The QT

Friday 14 June 2024

Don’t tell me the North East tech story, show me!

As chatter increases around North East identity and vision amid advancing devolution, Jamie Hardesty ponders where the tech sector fits into the regional narrative and warns of the perils of forgetting trailblazing companies
Jamie recently attended Liverpool Slush conference, connecting North West tech

Whenever I go to leading UK tech events, be it in London or elsewhere around the nation, two questions are often thrown at me: “What are the North East’s tech strengths?” and, unless I’m in Scotland: “What tech companies have you got up there?”

While the questions, the latter especially, could be considered ignorant or even condescending, they often actually come without sneer. Rather, queries hail from a place of genuine unknowing. In fairness, such curiosity is understandable: the nuances of North East tech prowess aren’t obvious or all that well-known.

For a long time much of my work has revolved around developing extensive awareness and understanding of technology sector activity and makeup here in North East England. Drop me in Liverpool, Bristol or Cardiff, however, and I’d have little to no knowledge of their tech ecosystem businesses, leaders and advantages. If you’re not close to tech sector going-on in this region, or indeed any region, you can of course be forgiven for being uninformed of the details.

The North East has good people going to bat for the tech sector. Much desire exists to build and ensure that the necessary conditions exist to make starting and growing technology businesses possible and appealing in this part of the world. It’s vital we’re consistently amplifying the opportunity, too.

Yet when discussions come up and panels are put together, we seem to obsess over narrative and identity so often. What’s our tech story? How do we talk about ourselves? How do we “brand up” the North East technology sector?

Ironically the key people responsible for driving sector growth, namely those studious founders with their heads down focused on growing their companies, often couldn’t care less, though there is an important role in shaping a tech ecosystem identity at a macro level, especially if we want to thrive as a well-connected, robust and successful tech destination.

I appreciate such soul-searching isn’t confined to the tech sector alone. Indeed, as the mayoral election looms, we’re increasingly seeing more conversations centre around ‘Brand North East’ and how we connect cross-industry and cultural strengths to modernise our region’s identity. I think this region is desperate for vision, identity and belonging. That’s not a bad thing; rather it proves ambition exists.

The North East mayoral candidates are currently discussing the North East’s future

Focusing on the tech sector, I’ve seen many narratives come and go in the past decade. We’ve never cracked it. I get it, it’s important to be able to articulate what North East tech actually is. What it means. Who it’s for. Why it matters. How it can be accessed. Where it can be found.

Weaving coherent and succinct messages which answer the above and, in turn, position the North East as an attractive tech destination shouldn’t be too difficult. Yet the reality is, it’s proved to be challenging. I don’t think the energy put in has churned just rewards. This bothers me. And I’m more critical of myself here than anyone else.

I’m passionate about and invested in the sector. Digital technology is transforming our economy, it provides a further devolved North East with a distinct opportunity to improve its economic competitiveness. It’s critical that the new North East Mayoral Combined Authority can get to grips with the sector’s power and potential, as we all work towards improving the prosperity of our region.

Inevitably, narrative and story-telling will come up as we strategise how we grow our North East technology footprint and future economy. It’s imperative we get this right. It’s equally imperative that we learn from what has and hasn’t worked in the last ten to 15 years. This brings me back to the two questions I’m most often asked: what are the tech strengths and who are the tech companies playing a role?

Former Secretary of State for Tech Tech and the Digital Economy, Paul Scully (right), hearing the North East’s tech story

All too often, we focus on the former when it’s the latter which holds the key. We attempt to spin narratives — sometimes alarmingly uncoordinated narratives — around our clusters, sub-sectors or hotspots. Operational companies can be second thoughts, retrofitted to evidence claims. This is wrong and we shouldn’t be doing it.

Rather, we need to take a more data-led approach. If we’re going to tell the story of North East tech, it’s paramount that we begin by taking stock of, and understanding, the companies we have operating here. I don’t want to read about the North East being number one for AI or fintech or foodtech or whicheverportmanteautech we can spin up, without seeing the evidence. No, I want to know about the startups and scaleups operating in those fields and pioneering disruptive value to industries.

While the region may not have an outstanding tech strength, for example akin to London’s unrivalled dominance in fintech or Cambridge’s central role in pioneering semiconductors, we do have areas of competitive advantage. In the past decade we’ve seen vertical developments around healthy ageing, biotech, energy and climate tech, hotspots of digitally-driven advanced manufacturing and industry 4.0 — there’s good stuff happening, absolutely.

So, I’m not suggesting we bury any of that or that we must operate with modesty; hell, let’s shout about that and then some. Though when we do, let’s target those stories to the right audiences. And the merits must be there, the companies driving the claims must be front and centre. To borrow a marketing cliché, show me, don’t tell me!

Luminous Group CEO Ben Bennett (left)

For what it’s worth, when I am at those events and when I do get asked leading questions pertaining to the North East, I give examples of fast-growing companies. In the past I have said that there are some great software as a service (SaaS) companies in Newcastle or there’s loads of digital gaming companies in Gateshead.

While both might be true, there’s no value-add here. But if I say Newcastle’s Luminous provides bespoke XR content creation and has been recognised as one of the top 20 fastest growing tech firms in the entire North of England, that’s a bit more memorable. Appetites may be whetted, introductions may form, value may spark. And I could do the same with Double Eleven, Cognassist, SoPost, Opencast, iamproperty, Salesfire etc. You could choose others and do the same; perhaps then we have momentum?

I firmly believe this is what our sector needs to do before a new mayor and devolved administration get some legs; we need to get into a position of being able to show as well as tell. We need to do the research, extrapolate the data, arm ourselves with the evidence and agree on how we can refer to it and circulate it. Robots we are not; I’m not saying we must chorus from exactly the same hymn sheet. Though if we’re to sing for our supper, I want to be part of a euphony not a cacophony.

1 thought on “Don’t tell me the North East tech story, show me!”

  1. Have a look at what is going on in the NEAA. The north east is a centre for development of Electric Vehicle technologies with the likes of Curtis Instruments, Turntide, AEM all making a positive local contribution. What about AESC building the giga factory next to Nissan? All these investments show the NE has something to offer.

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