Can Nottingham be the next Tech City?
This weekend the Financial Times reported on the rise in private sector jobs in some of the regions of the North of England and the Midlands hardest hit by the financial crisis.
In line with this growth, we're seeing areas like Newcastle becoming more attractive as startup hubs for entrepreneurs. Don't believe me? See this BBC piece on the startup scene there), and local councils in these areas are becoming more interested in creating the next 'Tech City' or 'Silicon Roundabout' in order to generate more jobs and boost the local economy.
An example of this is the new Nottingham City Accelerator initiative, which I learnt more about at a recent workshop hosted by the BioCity incubator in Nottingham (BioCity is an established incubator that currently supports over 75 bioscience companies, with the largest two tenants employing 65-75 people).
Despite successes like BioCity, Nottingham has the lowest one-year business survival rates among core cities, but the fourth highest five-year survival rate, according to information given to me by Nottingham City Council. This suggests a considerable gap in supporting more general startups through the early stages.
To combat this, Nottingham City Council, in partnership with local incubators, is looking to set up a startup accelerator programme which will offer business support to startups in three sectors - life sciences, clean tech and digital content. The accelerator initiative is part of the Council's wider Nottingham Growth Plan and associated £60m+ City Deal, and will be funded for two years, targeting at least 40 startups with the aim of creating 30 high growth businesses and over 100 jobs.
When I first learnt about the initiative three immediate challenges came to mind. First, how do you construct and manage an accelerator programme around three different sectors with very different business models? While the traditional accelerator model might work for creative and digital businesses, how do you create an acceleration model for life science and biotech businesses where the mechanisms and costs of getting an idea to market are so different?
Second, how do you ensure a pipeline of quality entrepreneurs to feed into the programme? With the draw of high profile programmes like Springboard and Seedcamp in London, Oxygen in Birmingham and Ignite100 in Newcastle - how do you encourage entrepreneurs to Nottingham and how do you get them to stay?
And third, how do you create a sustainable programme with public money? The source of funding behind any business support programme will affect the motivations and ambitions that drive it. The initial accelerator programmes in the States were set up by venture capitalists as a way of mitigating their investment risk. So how does this model work as a tool for economic development in deprived areas? To whom are you accountable? And what does success mean?
To help light the path around these challenges the council and BioCity held a one day workshop last month to seek the guidance of local entrepreneurs and experts in startup acceleration from different programmes. Among them were Jon Bradford, co-founder and CEO of the Springboard accelerator in London and Cambridge, Peter Torstensen, CEO of Symbion Science Park and Accelerace, a part-public and part-private funded programme in Denmark, and Bill Barber, former angel and leader of the Italian bank Intesa Sanpaolo's new Europe wide 'StartUp Initiative'.
On the whole I thought the exercise of collaborating with other accelerators and entrepreneurs with the design of this programme was useful and symptomatic of the startup community - i.e. very willing and open in sharing learning.
While the aim of the day was to try and define the design and delivery model for the Nottingham Accelerator, it seems that there is no single optimal model for startup acceleration that can be applied across all three sectors (life sciences, clean tech and digital content) - in short, there's no single magic silver bullet we can apply here.
Throughout the workshop the group raised a number of factors that they considered key to the success of a Nottingham accelerator programme. I've listed three of these below, however there are of course many others.
- Building a stronger entrepreneur led startup culture in Nottingham. There are small grass roots activities taking place already, like GeekUp Nottingham, but more needs to be done to foster the startup community in this area.
- Creating a programme that incentivises and pressurises people to take their business idea to the next level. A time based programme where entrepreneurs are expected to meet regular milestones will help to provide the momentum to take people from an idea to a startup.
- Providing the knowledge and resources to enable startups to develop their proof of concept through experiments and collecting empirical data.
As this programme develops Nesta will follow and report on its progress because we want to learn more about what works best in supporting startups, and why.
As I've outlined in this blog, making the Nottingham Accelerator a success is not without its challenges, but I support the ambition behind it, and if they can replicate and scale the entrepreneurial know-how, goodwill and enthusiasm in the room that day, then they may well be on their way... and if it works, we can hope to see this reflected in the continuation of more jobs created over the long term.