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Silicon Gorge: Why the Bristol and Bath tech cluster is one of the most exciting in the world right now

Posted by Ian McKee on 2nd April 2014

6466232797_2e02a929e1_zHaving been a resident of South West London for the best part of eight years, late last year I made the leap to go properly South West, and moved to the city of Bath.

Among the many personal reasons for the move (countryside, family, slightly less crippling house prices, cider) was what I’d heard about the area’s tech sector. Here was a part of the country that wasn’t London, where I could continue to meet and be involved with some of the UK’s most interesting tech companies.

The area being renowned for tech is not new; Silicon Gorge and Silicon South West are both fairly longstanding tags, and the area has been home to some notable tech success stories, including some that we’ve worked with, like XMOS and Picochip. But having spent a few months in the area now, getting out and meeting people, I’m convinced that right now is a particularly exciting time.

Last week I attended the Silicon Gorge investor day, a collaboration between four of the region’s key organisations involved in promoting the local tech businesses; Invest Bristol and Bath, WebStart Bristol, The SETsquared Partnership and TechSPARK UK. The day was held at Engine Shed Bristol, a new tech hub next to Temple Meads station (12 minutes from Bath Spa station, and 90 from London Paddington) that only opened in December, and featured pitches from 27 local entrepreneurs.

For me, the day drove home the idea that in 2014, the Bristol and Bath area is one of the most exciting for tech in the world. Let me explain a bit about who was there.

WebStart Bristol

The brainchild of founder Mike Jackson, WebStart Bristol is a digital startup incubator with a difference, in that the money backing it is not from a corporate, individual or VC firm, but crowdfunded via Seedrs. WebStart is looking to emulate the Y Combinator model with crowdfunded cash. The big benefit of this from an investor perspective is that rather than put cash into one business they are investing in 10 specially selected startups at a time.

WebStart raised its first £150,000 on Seedrs from 133 investors in just 12 days; the cash going to the first 10 handpicked startups to spend three months focusing on the very early stages of developing their businesses with the help of mentorship and workspace in Engine Shed.

These first 10, which span sectors from networking portals for entrepreneurship (IdeaSquares and Women Outside the Box), through B2B subscription services for small businesses (Chibwe and ZenStores), mobile gaming (Challenge Off and Paper Street Games), to lifestyle apps (In Your Stride, Wriggle and Colour Story), have just graduated from the incubator, pitching at Silicon Gorge. The next ten, funded by a further £150,000 crowdfunded on Seedrs from 147 investors in 13 days, are just getting started.

The SETsquared Partnership

A more established support network for technology led businesses, The SETsquared Partnership is a collaboration between the universities of Bristol, Bath, Exeter, Southampton and Surrey.

It celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2013, with 1000 companies having passed through and £1 billion in investment raised. Perhaps most strikingly, it boasts a 90% success rate, defined by those that have either started trading or raised investment, achieved by a combination of a strict quality filter and excellent services offered to members. Those include coaching, mentoring, help with laws and regulations, marketing and simply the benefit of being part of a community.

SETsquared businesses tend to be low carbon high tech and creative. Among the Bristol and Bath based members pitching at Silicon Gorge were tech hardware (AlphaSphere and Simpalarm), online portals for real world communities (Envolve and Neighbourly), electronics (Silicon Basis), content (Ether Books), B2B problem solving (Sure Sense) and ecological science (Industrial Phycology).

451026141_48d5146fa2_zTechSPARK

Another new phenomena in the area are the TechSPARK networking events. A few BathSPARK events have taken place already, with the first BristolSPARK event to take place soon. They are simply a chance for like-minded local people in the tech industry to meet for a drink and a chat.

Attending a BathSPARK event earlier in the year at The Guild, a new co-working space for tech and creative businesses at in Bath, was a bit of a revelation for me. Well attended by all kinds of entrepreneurs young and old, there was a real sense of positivity, everyone there lacking an agenda other than to be friendly and help each other out.

The TechSPARK startups pitching were selected via separate events in Bath and Bristol, and included online polls service Usurv, guide to UK schools SchoolGuide.co.uk, travel startup TravelLocal.com and video presentation platform TimeTag.

You’ll have noticed that I’ve mentioned the word ‘new’ a fair amount in this post, as there is so much about the tech scene in Bristol and Bath that’s only popped up in the last 6 to 12 months. WebStart Bristol is new, TechSPARK is new, Engine Shed is new, The Guild is new. SETsquared isn’t, but it adds credibility to the area, showing that really successful technology businesses can and do come from out west. The area is home to businesses that cover the whole tech spectrum, not just the software and online types that tend to dominate the vicinity of a certain roundabout in East London.

Bristol and Bath are also getting a new faster train connection, so those who are still located in our nation’s capital can get there even faster. And while we’re talking transport, did I mention that the buses have WiFi?!

Silicon Gorge does have a history of producing great tech companies. Perhaps it’s the engineering legacy of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, symbolised by the Clifton Suspension Bridge, which isn’t so dissimilar to the Golden Gate Bridge of the original Silicon Valley, and the Great Western Railway. Engine Shed itself as part of Temple Meads station is a building designed by Brunel.

Either way, I think we’re on the verge of seeing some more history being made from an area already boasting an impressive tech heritage.

Ian McKee

Ian started out his career working in travel PR, working for tourist boards, airlines and hotel groups. Whilst there he carved out a position as a digital communications expert, managing social media, SEO and email marketing campaigns for clients.

  • Singapom

    Believe it or not, I came up with the “Silicon Gorge” tag in 1998 for a recruitment campaign I ran with STElectronics: we obviously echoed Silicon Valley, Glen and Fen…I am delighted to see it has become a widely recognised term!