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Tech in Birmingham: Great quality of life, but lacking talent

TechNation Birmingham
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If it’s fantastic quality of life and a great sense of community you’re looking for, Birmingham is the place to be, according to the panel of speakers at last night’s leg of the Tech Nation tour.

The tour is an opportunity for Tech City UK to share the findings of its Tech Nation report with the technology communities of some of the UK’s key regions. Last night was the Midlands leg, held at iCentrum in Birmingham.

The report shows that four tech clusters in the region (Birmingham, Leicester, Nottingham and Worcester and Malvern) employ over 87,400 people in digital tech jobs. These people were responsible for generating an average GVA of £2.91bn from 2013-2015 (that’s the amount of value generated after the sector’s cost of operation is deducted).

Top tech hubs in the Midlands

Birmingham is the UK’s second biggest city (in terms of population), but it’s not the cluster with the second biggest GVA. Birmingham averaged a GVA of £1.4bn between 2013 and 2015, putting it behind London (£30bn), Reading (£5.5bn) Manchester (£2.8bn), Bristol and Bath (£1.7bn).

Community

It may not have the big names or huge notable tech success stories of other cities (think SkyScanner of Edinburgh, or ARM of Cambridge) but what it does offer is perhaps more valuable.

“I got lucky choosing Birmingham,” said Clive Bawden, commercial director of digital healthcare company Breaking Free, “Birmingham, for me, is unbelievable.”

He said his quality of life in Birmingham is fantastic, with the city offering him pretty much everything, from sport, to music to a sense of community and welcoming people. To him, that makes it an ideal place in which to create and grow a tech company.

Mike Bandar, founding partner of Turn Partners, agreed: “From a community perspective, you really feel like you belong here.”

Bandar went to Aston University before setting up Turn Partners, which is a “startup studio” focused on the acquisition and creation of online businesses.

Joel Blake OBE, founder and CEO of FinTech startup FeeLYX, was “born and bred” in Birmingham and said it’s not only a great place in which to live, but also to work. He highlighted the city’s diversity as one of its strong points, explaining that it’s home to people from all walks of life, races, religions and, crucially, those with widely varying skill sets.

“Let’s not pretend that we’re the best place for a fiercely ambitious person to start their career,” chimed in Adam Bird, founder and CEO of Cronofy, which has created an API to help businesses and their customers synchronise calendars.

He stressed that London presents way more opportunities to young graduates looking for a career in tech. However, as these individuals get older and start to have families, they often look to leave the city for a less frenetic pace of life.

Stats in the Tech Nation report support his claim, with more than 6,000 people relocating from London to Birmingham last year alone.

So, really, said Bird, the biggest opportunity for regional tech companies is to target those people seeking to move out of the capital.

Head of external relations at Innovation Birmingham, Charlotte Crossley, said Birmingham is a particularly good place for those with children. She explained she benefits from on-site child care at her place of work, which costs her £44 per day, whereas her friends “down south” pay three times that amount.

Attracting talent

The panel discussed the practical steps that are being taken, and could be taken, to encourage more people to join the Birmingham tech community.

Crossley said her company, which runs a campus for Birmingham’s tech and startup community, works to nurture relationships between local tech businesses and those studying at Aston University, so students are more aware of opportunities available locally when they come to graduate.

Mo El-Hilu, sales director at BrightLET, a PropTech startup based in Innovation Birmingham’s campus, agreed this type of collaboration is important, but highlighted that tech companies can’t expect to hire expert talent if they’re on a budget. He said it’s down to startups to put time into training graduates so that they become valuable business assets.

Bawden suggested players outside the local tech community could drive positive change within the sector.

“There is a game changer coming in May,” he said, referencing the upcoming mayoral election.

Bawden added that whoever is victorious in the election has a real opportunity to do something new and could really promote innovation within the city.

Bandar agreed, stating that the new mayor could help to put Birmingham on the map and give the city a voice.

“If you look at London, we will always know who the Mayor of London is. They will always be doing international trade missions, they will always be getting the brand and the name out there, but who represents Birmingham?” he said.

Funding

Bird, who is based in Nottingham, said more local government funding should be allocated to the Midlands’ tech communities. He gave the example of Nottingham’s N’Tech grant, which was announced in 2014 as a £10m fund for local companies operating in the life sciences, digital content and clean technologies spaces.

On the subject of funding, Bawden and Blake both said a more active network of local angel investors needs to be cultivated to bolster the region’s tech sector.

“[We need] a more connected angel network in the region, but one that has maybe a slightly wider risk appetite. The city is breeding a whole new generation of startups that are willing to take bigger risks, but we need to match that with the financial support that they need to help them to scale,” said Blake.

He concluded by saying a culture of corporate innovation is starting to emerge in Birmingham, but there needs to be more collaboration between big businesses and startups.

“Larger businesses [need] to open their doors a little bit more and be willing to … learn from the startup culture. That almost symbiotic sharing of knowledge, that would help to create a better ecosystem of support for the next generation of businesses.”

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