the European HQ for VR. And with 2017’s event already announced as a 3-day affair with an expected 2000 attendees, 40 speakers and 30 exhibitors, the event’s growth and popularity is showing no signs of slowing down.
“We’re of course very excited about VR World Congress 2017, which is already shaping up to be huge”
Ben Trewhella, who’s heavily involved in the South West’s VR and gaming industry in his role as CEO of Opposable Group and Director of the Bristol Games Hub, tells us: “As well as VR World Congress 2016 being extremely successful, sealing Bristol’s place on the VR map, Opposable has worked with the Cartoon Network to bring Adventure Time into the VR world and managed to release Salvaged, a title we’ve been working on for a few years.
“We’re of course very excited about VR World Congress 2017, which is already shaping up to be huge.”
It’s not just gamers who are excited about VR however, Tatjana Humphries – Senior Inward Investment Executive at Invest Bristol and Bath – adds: “I’ve been working closely with the Opposable team and next year’s event sounds incredible. The fact that their first speaker lineup is all women is great.”
And as well as the incredible excitement and talent that events like these bring to the region, they instill enthusiasm and promise into the minds of the next creators and entrepreneurs that they can make these things happen in the South West.
“Investments being made in [VR] can be expected to yield big dividends in years ahead”
Rosie agrees: “I think VR is going to feature very strongly in 2017 with the emphasis moving towards content innovation; my prediction is that we will start to see collaborations between the broadcast and gaming sectors with startups and individuals who are innovating in areas like MedTech and EdTech.”
Ben continues: “Virtual Reality seems to be only just hitting consumer audiences, and I think this will create a second wave of interest from companies and brands, so that will be great for companies like Opposable, however mainly I am really excited about the prospects for the companies within the Bristol Games Hub, a lot of them are building on successful game titles to attract investment and work on some high profile games, which means there will be a lot of launch parties next year.”
Andrew Mulvenna, Founder of the hugely successful cloud-based CRM and sales system Brightpearl, who now supports and mentors startups across the South West, adds: “VR is a sector that has seen significant growth, and investments being made in this area can be expected to yield big dividends in years ahead.”
Much of the South West’s success in business and innovation the last year has been down to some incredible opportunities for startups and research to be funded, incubated and homed by world-class institutions.
With Bristol and Bath home to the likes of the Engine Shed, SETsquared, UBIC, Rocketmakers, WebStart and Entrepreneurial Spark incubators, and competitions such as Silicon Gorge’s Investor Showcase and Crowd10 to name just a few, there are almost endless ways to fund innovation in the region – and with no signs of this halting either we asked what’s next for aspiring startups in the New Year.
“We need to create a fantastic environment for the companies that could and should be scaling up”
Monika tells us: “We’ve just been selected as one of the partners in the Internet of Things (IoT) Boost programme, which we’ll be launching in March. Any company developing new IoT solutions can apply and we will be able to offer intensive support to 10 startups.”
Nick Sturge, Director of the Engine Shed, who also mentions his excitement about the IoT Boost programme, adds: “We are also launching our series of Scale Up briefings and this kicks off with a thought leadership piece on ‘Scaling Up Inclusively – Minding the Gap’.
“We need to create a fantastic environment for the companies that could and should be scaling up – but also need to make sure that that growth takes advantage of all the potential local talent.”
“We will deploy an initial £150m in investment to help British businesses to startup, scaleup and succeed”
Of course, with more businesses thriving in the region, more and more of our successful entrepreneurs feel able to help with the new surge of talent. Andrew, having been through his own unique entrepreneurial journey, announces: “This month marks the launch of a new investment company that I Co-Founded called Accelerated Digital Ventures, a new venture platform that will fund all stages of the digital technology business lifecycle, from entry to exit.
“We will deploy an initial £150m in investment to help British businesses to startup, scale up and succeed, supercharging growth across all UK regions. Our long-term aim is to invest upwards of £200m every year into UK-based startups and scaleups.”
Growing the cluster
As startups grow and more entrepreneurs and innovators are drawn to the region, more specialist facilities and more space are needed. Something that 2016 has seen is the development of areas such as the Bristol and Bath Science Park and Temple Quarter, the opening of science incubator Unit DX, and of course the completion of Future Space, UWE’s hub for science and technology businesses.
Elaine McKechnie, Future Space’s Centre Director, says: “It’s been an exciting year for us as we have seen 3 years of work come to fruition.
“We now have a great pipeline of companies ready to move into Future Space, but I am particularly excited about the events we plan to hold here. It kicks off with the launch of Venturefest in February and it will be great to see the space buzzing with lots of people.”
“True innovation needs an ecosystem in which to thrive, and one of the key elements is flexible space to work”
“As a relative newbie to the area, I am impressed with the level of tech innovation going on locally. Over the next year, I would like to see more businesses benefit from the research, skills and facilities available at UWE and the other universities in the region. That’s a core aim for Future Space, but something that we also hope tech businesses will truly benefit from as they strive to raise the innovation bar.”
As well as larger spaces, it’s important to highlight the incredible contribution of the region’s growing number of coworking spaces. There’s currently great excitement in the air for what these spaces could mean for our future workforce.
Already a fantastic seven of the South West’s coworking spaces were nominated in the Great British Entrepreneur Awards 2016 and, after launching this year, DeskLodge came out on top.
Over in Bath, startups are still flocking to spaces such as the Guild Coworking hub which celebrated it’s third birthday this year and won the SPARKies award for Best Service Provider (pictured left).
“From robotics, IoT and high performance computing… we will see some significant new products taken to market and further consolidation of recent launches”
Tom Lewis, Manging Director at Cowork Inc – the company which operates The Guild, says: “The highlight for me in 2016 was helping the Guild achieving record levels of new member signups and member retention, leading to our biggest year ever. We think this reflects the continuing relevance and importance of Bath in the wider regional creative cluster.
“I hope that in 2017 we start to see property developers and investors in the region understanding the commercial potential of collaborative working so that we can work with them in unlocking the value in their portfolios in imaginative ways.
“True innovation needs an ecosystem in which to thrive, and one of the key elements is flexible space to work.”
Rick tells us: “From robotics, IoT and high-performance computing, I think we will see some significant new products taken to market and further consolidation of recent launches. Cloud development continues to thrive and we see some household names working on technologies for the connected home and beyond.
“I think we will see a focus on developments in Smart Cities [in 2017]”
“Conferences such as Voxxed, the VR World Congress and Bristech provide a shop window for the strength and depth the region has and we will continue to compete on the global stage for talent, ideas and opportunities.”
Clare adds: “We will continue to see the local technology cluster flourish, growing in strength and global profile. The exciting thing is how Bristol might approach this differently – learning from places like Silicon Valley to make sure growth is inclusive and contributes to the culture of the city as well as its GDP.”
Tatjana says: “I think we will see a focus on developments in Smart Cities. As part of Venturefest, we are working to identify the investment opportunities for the region which has a growing reputation as a global leader in the field. This will also include establishing Bristol & Bath as the leaders in robotics and autonomous systems, and I imagine we’ll see more and more players moving into autonomous vehicle development.
“I also really hope that Bloodhound (pictured above left), a Bristol-based project, breaks the land speed record next summer!”
Many thanks to everyone who took the time to chat to us. The team at TechSPARK wishes all a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. Here’s to 2017 being the biggest year yet for the South West tech cluster!
And, whilst you’re thinking about those New Year’s resolutions, it’s always worth knowing what’s going on in the tech cluster. So stay up to date by signing up to the TechSPARK newsletter. And whilst you’re at it, you can follow us on Twitter: @TechSPARKuk.