Connect the dots and tech will grow

Friday, 27th April 2018

Guest blog by Rupert Cornford

Technology is a young and noisy industry in Manchester, but behind the social media, some real progress needs to be made to maximise the industry’s potential.

Ecosystems take time to develop. Like the slow evolution of nature, so business communities have to be born, grow and be supported as they find their way in the world.

Manchester’s long serving manufacturing and professional services communities, which have grown, contracted and innovated through the decades, now it’s the turn of the tech sector to come out of the shade.

“Manchester is quite self-aware about its tech sector now,” says tech journalist and consultant Martin Bryant. “Since 2012, when we opened TechHub and started taking about what was happening in the city, other initiatives have moved forward and the Mayor recently held a digital summit.”

But, unlike ecosystems, we aren’t particularly patient in the face of this young sector’s development. Such is the pace of expectation and change in technology, we want it now, better – and on a par with Silicon Valley.

A lot of the ingredients are already here – big players, start-ups, funding (or people who know how to get it), universities and graduates. But the pull of elsewhere is still strong.

“I still find we have amazing graduates locally and they still ask if we have vacancies in the London office,” says Nikki Scrivener from tech PR agency Fourth Day. The developer community in Manchester is a strength, and the ecosystem has pulled many businesses into the city for this very reason. High value jobs – albeit always difficult to fill – but clustered close enough together to feed tech’s hungry growth.

Businesses like Martin Balaam’s product information software outfit Pimberley, which recently secured investment from private equity firm NorthEdge is consciously in Manchester over London. There are many more like him in the city and support for Manchester comes from right across the region. Daniel Reilly, who is one of the co-founders of Liverpool-based Ruler Analytics, says Manchester has a lot to be proud of in terms of the technology sector.

But tech is young in Manchester and not everyone talks to each other. It’s spiritual roots of collaboration are partly evident, according to observers, but some connections are just not being made.

“Some companies reach out and support, like The Co-op,” says Bryant. “But there are some very well known businesses, by preference, who don’t get involved in the local community. They don’t see any point.”

And this is exactly the challenge for tech at the moment: take a very strong set of ingredients and mix them together for the benefit of the whole. Initiatives that connect mentors to companies, investors to companies, and journalists to companies feed the vision that many people in the city feel is already happening.

Large-scale success stories get written about and the media plays a role in the good and the bad of what is happening. This helps recruitment and profile, nationally and internationally, but it also delivers an honest appraisal of what is actually happening on the ground. It makes the sector stronger.

According to Andrew Toolan at MIDAS, companies are now asking for more space, to accommodate their supply chain onsite – and help them innovate too. This is increasingly evident at places like UKFast at Birley Fields and represents perhaps the most important stage of tech’s development: that everyone has a part to play in this story, and inward facing achievement doesn’t really cut it any more. In my own experience – mainly in the professional services sector – the city is very good at creating and forging these connections and the ecosystem is better for it. Now the technology success stories almost have a duty to incubate others, reach out overseas and prove (without any doubt) that the UK tech sector can move beyond London and Cambridge.

What I would like to see?

Paul Addison, Siemens

“I would relish the opportunity for MIDAS and other government partners to help us get connected to some of the smaller companies who are innovating. We are going into a time now where some of our younger engineers expect to be able to pick up their phone look at an app, and interact with the factory. There needs to be a safe space for small companies to test new technologies as well.”

Martin Bryant, tech consultant and journalist

“To the tech companies: think about the incredible stuff you do… My experience is that you go into tech companies and discover this world of stuff they don’t tell anyone about. Same at universities as well. Sometimes it’s commercially sensitive, but some people take their work for granted.”

Sam Jardine, Fieldfisher

“I would invite people to make a connection, make an introduction and expect nothing in return. More often than not, that is the way to build an ecosystem.”

This article was the result of a Pro Manchester round table discussion, looking at the evolution of the tech sector in the city.