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Eligo and KPMG discuss the Midlands tech scene: 5G roll out, encouraging investment, addressing barriers to business and the skills shortage.
Last year I migrated north from Eligo's London headquarters to head up the tech division in Birmingham. Since then, I have dived head-first into the Midlands tech scene. To better understand the businesses and candidates within the Midlands tech market.
In April I was lucky enough to interview Tim Kay, Head of Technology & Media at KPMG. To delve deeper into the challenges Midlands based tech businesses face, from lack of investment to skills shortages. As well as some of the more exciting investments into the Midlands area, such as the new 5G roll-out.
What are some of the broader challenges that the Midlands tech scene currently faces?
I have a confession to make, I’m a reasonably recent immigrant into the Midlands.
I’ve spent the last couple of years in the Midlands, having spent 11 years previously in London and I think the big takeaway for me is that we have entrepreneurs, success stories, talent, ideas and innovation – but we don’t do a good enough job of bringing that together and telling our story.
I spend a fair amount of time in London within the investment community and the likes and I find that you’re still having to educate investors that the Midlands area isn’t just about the manufacturing and automotive industry. We have a good technology cluster up here that are doing really interesting things.
Birmingham and the Midlands are tiny in comparison to London, but it’s not about volume it's more about value and quality of what we have. And so, we’ve got to package that up and tell the story a bit more coherently and certainly a bit more forcefully.
What can we do to tell the story about Birmingham and the Midlands tech scene?
We need to understand and make sure that when we are talking about the Midlands tech scene that we are including all the exciting range of tech businesses in the Midlands region, from Birmingham to Solihull to Leamington Spa. In order to sell to investors and corporates in London and overseas.
Yes, the conversation of tech innovation will start in the west midlands as a base, as that is where we have the scale, but we need to be upfront about where exactly in the Midlands tech is thriving.
Historically Birmingham and the Midlands has always been at the forefront of the industrial revolution and manufacturing. Do you think this hinders the image of the Midlands Tech scene?
It probably does, but all the things you associate the Midlands with, from manufacturing to automotive, aerospace and the public sector etc – all of these areas are going through massive technological transformation.
We need to tailor the conversation of automotive, manufacturing and aerospace around the fact that there is a new supply chain of interesting and innovative businesses in the Midlands.
Why might tech businesses in the Midlands area struggle to find investment and funding?
There are some businesses in the Midlands that require early-stage funding but there are also companies that have gained customers and growth early on and don’t need funding.
It’s all about understanding what the businesses in the region need and require for success, as all are not the same. The tech sector in the Midlands is not homogenous.
For those that do need more funding, we need to continue telling the story around the Midlands tech scene to generate and attract investment.
"We need to paint a picture to candidates that for that next stage of your life and next career move, the Midlands is a great place to be."
How do we retain and attract tech professionals, particularly those that live outside of the Midlands?
We know we have interesting and successful tech stories to tell, so let’s tell them and not be shy about promoting a great career opportunity and the great businesses we have in the region.
There are the big manufacturing and aerospace businesses in the Midlands that do have big name recognition when you think of the region, but that’s not all of our economy. I spent 75% of my time with the SME’s, which gives you some indication of where our focus is from a technology perspective – it’s the earlier stage, high growth, high potential businesses who are looking for graduate, entry-level talent and more experienced hires. That is where the demand is coming from and we need to re-orientate that talent base to that population of companies and not just big businesses in the area.
Major selling points [for relocating for a job in the Midlands] would be quality of life and that there are businesses here that would be of interest to you and your career progression. In particular, if you are worried about uprooting your family or life to relocate to the Midlands and for whatever reason 12 months in, it doesn’t work out at that particular role. There are a cluster of other great tech businesses in the west midlands that are diverse and that can offer a range of other opportunities and career progression.
Quality of life in the Midlands is substantially different to that of London and we need to paint a picture to candidates that for that next stage of your life and next career move, the Midlands is a great place to be.
What’s the most important piece of advice that you’d give to a leader of a tech startup?
So to compare and contrast London and Birmingham; In London, it is very easy to find someone who has been there done it [in terms of building a start-up and gaining investment etc] and who can guide and mentor you.
In Birmingham that is much harder to find, as we don’t have a coherent network and cluster that works, but it does exist. Whether it’s organisations like KPMG that use our own network to bring people together, Silicon Canal or public sector groups. They do exist, so go and find them, and it’s worth spending some time connecting with someone who has been there and done it and can help, will pay dividends.
"The 5G rollout will be a great potential regional asset but also an inward investment asset."
Can you tell us more about the 5G rollout in the West Midlands area and what you think the impact on businesses will be?
The 5G rollout will be a great potential regional asset but also an inward investment asset. Inviting other businesses to do something interesting on this new disruptive, technology platform based in the Midlands.
What’s interesting about the 5G rollout is that it’s not going to be accelerated by purely having a 5G enabled handset and being able to download films quicker etc. It’s all about industrial and enterprise user cases for it, and it comes back to how do we connect our historic industrial strengths in terms of the industry to this new world - 5G can be one of these connective tissues to do it.
If the region wants to compete on the world stage, we need to differentiate ourselves, and if we can create 5G as an asset that we can take overseas and invite businesses to build on top of this – it will really help us to do so.
In terms of the social impact, if you look at the sectors 5G is being utilised on, you’ve got citizen wellbeing, mobility, property and construction. A major focus will be on how you can utilise 5G and citizen wellbeing by pre-empting illness, accidents etc, and how we can use tech for good.
All opportunities that will be available with 5G are able to put the Midlands region on the map in terms of an international stage. It will also demonstrate to the talent upcoming from local universities and outside of the region that there are some really great, interesting and experimental things going on in tech in the region.
"We are in a global race for talent and any barriers are going to impact things."
How do you feel Brexit will affect or is already affecting the digital tech sector both locally (Midlands) and nationally?
The tech sector has been less affected by the conversation around Brexit than others, and the UK is still a great place to invest and in terms of international investment, there hasn’t been any slowing down of that.
There is, however, the question about talent. We are in a global race for talent and any barriers are going to impact things. So, what we need is some certainty to overcome the negative stories about the difficulty of being able to get high-class talent from overseas. We need to make sure we are telling that story consistently and that people can still come to the UK. A lot that has happened over the past 6 months in terms of some of the visa regulations and requirements are being looked at and relaxed.
I also think there is a massive opportunity for the Midlands. What we have seen certainly over the second half of 2018 and certainly into 2019, you’ve got all this money that’s coming into the UK because it’s a great place to start and grow a tech business. But, in London valuations have gone up and you’ve got a lot of money that can’t necessarily meet those valuation expectations and so they are looking elsewhere.
Which means there is a massive opportunity for the Midlands tech sector to say, London is great, but how about looking at the Midlands, we have the companies, talent and entrepreneurs here.
What are you most excited about for the future of tech in the Midlands?
If you look at the talent we’ve got, the companies we have and are just starting to create, you’ve got a time period probably from now to say 3 years, where they are going to really start to make a mark on the industry.
That’s going to be really exciting as that will then generate the interest in the area, generate this gravitational pull into the region and just watching and to be a part of that will be really exciting.
In 5 years’ time, where do you think things will be from a technology perspective?
From a regional perspective, we have to hope that these ‘break out’ companies in relation to competing on a world stage are anchor points for the region. That if you are in London or the west coast. People will recognise that they are midlands-based businesses and that there is something going on. The hope is that over a 3-5-year timescale you have those businesses that are recognisable to the tech sector.
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