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Sophie Curtis

UK start-ups look beyond the 'Tech City' hype

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East London is not the be-all and end-all of technology innovation in the UK

Ever since November 2010, when Prime Minister David Cameron announced the government's ambition to create a world-leading technology hub in London's East End, the spotlight has been firmly focused on Silicon Roundabout.

But London is not the be-all and end-all of technology innovation in the UK. In fact, many people point to Cambridge as the centre of British technological innovation, and there are plenty of other high-tech start-up clusters dotted around the country.

Reports in the national press over the last week suggest that two of these clusters in particular are starting to gain momentum - one in Newcastle and one in Milton Keynes.

A BBC report last week revealed that many entrepreneurs are choosing to launch their businesses in Newcastle rather than the over-crowded capital, because the costs of living are lower and they have access to a tight-knit network of fellow entrepreneurs and investors.

It highlighted an accelerator programme called ignite100, which offers seed capital, office space and mentorship to start-up technology firms in the North East. ignite100 is supported by Finance for Business North East Technology Fund and the Finance for Business North East Accelerator Fund, together with a group of angel investors.

“We are at the point where we've got critical mass in that there's a group of startups that feed off each other,” Richard Exley, an investment manager with Newcastle-based VC company NorthStar Ventures, told the BBC. “There is a sense now of building something rather than just being a part of something.”

ignite100 is not the only organisation looking to tap the North East talent pool. Global consulting, technology services and outsourcing company Accenture is also expanding its foothold in the region.

“The North East is a real success story for our company. Business has continued to grow and we have increased our workforce from 200 to 300 over the last two years,” said UK senior managing director Olly Benzecry, as the company announced it was recruiting 20 new apprentices at its Tyneside office.

Whether these apprentices go on to be be significant innovators, or whether they go on to important, but more routine operational roles, will be interesting. Either way, the recruitment is both a commitment to the region and a sign that it has the infrastruture and skills base needed in a high tech economy.

Meanwhile, the Financial Times reported this week that a pool of highly skilled labour and good transport connections are driving “a high-tech renaissance” in the Buckinghamshire town of Milton Keynes.

According to David Renwick, innovation director at mobile device management firm AirWatch, this renaissance began last summer, when Network Rail opened a new headquarters in the town. Timetabling and planning for the network’s 25,000 daily trains are among the functions that take place there, along with logistics, IT, HR and finance.

The town’s position means it will benefit from the planned revival of part of the East-West link from Oxford to Cambridge, which was closed in the 1960s. A section linking Milton Keynes to the high-tech research economy of Oxford is due to open in 2017.

Renwick said that the local availability of skills, together with the rail transport links, make it an ideal place for high-tech companies to base themselves.

These are just two examples of how entrepreneurs are starting to look beyond the government hype around Silicon Roundabout, and choosing to locate their companies in places that suit their specific business needs.

And there are many more examples. Last year ANS Group founder and chairman Scott Fletcher led a campaign claiming that Manchester - which houses companies like Cisco, NetApp and Siemens - is the rightful home for ‘Tech City’, and describing Silicon Roundabout as “a car show room for multinational Internet superbrands who want a London postcode”.

The point is that East London is not the only place where technology innovation is happening - there are plenty of other tech start-ups around the country that are just as capable of developing the next big thing as those in Tech City.

As Nick Appleyard, Head of Digital at the Technology Strategy Board (TSB), once pointed out, the definition of a 'cluster' in Silicon Valley is that you can drive from one side to the other within a day.

By that definition, you could argue that the whole of the British Isles is one big technology cluster! Perhaps it's time we started thinking bigger.
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