I recently spent three days in the city of Lancaster. As Community Engagement Manager In the North West for Tech North, part of my job is exploring what’s going on in the region. So, I was thrilled that with Digital Lancashire I could spend time in the city.
When you think of the North West it can be difficult to look past Manchester and Liverpool. One of Lancaster’s key assets is its university, which sits just outside the city. Lancaster missed out on being named a cluster in the recent Tech Nation report, although there’s plenty going on here.
Day one: Late registration
I began by taking the short trip out of the city to the university. Lancaster University is ranked top 10 in the UK. More than 13,000 students are currently enrolled on campus, and it attracts some of the brightest minds not just in the UK but internationally. I was going to be spending the day at InfoLab21 which is the hub on campus for innovation, it also acts as an incubator space for companies.
I was greeted by Daniel Prince who heads up partnerships for the hub, and also is a cyber security guru. Lancaster University is the only centre of excellence for cyber security research in the North West.
The first company I got to meet was Xyone, which offers dynamic services to make sure a business is as resilient as possible against the threat of cyber attacks. Steve Robinson, the CEO, offered great insights into the relationship he has with the university and has two masters students currently working with him.
Due to the nature of the work Robinson does, the university is the ideal location for him to work from. It allows him to continually improve his offering. Steve also founded the North West Cyber Security Cluster which is helping raise industry standards and ultimately helping businesses be better armed against cyber-attacks.
We sat in the cafe at InfoLabs, which quickly became a drop-in place for a whole number of faculty personnel ranging from the Business School to Data Science. It was fascinating to learn how each of the departments are working with a tech focus, and the challenges they currently face.
One of the most interesting projects that came up was Productivity Through People (PTP), which allows manufacturers access to the latest techniques, thinking and research. To help them transform their productivity and working practices through involvement with the program in the form of workshops etc.
The topic then swiftly turned to infrastructure, and Lancaster’s potential as a smart cities testbed. iLancaster began as a university app but has now grown to be available to the city. The functions range from setting bin collection alerts to being able to report road damage.
The morning was very much focused on the academic side, and I looked at how the university is making efforts to have a stronger digital focus. After lunch I went to a roundtable discussion with some of the companies based in InfoLabs21. There was a great mix of all different companies around the table:
- Quantum Base, which develops quantum security solutions that are 1/100th the size of a human hair, 100 percent secure, and guaranteed by the laws of physics. It’s a product that could be used to guarantee the legitimacy of anything from medicines to phones.
- Relative Insight is a platform that compares language sets in a data-driven way to look for new insights. Relative Insight enables users to understand critical linguistic and attitudinal differences between consumers and brands for maximum value on campaigns. They currently work with Disney and Unilever.
- Novi Digital is a data-driven digital marketing agency. It provides consultancy, research and implementation services for SEO, PPC, CRO, affiliate and email marketing services to clients across the UK and internationally.
- The Networking People is a full-service provider for networking, network engineering, network consultancy and associated services. The company was created on the back of working on the CLEO project with the university.
- Demo Pad is a specialist in home automation. It offers a universal remote system for custom control of audio / visual equipment, lighting, heating, CCTV, gate automation and access control for the home.
It was great to hear from such a diverse range of companies in the building. The balance between academia and business was clear, and all the companies were proud to be based in Lancaster. They showed a real desire to continue their growth in the region.
After introductions from each of the founders, the conversation switched to the challenges that each of them face. Talent and skills wasn’t much of a problem. As they’re all based on campus, most if not all the groups had recent graduates in their workforce. It quickly became clear that the main issue came with companies outgrowing the facilities.
Some of the companies had 16-person teams and were still based in the ‘incubation’ space. That is almost unheard of in other places I have worked, and the main reason was the lack of space available to take that next step.
It became evidently clear (as I sat down at the amazing Atkinsons Coffee) that the ecosystem within the university suffers from the lack of a constant flow of new cohorts going through the incubator. That would create alumni to share experiences with once they grow out of InfoLabs.
Still, it was a real eye opener to see the work happening. The university is keen to follow on from the success of InfoLabs. It did make me ponder, why not launch an accelerator?
Day 2: Views from the city
The sunshine of the first day was a distant memory. I was woken by the rain tapping against the window to begin my second day in the city. Today, Stewart Townsend of Digital Lancashire and I were to focus on businesses in and around the city itself.
First port of call was Nublue, one of the first companies to move into InfoLabs back in 2005, to meet founder Michael Ashworth.
Nublue specialises in creating conversion-focused ecommerce websites for clients all over the UK. Michael talked about how he and his brother tried to break from InfoLabs as they set their sights on scaling the team to 40 people. He said that it was a difficult decision because at the time there was a lack of information about where to go and how to go through the process.
Nublue is a real success story in the region and Michael spoke of his desire to grow further and stay in Lancaster. He would also like to go back and ‘mentor’ some of the younger companies based in the hub.
We then took a short walk across the courtyard at the White Cross business park to meet Fat Media, a web design and digital marketing company with clients all across the UK. They also have offices in Bristol and London after purchasing companies in those cities.
Fat Media works with clients ranging from Warburtons to Lancaster University. The company is split between two sites in the city. However, they are currently in the process of getting everyone under one roof to allow more cohesive work on projects.
“An office for six people in East London is the same price as for 100 people in Lancaster,” said Head of Brand, David Adams. The new locations give them a stronger UK-wide presence, but they are still firmly committed to their home in Lancaster. Interestingly, Fat Media runs a graduate scheme that employs around 10 new recruits each year, chosen from more than 300 applicants.
The afternoon was hosted at CityLab, a council-owned building in the middle of town, First up was Loading Deck who build custom software and manage devops for a number of clients. Sitting down with founder James Hadley, one of the most startling facts I heard all week was that 50 percent of their business is from the USA, purely from word of mouth on the back of their build quality.
The biggest problem for Hadley was getting the right quality through the door. He has trouble finding workers with the necessary skills to create some of the complex builds. This has led to him considering an offshore team to ease some of the workload.
We then met Jake Cocker. He was an original founding member of Fat Media, and is now Managing Director of OnDemand Projects. The company offers an all-in-one platform that helps developers, consultants and contractors collaborate.
Cocker has seen it all in Lancaster, and talked about how he fell in love with the city during his undergraduate study. He decided, after leaving for a year, that this place was for him. He noted how there are amazing things happening in pockets in Lancaster, but the joined up thinking just isn’t quite there – it’s all very atomised.
Lastly in the building I met with Factored, a multidisciplinary design studio started by Tom Grattan in his parents’ garden shed, with just £300. He and Daniel Wallace now turn over more than £100,000 per year and have ambitions to grow.
They have no external investment and don’t plan to look for any. They are happy to continue their steady rise and prepping for the third member of the team to join. “You feel as if all the issues you see as a founder are only happening to you,” said Grattan, noting that that strong ties to other founders in the city have really helped him learn quickly.
Grattan and Wallace were frustrated by the lack of great space in the city and the pain in adding some personality to their current space, “It was a battle just to paint the walls and decorate our office.” The pair were very grounded for young directors and seemed excited to grow their business in Lancaster.
Last but by no means least was accessplanit, a software house that streamlines and automates every training administration process and uses analytics to constantly improve what you do. It works with mainly UK-based clients, such as the Metropolitan Police and Reed.
The company has been going since 2001 and after relocating several times is now firmly settled in the centre of town and ready to grow. They talked about their plans to get from 90 customers to 500 by 2027, which would include them working across the globe.
Day 3: We start at home
On my final day in Lancaster I was taken to B4RN fibre optic broadband run by a local team with the support of landowners and volunteers. B4RN offers 1 gigabit (yes, 1,000 Mbps!) internet speeds in rural Lancashire and beyond.
We were hosted by Chris Conder who told us about B4RN’s formation amidst adversity from BT and local authorities. What became clear after talking with Chris for a short time was that the group is about much more than just the speedy connection. It’s centred around the community coming together. While we were there, BBC Radio Lancashire was broadcasting live from B4RN’s HQ, and there was a real community atmosphere, complete with home baking from local people.
B4RN had the foresight to futureproof their villages and make sure they were viable for younger families, so they weren’t forced to move to the better-connected cities. Speaking with some of the locals on site, they said that with everything moving online, it allowed businesses to stay viable and relevant, but also helped with local communication. B4RN also provides free 1 Gigabit connections for schools, churches and community buildings, paid for by the community.
It was great to see B4RN in action to round off my trip, and it got me thinking, it’s the perfect example of how a tech ecosystem should work…collaboration. Reflecting on my conversations in Lancaster, two things are clear; it’s a potent place for tech, evident by the companies already growing in the area. Secondly, there isn’t enough joined-up thinking.
Part of my role at Tech North is finding out what is happening with companies on the ground and how we may be able to help with their growth. Lancaster has all the ingredients for success, they just need to be brought together with the right recipe.
Featured image credit: Terran Brown / Flickr
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