The Bristol leg of Tech City UK’s Tech Nation tour took place last night and if I took anything away from the event it’s that there’s a great sense of optimism in the city’s tech community.
In a panel discussion moderated by Tech City UK COO MB Christie, members of the local tech ecosystem extolled the virtues of Bristol as a place to create and grow technology companies.
The Tech Nation report highlighted the positive attitude of those based in the area, showing 92% of Bristol and Bath tech workers feel they have a good quality of life, with 88% describing their optimism about the area’s digital growth as ‘good’.
When asked why there was such a high level of satisfaction and optimism in the area, Gareth Williams, CEO of 3D animation firm Yellow Dog, quipped: “The cider.”
He went on to explain that it’s actually just something that seems to be inherent in the people who live in Bristol.
“There’s something about the Bristol attitude – the way of looking at problems as opportunities,” he said.
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Phil Bates, architect (lead) at Oracle Cloud, added that there’s a great sense of community among those working in the local tech sector, with a high number of networking events, meetups and festivals taking place on a regular basis.
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The panel’s gripes were few, but the one most frequently voiced was the lack of decent transport infrastructure – a sentiment that was echoed in the report, with just 20% of respondents in Bristol and Bath labelling local transport ‘good’.
“The transport infrastructure here is difficult – it’s a nightmare,” said Williams, who declared himself a “smug cyclist” and explained the road network in and around Bristol is often congested.
Panellist Steve Cliffe, whose company Ultrahaptics is a prime example of a Bristolian tech success story, agreed transport links could do with an upgrade. He stated that, while the train journey from Bristol to London is only 1hr 40min, the same journey in a country like Japan, with its high-speed networks, would take 40mins or less.
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“We need the train line to be a little bit faster to get those bankers from London here more quickly!” joked Bates.
On the subject of funding, Christie asked whether investment was easy to come by in the area. It is available for tech firms with the right teams and the right ideas, Cliffe responded. He should know, Ultrahaptics raised £10.1m 16 months ago and is currently in the process of raising another round.
The Tech Nation report shows just 41% of its survey respondents described talent supply in Bristol and Bath as ‘good’. However, the panellists didn’t seem to have such a negative perspective on this and, instead, enthused about the amount of skilled graduates coming out of the area’s four universities – the universities of Bristol, Bath and the West of England, plus Bath Spa University.
Diane Perlman, CMO of MassChallenge, the global non-profit startup accelerator, said the presence of top universities is really key to the success of local tech ecosystems.
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“Our company started as an undergrad project at Bristol University,” said Cliffe.
He went on to say there are local initiatives that encourage connectivity between the student population and local tech companies. For example, Ultrahaptics runs a summer internship programme, which is sponsored by the University of Bristol, meaning the company gets a grant for giving students on-the-job training and experience.
Oracle Cloud also offers internships, which Bates said prove very useful not just for the students, but his company, too.
“The standard of the interns we get and their energy and ability to challenge how we think about technology is fantastic,” he explained.
The lack of diversity in the Bristol tech scene was highlighted as a problem, though.
According to Williams, there’s only one female member of staff on his Bristol-based team, “but it’s not for lack of trying,” he said. Adding that there’s a “wealth of talent” in Bristol, but all those skilled individuals come from the same type of background.
Perlman highlighted that it’s an industry-wide issue and is largely due to the lack of minority role models – people can’t envision themselves in a role if someone like them isn’t doing it already.
Looking to the future, Christie asked whether the panel had made any preparations for the potential ramifications of Brexit. Williams said that, for him, it was business as usual, while Cliffe said his firm had taken some action.
“We’ve balanced our cash in terms of where we are with dollars and pounds and euros. We’ve also applied for licences to keep, and hire new, overseas talent, so that whatever happens, we’re covered,” he explained.
The overarching sentiment, though, was that the local tech ecosystem is going from strength to strength, so whatever occurs after the UK exits the European Union, the technology sector in Bristol will be able to weather the storm.
Tech City News is accompanying Tech City UK on its Tech Nation tour (before you ask, we’re not connected, we just have similar names!) Stay tuned for more coverage and regional analysis. Click here for all articles in this series.