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The Business Magazine May 2024
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TechSpark’s Ben Shorrock on growing Bristol's tech ecosystem

10 May 2024
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Mr Rolls had Mr Royce, Steve Jobs had Steve Wozniak – even Elton John had Bernie Taupin (I class them as a business just as much). OK, so whoever helped Sir James Dyson and Sir Richard Branson build their businesses didn’t become as famous, but I bet neither of them did it alone.

Starting a business isn’t just about the moolah (though of course money talks), it’s about collaboration and engaging with people who’ve been there and got skin in the game – and drawing from their experience.

Across the UK there’s lots of business support (although young companies always say it’s not enough), and in the Southwest, there’s TechSpark.

TechSpark is a not-for-profit support network for technology companies across Bristol and Bath. It supports ambitious entrepreneurs through around 200 event a year, including at school level, an investment arm helping young companies raising equity investment alongside other activities and collaborations.

Bristol and Bath have long been recognised as hubs of technology and creativity, and investors from all over the country are increasingly spending more time in both cities looking for the next big tech success.

TechSpark isn’t the only such support in the city, there’s also SetSquared, a successful collaboration between the universities of Cardiff, Exeter, Southampton, Surrey, Bristol and Bath), and Science Creates – the city’s first dedicated science business incubator. Barclays also established the city’s first Eagle Lab in Bristol (at the Engine Shed), last year.

But they’re not in competition, these organisations work alongside each other which TechSpark’s managing director 39-year-old Ben Shorrock, sees as a strength.

Ben moved to Bristol from Manchester around 10 years ago, where he had spent around five years working for the city’s development agency, encouraging new companies and investment into the city.”

The good vibes of Bristol and Bath

“When I was looking around for my next career move, I visited friends in Bristol and felt the place had good vibes, so I stayed.” Bristol and Bath have that effect on many people I’ve interviewed.

He brought his experience of trade and investment, working first on inward investment and then developing business development campaigns for Bristol and Bath.

“The work I did here helped cement my love of this area and what's going on, so it was easy to sell Bristol and Bath as great places to do business.”

At the time TechSpark was still a voluntary organisation, launched by a group of entrepreneurs and founders in Bath often meeting in local pubs, without the structure of a proper business network.

They kicked off a series of meetings and activities, and Ben soon found himself volunteering.

“After 18 months or so it became clear that there was a real need for what TechSpark was offering and it couldn’t be fulfilled by a few volunteers.”

Funding was found from corporate and local government partners to establish TechSpark as a not-for-profit, which is how it operates today.

Cities histories pave tomorrow’s road to success

“One of the amazing things about the scale on which we work in Bristol and Bath, is that we can see outcomes from what we’re doing,” said Ben. “We’re helping young businesses raise money, hire talent, get started and meet the right people. That has a massive impact not only on the businesses, but on both cities too.”

“I've worked on national projects and while it’s great if you can help the country as a whole, you don't have same visceral connection as you do working in a city like Bristol.”

I wonder why Bristol and Bath have attracted such technology innovation over the years. Ben explains his theory. “The area has long been home to industries that, over time, have built a set of skills that are really useful now, such as in aerospace and avionics.

“The region has a substantial base of technical engineers who, in the 70s and 80s, worked for big businesses such as Airbus, GE Aviation, Rolls Royce and their supply chain companies.

“That deep hardware engineering produced amazing talent which can be traced through to companies such as Graphcore here today.

“On the other end of the spectrum there are the creative industries, including TV and film production companies. The BBC’s Natural History Unit in Bristol produces a third of all global natural history programming.

“Link this vibrant cultural sector with science and technology and you get a wonderful crossover of skills and tech which is where the magic happens. You don’t get that in many other places.”

And with Bristol and Bath being close geographically, Ben points out there are often just two degrees of separation to get to anyone.

“London has all the skills that we have but being many times bigger it’s more difficult to find them. Bristol and Bath can feel like a pretty small village sometimes.”

And that can be a problem, because sometimes small villages can be inward-looking.

Ben says TechSpark is well aware of that and is working on shouting louder and further about what’s going on.

He’s also aware that many of the problems facing young Bristol and Bath technology businesses are the same country-wide – limited pre-seed and early-stage funding, a shortage of appropriate lab space, and the high cost of living in both cities, but there is growing support from the universities (Bristol has shot up the ranking of universities producing the most spin-outs), and a growing determination from all tech support organisations that the region needs to sell itself globally.

Bristol is more than Banksy and Bath’s World Heritage status is just the start

“Bath is known internationally because it’s a World Heritage site, but people may not have heard of Bristol (or might just have heard of graffiti artist Banksy and Aardman Animation’s Shaun the Sheep). We want to change that.

“There is much more we want to do as a city region.”

This month, from 14-16 May, TechSpark is hosting the 2024 Bath Digital Festival. In October, it will hold the 2024 Bristol Technology Festival – the largest such festival in the UK it says.
The headline sponsor is software development company Ghyston and there are more than 30 other companies supporting it.

“Our festivals are attracting more interest year on year,” says Ben.

“Companies which are now getting national coverage, such as Open Bionics, Ultraleap, Haboo and Graphcore all grew out of Bristol, and all these companies are making a real and positive difference to society.”

Ben and his team are also engaging more deeply with UK angel investors and private equity, alongside overseas investors.

Taking the region global

Late last year TechSpark welcomed a high-profile West Coast US Venture Capital company, introducing it to more than 30 companies over the visit. “I’ve run many trade missions over the time, but it was even amazing to me, who knows the companies we visited, to see the true extent of innovation on display that day,” said Ben.

“From green hydrogen to cyber security, the reinvention of plastic packaging, to bionic arms and quantum computing, fintech and so many others.”

Three decades ago, the global tech city on everyone’s lips was San Francisco, the home of Silicon Valley. Now Bristol and Bath’s Silicon Gorge is acknowledged as one of the UK’s fastest-growing tech ecosystems – home to around 5,000 tech companies with a nine per cent growth rate.

And if Ben and TechSpark has anything to do with it, this is just the start.

Nicky Godding is editor of The Business Magazine. Before her journalism career, she worked mainly in public relations moving into writing when she was invited to launch Retail Watch, a publication covering retail and real estate across Europe.

After some years of constant travelling, she tucked away her passport and concentrated on business writing, co-founding a successful regional business magazine. She has interviewed some of the UK’s most successful entrepreneurs who have built multi-million-pound businesses and reported on many science and technology firsts.

She reports on the region’s thriving business economy from start-ups, family businesses and multi-million-pound corporations, to the professionals that support their growth and the institutions that educate the next generation of business leaders.

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