Manchester may not be the first city that springs to mind when you think of the world’s tech hubs, but tech activity in the city is really heating up. A number of successful technology companies are based in Manchester, including accommodation booking site LateRooms, fashion e-tailer BooHoo.com and e-commerce site Auto Trader.
Estimates put the number of people directly employed in the city of Manchester’s digital and creative sector at around 52,000, with the number employed in this sector across the whole of Greater Manchester being around 63,000.
We visited the city to speak to some of those involved in the tech scene to find out more. First up, we headed to Manchester Science Partnerships’ Central Campus – home to over 170 companies in the life science, health tech, bio tech, ICT and digital and creative sectors.
Based in the heart of the city’s knowledge quarter, the campus provides everything from single desk space to offices housing world headquarters with over 200 employees. Here I spoke with Rowena Burns and Anne Dornan, CEO and head of innovation at Manchester Science Partnerships. They explained how their firm supports fledgling tech firms and helps connect them with established businesses so both can learn and grow.
“We work with and support companies at every stage of their life cycle, so everything from 1/2 person start-ups in our incubators the whole way up to global corporates and everything in between,” explained Dornan.
“We work very closely with those companies to … connect them to the right support, whether that’s access to funding, access to knowledge resources and R&D support. Just a whole range of services, really, to accelerate their growth,” she added.
Support in Manchester
The Greater Manchester Combined Authority recognises the importance and potential of the digital, creative and technology sector and is keen to support growth in this area. Along with the European Regional Development Fund, it backs a variety of projects offering support to local tech businesses. This support ranges from tailored one-to-one mentorship opportunities, free advice on gaining investment, and access to professional training.
A lot of the city’s tech activity takes place on innovation corridor, which runs between the University of Manchester and Manchester Metropolitan University. The presence of these Universities, which have a strong reputation for their engineering and technical courses, means there’s an abundance of talented graduates in the city.
We spoke to Steve Banks, CEO of tech startup i2i Pipelines, who described his startup as a “spin out from the university”.
“It’s been quite easy to grow our team, we have taken a lot of new personnel from the university. We’ve taken on some new graduates and we’ve even taken on some older graduates who have had years of experience and went back to university, did PhDs in electronics and then we’ve taken them on,” he explained.
Another selling point for Manchester is its location. It’s only two hours on the train from London and a short journey to other cities such as Birmingham, Leeds and Sheffield. Also, its international airport means it’s easy to make overseas visits.
The government has proposed making further investment into the city’s transport infrastructure, making travelling between Manchester and other important tech cities easier than ever before.
Transport within the city is also extremely easy – the tram, train and bus networks make commuting and getting from A to B a doddle, plus it’s relative small size makes cycling the preferred option for many.
Tom New founded his company Formisimo two and a half years ago, and said the startup scene has really started to flourish in recent months and years.
“We’re actually one of the more established and mature start ups within Manchester. Winding back two and a half years ago, it very much felt as if we were one of the only ones there. Fast forward to now and there’s a really blossoming startup community of people starting new businesses,” he said.
Areas of growth
An area that’s partly facilitating the growth of the Manchester tech scene is MediaCityUK. The £950m, 200-acre development in Salford opened in 2011 and has brought a number of digital and creative companies to the area.
The BBC, ITV Granada and the University of Salford all have a base there as well as more than 80 startups and SMEs. These smaller companies are based across areas of the development called The Greenhouse and The Landing, just a couple of the city’s startup-friendly workspaces.
Elsewhere, The Sharp Project, SpacePortX and Innospace Manchester all provide space for digital entrepreneurs, while Rise Manchester, part of the Barclays open innovation programme is the home of many local FinTech companies.
The city is soon to gain a new facility, being built specifically for tech startups and entrepreneurs. Called Mi-IDEA, the site is being developed by Manchester Science Partnerships and Cisco and is set to open in early 2017.
Cisco has had a presence in Manchester for decades, but with the creation of this new facility, it’s committing to further accelerate digital innovation in the city.
The technology company set up post-accelerator IDEALondon back in 2013, Mi-IDEA will be the Manchester equivalent.
Ian Kennedy, vice president of technical operations in EMEA at Cisco, explained IDEALondon is a co-development environment which provides established companies, such as Cisco, UCL, and DC Thomson, with access to interesting startups. In turn, the startups gain the likes of physical working space, and legal guidance.
“What we recognised was we could take exactly the same model, but bring it to Manchester,” he explained.
Mi-IDEA will host a variety of startups, but Cisco is particularly interested in those working in the Internet of Things space, which is currently a very hot topic in Manchester. The city won £10m in government funding to develop a project called CityVerve, which focuses on IoT and Smart Cities.
The project aims to use the Internet of Things to transform the likes of healthcare, transport and energy use. The idea is to demonstrate a Smart City at scale and provide a model that can be replicated by other cities in the UK and overseas.
The competition received 22 entries involving 34 cities across the UK, but the judges decided there was no better place for the funding than Manchester.
More to offer
Our time in Manchester showed the city makes a great base for growing tech companies, but it’s also has much more to offer, out of office hours.
“Manchester is a brilliant place to live as well as work,” said Tom New.
He explained it “has all the vibrancy of a metropolitan city”, featuring numerous art galleries, museums and great nightlife, while also being close to some incredible countryside, such as the Lake District and Peak District.
Rowena Burns, of Manchester Science Partnerships, echoed this: “Manchester’s brilliant for its culture, for its music scene, for its literature, for its debating societies, for its sport, its easy access to the countryside. We’re less than an hour to the beauty that lies North of here and up to the Lake District. There’s really not much that isn’t around.”
However, she went on to say one of the main things she loves about the city is how culturally diverse and socially inclusive it is.
“We passionately believe in tolerance and inclusiveness as the key to healthy societies. These are hallmarks of the Manchester culture and way of doing things,” she concluded.
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