When Yiannis Maos began making plans for a festival to celebrate and promote Birmingham’s technology sector he was expecting to attract around 500 people or so. As it turned out, the inaugural Birmingham Tech Week saw more than 5,000 people attending 68 constituent events across 40 locations. A sign, perhaps, that the city was preparing to take its place alongside the likes of London, Manchester, Cambridge and Bristol as a home for technology startups and scaleups?
Well up to a point. The tech scene in England’s West Midlands region – within which Birmingham is the dominant conurbation – has been burgeoning in recent years. Indeed, according to government figures, the area has been the fastest-growing tech hub in the UK for the last two years and is currently home to 2,300 startup companies.
But it’s probably fair to say that the region is better known for its manufacturing past – the workshop of the world as it used to be known – rather than its digital present.
And when Maos – who cut his teeth working for the customer experience startup, Rant & Rave – returned to Birmingham in 2018, he felt that something needed to be done to promote the potential of the city and the region.
“The city didn’t feel like a tech hub,” he says. “There were good things happening, but it was siloed and fragmented.”
Maos saw a need for an event that would not only publicize what was going on in Birmingham but also bring people together to create a much less fragmented ecosystem. Against that backdrop, Birmingham Tech Week was born.
Since then Maos has been closely involved with efforts to establish the West Midlands on the innovation economy map. Today, he is CEO of Tech West Mids (originally known as Birmingham Tech), a not-for-profit organization founded to, in its own words, connect and amplify the tech sector in the region.
When I caught up with him earlier this week, I was keen to find out more about the emergence of the West Midlands as a cluster and the work required to create a successful ecosystem.
Ingredients For Success
As Maos explains in establishing Tech West Mids – aka TechWM – the intention was to meld the ingredients necessary to build a tech economy.
But what does that mean in practice? What are the ingredients?
The first thing that has to be said is that Birmingham’s relatively low profile as a tech cluster belies a wealth of activity across different sectors. For one thing, the town of Leamington Spa is a gaming hub. “It’s responsible for 25 percent of the games out of Europe,” says Maos. Then there is the legacy of the automotive industry – itself still strong in the region – in the form of mobility solution providers such as autonomous vehicle provider Aurrigo. Healthcare is also emerging as a regional theme. One recent development is the establishment of the West Midlands Health and Wellbeing Innovation Network, a collaboration between Bruntwood Scitech. The University of Warwick and the Universities of Coventry and Warwickshire NHS Trust.
Healthtech along with Greentech are the two major strands of a government-funded accelerator program managed by TechWM.
A Sense of Connection
But while there is a lot going on, there are also issues to address. For one thing, while diversity is a strength it could also be a weakness if startups and scaleups are working in isolation. Or to put it another way, if there is very little communication and collaboration what you have is a collection of diverse businesses rather than a supportive community. So one of the key aims of TechWM is to connect founders, financiers, advisors and other interested parties.
A Question of Quality
Maos also cites quality as an issue. There is, he says, a need for more and better incubators, accelerators and networks. “Founders tell me, we need something like Y Combinator,” he says.
For its part, Tech WestWM launched its own scaleup accelerator in 2021, providing free mentoring and advice to tech businesses in the region.
There is also a need for better access to capital. Maos says West Midlands Tech can encourage VCs to look at the West Midlands by organizing segmented pitch days, Equally, he argues that founders should be looking beyond the region for the capital they need. “Founders will tell you, there is no access to funding,” he says. “But we live in a globalized world,” there is no reason not to approach VCs in London, or Stockholm or Berlin.”
A Sense of Purpose
Perhaps less tangibly, Maos argues that an ecosystem needs a sense of purpose – one that is widely shared by those working in the startup sector. He cites “going global and being recognised as a leading tech hub” is a good aspirational starting point.
Closely related to this is the need to get the message out to the wider world. “We need to bang the drum a bit harder,” says Maos.
In many respects, Tech West Midlands plays a similar role to Tech Nation, the body set up by central government to accelerate progress in the tech economy. In the early days, its activities were largely focused on London but latterly the nurturing of a UK-wide innovation economy was central to its mission.
Maos acknowledges the quality of many of Tech Nation’s programs, but he stresses the importance of regional hubs being able to plough their own strategic furrows. “Tech Nation was London-based and it put resources out to the regions. He believes that allocating central government support directly to regional bodies would be a better approach.
This very much ties in with the devolution agenda which puts more hands in the hands of regional mayors such as Andy Street in the West Midlands.
The bigger picture here is that a shift is taking place in the UK’s startup economy. Unicorns have been created in just about every corner of the country and regional hubs are developing. London is likely to remain dominant, but founders have other alternatives when looking for supportive communities.
Maos sees real opportunities for the regions. London, despite its continued importance, is an expensive city. Centers such as Birmingham can offer talent combined with a lower cost of living and perhaps also a higher quality of life.
Birmingham Tech Week takes place between the 16th and 20th of October.