The QT

Tuesday 18 June 2024

More than a match for our tech friends in the North

Tech leaders and entrepreneurs from across the North of England gathered in Newcastle’s Mining Institute this month, attending the revival of a national startup competition. It provided the perfect opportunity for Jamie Hardesty to see the North East stack up against noisy Northern neighbours
The Mining Institute hosted Tech Nation’s Rising Stars Northern pitch final

I’m enjoying the articles I’m reading in The QT each week. With enhanced devolution fast approaching, there’s rightly a lot of speculation and concern relating to how we get the most out of the opportunity. What’s interesting is the commonality of attitudes I’m seeing, irrespective of which sector commentators hail from. 

It seems most of us, regardless of industry or field, view the coming together of seven local authorities as a way to really unite and bolster the region as a whole. A good thing indeed. 

However, while Newcastle is the undisputed centre of economic activity in the North East, trepidation exists around Tyneside, leaving the rest of the region lagging behind as improvement plans take shape.

That’s the conundrum, isn’t it? Newcastle, both in terms of brand and output, is the leading light. Yet we know there’s more, much more, to the North East than Newcastle alone. It’s therefore important that we nurture our narrative’s main strength, while not forgetting the rest of our essential constituent parts. 

Balance is not something you find, it’s something you create. 

Ironically, I often feel Newcastle is forgotten when we zoom out of the region and think about our place in the North’s wider technology ecosystem. Sure, size probably plays a part here. There are roughly two times the number of high-potential tech companies in Yorkshire than there are in the North East and three times many more operating in the North West. 

As well as being the smallest of the three Northern regions, I’ve always felt that our literal “Northernness” — the fact we are tucked right up at the top of England — somehow works against us too. 

It can feel like we’re almost too far away from the action. Let’s face it, it’s not as if we’ve got a transport infrastructure capable of physically providing the connection we need either. If the new Mayor can get my backside on trains that turn up or even run on time, that’ll be a good start.

Northern leaders have long flagged poor transport infrastructure as a hindrance to growth

Though in all seriousness, what I’m saying is that Newcastle is often an afterthought when it comes to the Northern tech conversation. Take just last week, for example, when Manchester leaders combined to launch a ‘Manifesto for the Northern Tech Economy’, in advance of the Greater Manchester Mayoral Elections on May 2.

When contextualising the size of Manchester’s tech prowess, data comparisons were demonstrated in a report against regional counterparts Leeds and Liverpool. Not Newcastle. 

In the press coverage which followed, suggesting that Manchester should lead “a Northern tech nexus linking city regions in Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield”, Newcastle and the North East didn’t feature. 

In my best Jimmy Nail impression: “Howay, we’re the North of the North, man!” 

Look, I get it. Manchester has a bigger tech scene than we do. It’s worth saying I massively respect the ambition and drive arguing “the North of England should become the UK’s Silicon Valley”. 

Manchester probably should lead the North’s charge but such ambition must be inclusive. Especially of Newcastle. This significant tech city has a growing number of world-renowned accolades and high-flying operators to throw into the ring. 

Significant global players like Zerolight and Partnerize call the city home. Do I have to mention Sage PLC? There’s only one tech company in the entire FTSE 100 and it’s lived in the Toon since 1981.

Zooming back into the North East’s devolution conundrum, we absolutely should keep the aforementioned trepidations alive when considering how we pursue our future. Inclusivity is important. Missing out feels crap. Forgetting key parts of a story doesn’t just irk the reader (or your favourite exasperated writer) but it weakens the overall value proposition of the narrative. 

Louise Thompson, founder of Myfolks, gave a great pitch on the day

The North East fought to ensure the Northern final of Tech Nation’s Rising Stars competition took place in Newcastle. Sure, a small step but eventually they all add up. 

Clearly, it’s important to keep carving opportunities to put us on the tech map and reinforce the truth that there is good stuff coming out of the North East from a technology perspective. 

It was apt the event took place in the city’s majestic Mining Institute venue; the Royal Chartered membership organisation for science and technology in the North has operated for over 170 years. 

It felt fitting to feature pitches from the nine disruptive startups — one dropped out on the day — representing the North and showcasing their innovations in such a worthy setting. 

While the North East didn’t have a winner on the day, it presented a healthy reminder that the region can go toe to toe with our tech friends in the North

Jamie Hardesty

Of the nine, three startups hailed from the North East. Budding fintech payments app Appre, and digitally enabled, elderly care assistance service Myfolks both call Newcastle home, while fashion rental platform Loanhood has roots in Teesside. 

Despite the North East’s home advantage, it was Yorkshire’s Future Greens which won the day. The Sheffield-based agritech startup, which aims to transform the world of vertical farming, now advances to the National finals of the competition taking place at London Tech Week.  

While the North East didn’t have a winner on the day, it presented a healthy reminder that the region can go toe to toe with our tech friends in the North. Truth be told, there wasn’t much in it.

What’s important is we have exciting companies determined to pursue their visions from our neighbourhoods. We owe it to them to fight for better conditions to help them realise their potential. 

Manchester isn’t the be-all and end-all of the North’s tech story, just as there’s more to the North East than Newcastle alone.

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