Innovate UK, a government innovation agency with an annual budget of over £440 million, is giving Cisco-veteran Neil Crockett the job of leading its new Digital Catapult Centre. 

The Digital Catapult, officially open from today but first announced by business minister Vince Cable in January 2012, has been set up to deliver tailored support to early-stage digital tech firms in the UK with the hope that it will help them grow, possibly to the same scale as Silicon Valley giants like Google and Facebook, while also having a positive impact on the UK economy.

Startups are able to visit the 17,000 sq ft facility for one or two weeks at a time in order to get a “boost” from the Catapult's support team, which includes people with expertise in everything from software development to marketing.

Connected Digital Economy Catapult

“This centre is meant to be an extra resource for the existing clusters, science parks and accelerators,” says Crockett, while giving Techworld a tour of the space ahead of the opening. “We’re trying to give something extra, not become another one of those.”

The Catapult, to be funded with £52 million of taxpayer’s money over the next five years, will focus on helping companies overcome issues around aspects such as data privacy and the internet of things (IoT).

Crockett is optimistic that his team of 40 people can help startups add genuine value to their company in a short space of time. However, he realises there are occasions when startups will need to speak to academics or members of the business community, so he plans to invite them in too.

Crossing 'chasms'

The Catapult will specifically focus on helping companies cross “chasms” in four main areas. These include: creating trust in the use of personal data; linking innovators to next generation connectivity; building diverse data and content sets; and the re-use of creative content.

“The real measure [of success] is how many new companies, how many new products, how many new jobs, how much extra GVA [gross value added] do we create for the economy,” says Crockett. “Trajectory measures for that are things like how many small businesses get to market.”

In a bid to further support some of the UK's most innovative tech companies, Crockett says he will exhibit certain apps and products in a designated showcasing space inside the facility. In addition to a bit of publicity for some of the UK's best homegrown tech companies, Crockett claims it's a good way of showing visitors, particularly those from overseas, what the UK is capable of building.

It is hoped that 10,000 small companies will “engage” with the centre over the next five years, delivering £360 million of linked economic value.

“The stuff we’re doing should make health and transport and energy and all these things better,” Crocket claims.

Location

Situated on the top two floors of a building on Euston Road, Crockett believes that he has chosen the perfect part of the country to place the headquarters of the Catapult.

“If we’re the convener that is trying to help people mix and collaborate then we’ve got to be in a place where people come through. On this side you have all the railway stations,” he says, pointing north towards King’s Cross Station, St Pancras International Station and Euston Station. “Tech City, Level39, Tech Hub are just over there [to the East]," he adds. "Brussels [the de facto capital of the EU] is just on the Eurostar.”

But the Catapult’s footprint is set to expand beyond London and out to the rest of the UK, with three regional hubs set due to open in Brighton, Bradford and Sunderland next March. 

“We have got some amazing clusters around this country and we’ve got to get out there and support them,” says Crockett.

Funding

Crockett has been given an annual budget of approximately £10 million in government funding over the next five years. However, the plan is for that figure to be reduced, which means that the Catapult will have to draw in funding from other sources, such as the EU and the private sector.

“We’re not just building something temporary," says Crockett. "The Catapults are meant to be here for 10, 20, or even 30 years, so we’ve got to make sure we’re building it like a business.

“The funding is over election boundaries so it’s not dependent on one party or the other – all four parties are supporting it. In fact the Labour party and [shadow chancellor] Ed Balls mention it more than Vince Cable.”

Is it enough?

The success of the Digital Catapult will be determined in due course but the fact the government has set it up is encouraging to those working in the UK tech sector.

But is throwing a few developers together in a collaborative environment enough? Many still argue that to build companies like Google and Facebook you need investors with deep, deep pockets, such as those found in Silicon Valley - not London.

The Digital Catapult Centre is one of seven Catapult Centres across the UK that represent different growth sectors. Others include high value manufacturing, cell therapy and future cities.

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