Where did the Bristol and Bath tech cluster come from?
A globally significant technology cluster such as Bristol and Bath does not emerge out of a vacuum. Many years of development and activity have led to the region’s current position in the technology landscape. Recent deals such as the $30m investment in GraphCore are a result of the strength of the cluster in Bristol and Bath.
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This cluster has many parallels with Silicon Valley in the US that go back a hundred years, even before the start of the electronics industry. The aerospace cluster with the Bristol Aircraft Corporation closely maps the aircraft innovation in the Valley. In the same way that the aircraft instrumentation business led to Fairchild in the US, spinning out the world’s largest chip maker, Intel, so the technical expertise of Bristol in aerospace led to Intel and Fairchild being set up in the region in the 1970s.
This was a key factor in the founding of pioneering silicon chip developer Inmos in 1978 by three entrepreneurs from the UK and US, backed by £25m from the UK government as a national champion for microelectronics. The company developed a new generation of microprocessors with memory on the same chip as the processor and lots of connectivity, and the transputer was born.
The company was established in Bristol, with additional design expertise in a Colorado office, while a manufacturing plant was built across the bridge in Newport in South Wales. The company received a total of £211 million from the government over six years, and was sold in 1984 to Thorn EMI for £192 million.
Startups and spin-offs
Many former Inmos employees remain in the South West and sustain the cluster. Spin-offs and companies founded by Inmos alumni include Meiko, Division, PixelFusion, Motion Media Technology, picoChip, XMOS, Blu Wireless Technology and Gnodal, leading to Cray setting up its European supercomputer research centre in Bristol, and ex-Inmos staff are running technology companies all around the world.
The technology focus also helped Hewlett Packard chose the city for its European labs, the first outside the US and the core of its quantum security development. A spinout from HP called Elixent was bought by Panasonic to be another European chip design centre.
Inmos was eventually absorbed into ST Microelectronics in 1994, with the brand name being discontinued, although the transputer core powers a third of all the digital TV set-top boxes around the world. ST remained in Bristol at the site built for Inmos on the Aztec West until 2015.
Hi-tech knowledge centre
In the meantime, other companies have tapped the expertise in the region. Element 14, set up out of the ashes of Acorn Computer in Cambridge to design a new processor for high-speed broadband, set up a design centre here before being sold to US chip giant Broadcom. The founders went on to set up Icera Semiconductor to develop a programmable modem for LTE and 5G cellular phones, which was bought by US chip giant NVIDIA. Those founders are now working at the leading edge of artificial intelligence and deep learning technology at GraphCore and Five.ai.
Picochip in Bath was developing a massively parallel processor for cellular basestations that was bought by Intel and continues its hardware development. Other design centres for 3D Labs, Zii Labs and Imagination Technologies have all pushed multi-core processor and graphics technology forwards. At the same time, German chipmaker Infineon has a major design centre in Bristol working on the chips that control the engines of a third of all cars in the world
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A cluster also needs good universities and the Universities of Bristol and Bath have also been a key factor in the strength of the region. Spinning out companies such as free space touch specialist Ultrahaptics, wireless specialists PowerWave and Toracomm to materials specialists NanoGaN and GLOPhotonics from Bath has helped create the strong ecosystem of innovative technology. The Bristol Robotics Lab, a joint venture between the University of Bristol and the University of the West of England has been leading research into the next generation of robotics and driverless vehicles.
The Bristol Robotics Lab, a joint venture between the University of Bristol and the University of the West of England has been leading research into the next generation of robotics and driverless vehicles.
All of this is shown on the region’s cluster map, highlighting the wide range of technology companies across the wider region. As companies come and go, the opportunities across the cluster continue to attract world-class hardware and software engineers.
The same evolution that has driven Silicon Valley from aerospace through semiconductors and hardware technology to apps and software is also driving Bristol and Bath. Startups such as Zeetta networks are re-defining networking software, while YellowDog is working on new ways of cloud computing.
A much longer report on the history of the region, Chips with Everything, is available from NESTA