It’s easy to say that you want your city to become a global tech hub – but how do you actually make it happen?
Angel investor Jonny Clark wanted to know – so he brought BusinessLive together with a panel of local entrepreneurs and experts to find out how Liverpool can start to rival cities like Helsinki and Porto as a hub for tech enterprise and magnets for new businesses.
Jonny leads the Liverpool Start-up Grind community of over 170 unique early-stage tech businesses – and is producing what he calls a “Field guide to start-up led regeneration” alongside Sophie Wilson, CEO and founder, Tuesday Media.
To help him research that guide, he brought local tech leaders together at Baltic Creative, one of the hubs of Liverpool’s tech scene.
Led by BusinessLive editor Alistair Houghton, the panel enjoyed a wide-ranging discussion on topics from Tony Wilson and New Order to Liverpool’s ambitions to rival other European cities as a home for start-ups.
Here are some of the highlights of our debate:
Be the best Liverpool we can be – don’t just talk about Manchester Jonny Clark worked in economic research and business growth at the Liverpool City Region Local Enterprise Partnership before leading ‘Activate’, a multi-disciplinary growth programme for early-stage tech companies at Liverpool John Moores University.
After leaving in 2020, Jonny founded GDPR Defender, a tech company offering GDPR compliance services to businesses. He has also made several angel investments into innovative tech start-up businesses
He introduced the event by talking about his vision for tech businesses in Liverpool. He said Liverpool needed to find its own path – not just aspire to be copy models in the USA or up the M62.
He said: “You always hear politicians say ‘We’re going to build the next Silicon Valley’. And I cringe when I hear that.You’re not going to build the next Silicon Valley because there’s been 50 years of intense federal investment into the semiconductor industry there, totalling trillions of dollars. And that’s not going to happen in the UK.
“And you always hear people saying, well, you know why? Why Manchester this, why Manchester that, why doesn’t Liverpool have that?
“That makes me cringe as well because fundamentally Manchester is a very, very different city. Yes, it’s very close. But in terms of economic geography, well, it’s got three times the population and it’s been on its devolution journey for 20 or 30 years longer than we have.
“And I think the sensible thing to say is, well, we can be the best Liverpool that we can be.”
He added: “There’s a real space for a positively-worded solutions-focused rewriting of the narrative of Liverpool.”
We need more engagement with the tech sector
Jonny Clark, centre, hosts the tech sector debate at Baltic Creative (Image: Tuesday Media) Another key point for Jonny is that the tech sector needs to grow beyond its tech bubble and engage more people.
He said: “The internet is awash with articles about why this city or that city’s tech sector is the best. They’ll talk about the big investments and the big companies there.
“In all of those places, a common denominator that I’ve observed is that everyone – or a greater portion of the population – is engaged in the tech sector.
“I think tech is still a little bit esoteric in the UK. We don’t have that thing you get in the USA where everyone invests in the stock market, everyone knows something about tech.
“In the UK it feels to me like it’s still esoteric, Lifestyle businesses are more popular. The whole idea of doing a high risk start up, quitting a job which might be quite prestigious, is seen as this preserve of a few people. And it’s not a popular thing to do.
“So that culture of participation is really important.”
Entrepreneur says we need more support for tech firms Rudy Parengal is the founder of Abjak, a food-tech start-up building authentic food brands through automated cloud kitchens.
He is also an award-winning change management consultant with a master’s degree in International Business from the University of Liverpool.
As a young tech entrepreneur, Rudy said he wanted to see more support for young and growing tech businesses in the city region.
“Jonny himself supported me throughout my journey like the whole year until now,” he said.
“He suggested I go on an incubator programme run from California, but it’s at 3:00 in the morning for about four months, so that was fun. But we do have something of that sort missing here.
“I have come through the university’s Start-Up program and I find it very interesting to start with, but there is a certain level where after that you don’t have the kind of support that you need to grow beyond that point.
“So we need an incubator for tech businesses and I’m happy to see Baltic Ventures coming up as an accelerator. At the same time, I would like to see more tech businesses being supported by the universities because there are loads of ideas generated there and there isn’t enough support in terms of funding or business support.”
People who arrive in Liverpool don’t know where to go Rudy later told the panel that as a beneficiary of the kind of support being talked about, he was very keen to see a more joined-up approach.
He said: “I moved here three years ago from a tiny village in rural south India. So for me it’s like a world of opportunity. So I’m absolutely looking at anything and everything that could work.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to meet people like Sophie and Jonny who have helped me get through to other people, and give me tips about where to go and what to do. So I understand the opportunities because of my connections.
“There is so much amazing support here, especially from the CA and private individuals. But from a beneficiary point of view, these are not mapped and they’re not communicated well. “People starting out, have no idea who to speak to. You don’t understand what is on offer, or how to get that and who to speak to. And you have to be very well connected.
“As somebody who’s an immigrant coming from a lower middle class background, I feel accepted here. And that’s the kind of story that we want to sell about the opportunities that are here – affect people’s hearts and then talk about the opportunities and the logic behind and the reasoning behind it so that they think about it for their head as well.”
We need to tell schools and young people how brilliant tech is Dean Ward is founder of Evoke Creative, which, from its base in Wirral, produces award-winning digital solutions including self-service kiosks, video walls, digital signage and payment terminals. Evoke has worked with companies including McDonald’s, JD Sports, Tesco, Google and Vue Cinemas, and has more than 100 staff.
Dean said that the region boasted fantastic businesses and great students at its universities. But he said that to generate a pipeline of qualified tech talent in Liverpool, Wirral and the wider city region, the industry needed to promote itself to children and younger people through schools and colleges.
He said: “We need to raise awareness of some of the companies that are in the sector within schools. We could be doing a lot more.
“I think all the people in our team and certainly in the technology side of the business are really willing to do it and they want to bring people through and there’s a real value in bringing apprenticeships through.
“And even from 16 the route into sort of technology and software development – that age is perfect as opposed to a sort of degree led route, which often isn’t teaching skillsets that are relevant to the businesses today.
“That closer connection to schools and universities will be really beneficial so the students know there are these careers and these companies in the local region.”
The ‘secret sauce’ – share the knowhow so people learn from each other’s mistakes
Carl Wong, centre, shares his thoughts with the panel at the tech sector debate (Image: Tuesday Media) Carl Wong co-founded video tech business LivingLens, which was sold to global giant Medallia in 2020 in a $27m deal. Before Living Lens, he also built up research businesses Curiosity and CrowdZoo.
He now shares his experiences with start ups through his company DCW Ventures and as director of tech accelerator Baltic Ventures, which launched this year.
He said: “In the long term, in order to engender a stronger pipeline, a wider funnel for budding entrepreneurs, we’ve got to get into schools earlier and give them the pathways and the knowledge to make it a viable option.
“That’s going to take a decade or more but it needs a sustained, joined-up program.
“That leads me on to the shorter term and more impactful aspect. We have a very fragmented ecosystem, everyone’s navel-gazing and looking at the wrong piece of the puzzle, or indeed not looking, just simply busy with the day-to-day.
“Over the course of the last couple of years, we’ve started to take steps towards becoming more joined up so we can help those who ask ‘How do I start a business, how do I actually incorporate, how do I build a prototype, how do I gain some pathway to some funding for that perhaps, how do I tap into the knowhow about how this is done so I can do it efficiently rather than make a million mistakes?’
“We want that joint ecosystem front to back that enables us to go from concept to start-up to scale-up and be supported through that.
“That for me is the secret sauce, it’s the missing link. It’s making people talk to each other and build coherent systems and processes and get it out there.
“We are solving that problem, the momentum can happen, but we’ve got to get our foot to the floor here.”
Tell young people that entrepreneurship is something to aspire to Carmel Booth has worked with businesses large and small and on some of Britain’s biggest projects.
She led KPMG’s Strategic Partnerships and was a Partner at Amion Consulting where she advised on a range of high-profile reforms and projects including the 2012 Olympic Games, Cross Rail, housing and regeneration reform.
Now she has roles across the city region, including as President of the University of Liverpool, and is a partner at Calderstones Consulting.
She spoke at the roundtable about the importance of promoting enterprise and entrepreneurship to young people.
She said: “You don’t know what you don’t know – that’s the bottom line.
“And that for me is about awareness, education, but also having role models as well. So I will go back to the importance of schools, colleges and universities.
“I don’t think any of them do enough, go far enough in terms of really presenting enterprise entrepreneurship as an opportunity. It’s very easy to go down a career orientated path. That’s what we’ve all had for years, isn’t it? You know, as part of being in school.
“So it’s really presenting ‘Do your own thing’ as something which is achievable. You can aspire to do that. And you know, it’s a risk – it’s a risk to set up your own business. So you’ve also got to have some safety nets alongside that as well. And I think it’s having role models who can say, you know, you can do that, you can achieve more.”
Carmel said the city region also needed to keep funding ways to give financial support to small firms. And to nods from the rest of the panel, she said “We need to get beyond a grant based culture.”
Liverpool needs to do a better job telling its tech story Dr Aileen Jones is executive director for investment and delivery at Liverpool City Region Combined Authority. Before joining the authority she was deputy director of the Heseltine Institute at the University of Liverpool and was head of UK public policy for HSBC in London.
Aileen highlighted the progress that has been made already on projects including the Tech Accelerator and the seed fund, with a focus from the CA on digital and tech businesses. She emphasised that grants were still important but that the CA was looking towards other innovative ways of supporting firms.
And she also talked about the need for the city region to send a clearer message to the world.
She said: “I think there’s something about how we tell this story about the Liverpool City region and tech. Are we good at articulating what we’re good at in the city region?
“We know we need to be able to do that and market ourselves better.
“One of the strengths to come out of the recent science and innovation audit is artificial intelligence and tech. But we don’t talk about that.
“We prefer to talk and health and life sciences as a strength, the strength we have in our universities and LSTM, but you don’t often hear us talk about the strength of our tech sector.”
Aileen said the combined authority was working to understand where the gaps are in business support in the region. She said the CA was now looking to see how it could improve careers advice at schools across the city region.
How do we get people to move here and not just party here? Jonny has worked in various start-up hotspots recently, including Lison and Porto – and says Liverpool needs to learn from them to attract more global tech talent.
He said: “There is the idea that entrepreneurs are produced in a region. They are. But they’re much more likely to move to a region.
“And one of the things I’m working on is – is it that big of a jump from Liverpool being a great night life destination where people want to do a stag or a hen do and then stay and do the culture and stuff, to then extending that a little bit further and actually being more of a Barcelona or Helsinki or a Porto, where people go, ‘I could live here, I could work here for a year or longer’?
“That, I believe is probably a far more effective strategy for the UK.
“I still think skills are important, and so is people understanding that they can get into tech and start a business.
“But the other side of it is that there are already hundreds of millions of entrepreneurs out there that are within a few hours by plane that could move here and they’ve already got good businesses as well. They’re not huge. They don’t need a big factory in Knowsley, but they could be the next big tech company.”
Tell the story of what makes Liverpool unique Sophie Wilson already had a long career in the media and broadcasting, working with national newspaper brands and with companies including Reed Recruitment and Hotel Chocolat, before founding Tuesday Media in 2018.
She is originally from Crosby and moved back after she became ill with COVID during the pandemic. Now she wants to help Jonny promote a positive narrative of the Liverpool City Region.
She said: “For somebody who is a storyteller, for somebody who’s worked in newsrooms with Fleet Street journalists, been in Whitehall, and heard what people say about Liverpool – with what I know about it, as somebody who grew up here, there is this kind of disconnect.
“I’m not necessarily saying it’s a negative image, but it’s something that Jonny talks about. It’s a great night out, ‘I had a fabulous hen do in Liverpool’.
“But from a business perspective, I landed here knowing nobody and I have built my business significantly over the past year.
“There’s lots about Liverpool that I think makes it easy to do business. That positive entrepreneurial attitude, that community spirit where you’re helping one another out and there’s so many opportunities – there’s so many people making positive change in Liverpool.”
She added: “I think Liverpool does need a rebrand. You think about Manchester, it’s beautifully curated, it’s the worker bee symbols you see around – and that was a group of individuals who made that happen.
“I feel the job at hand is a rebrand in the business context where you can bottle and distill all of these positive stories about the things that make Liverpool special and unique, whether it is this nascent AI community, whether it’s the 170 plus strong Start-Up Grind community, whether it’s people like Rudy, whether it’s the amazing regeneration that’s happening in New Brighton… there’s so much stuff happening.”
Liverpool needs to learn from Tony Wilson and New Order
Kevin Horton, co-founder and architect director at Liverpool’s K2 Architects, shares his thoughts with the tech panel (Image: Tuesday Media) Kevin Horton is co-founder and architect director at Liverpool’s K2 Architects, which he has led alongside Mark Davies since 2009. Their firm focuses on Social Value – enriching communities as well as strengthening returns for investors – while Kevin leads K2 Community, which provides pro-bono consultancy work for local charities and community interest groups.
Kevin said it was important that creativity was part of any discussion about technology, saying “I come from the createch industry. I’m a creative technologist.”
And Kevin said he took inspiration from Manchester’s great Tony Wilson.
He said: “When I was growing up in the eighties, particularly the early eighties, Liverpool and Manchester, both post-industrial landscapes, were absolutely hotbeds for creative activity taking place in the sector. So for every New Order you had, Frankie goes to Hollywood, stuff like that.
“We could pretty well match pound for pound every successful Liverpool act with a successful Manchester act until about the mid-eighties. And then there was a sort of shift in the narrative and it became very strongly focussed on Manchester all of a sudden.
“And that’s to do with the fact that they had Tony Wilson and we didn’t, and he was on everything.
“He was a very massive promoter of the idea that post-industrial landscapes are where that createch happens. So New Order for example used a lot of technology and creativity in their music, and it was an inspiration from that landscape. It’s that dirty, gritty, diverse, messy sort of disordered landscape, which is where actually the creativity comes from.
“And that’s what Liverpool still is. Manchester’s kind of evolved into something else now, but Liverpool still has the potential to be that.
“When bands at some point in their career usually got successful they moved to London and developed their career there. And actually what Tony Wilson did is said New Order are staying here and you come to us, right? Because this is where they do well, this is where they do their good stuff, there’s no point in us being down there.
“I think we need to have better leadership in that createch space in Liverpool, not just talk about tech, but creativity as well.”
Where do tech companies find support if they’re not in the city centre or Daresbury? Lorna Green joined innovation investment company Lyva Labs in 2021 as founding CEO.
Before that she was director of enterprise and growth at the NHS’s Innovation Agency
Lorna said innovation was at the heart of Liverpool City Region and that there was great potential from firms working in Artificial Intelligence (AI).
“One of the challenges is how do we support the start-ups,” she said.
“My understanding is that we’ve got more than our fair share of startups. We have got a really good start-up rate, but also a very high failure rate. We’re getting them going but they’re failing for whatever reason. So it’s about that wrap-around support.
“If you sit out in Daresbury you get supported by the partners there. If you sit in the Knowledge Quarter area you get support from KQ. But if you’re not in those sites, what support is there?
“There’s so many people offering time to do schools’ things, to give support pro bono because of their ESG agenda. But they’re doing piecemeal stuff. There’s a bit here and a bit there.
“There’s probably a fairly substantial wraparound programme needed if where you start here, you want to scale up, you can get all of the support in between, whether it’s legal or IP regulations, the global finance support, or mentoring from those that have been there and done it before.
“It’s a massive ambition, but we as a city region could develop an incubator programme for businesses whatever stage theft are at.”
Lorna said that project would be hard but achievable – and that the region needed to avoid duplication and find gaps and then get them filled
We will have a ‘best in class’ infrastructure
Claire Lewis, left, speaks at the tech sector debate (Image: Tuesday Media) Claire Lewis is leading the development of the city region’s new tech accelerator Baltic Ventures.
She was appointed head of Tech North by then Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, launching the Tech North initiative to support the development of the tech sector and ecosystem in the North of England in 2015. While ventures director at Co-op Digital, Claire launched the Federation, a community of social innovators sharing cooperative values.
She said: “I’m incredibly excited for Liverpool.
“Yes, it’s further behind in certain respects. The big challenge is the scale up issue, that there are lots of start-ups why are they not scaling up?
“But the structure and the infrastructure that the Combined Authority have been investing in and putting in place is exactly what’s needed and basically will create potentially a best in class across the UK regions in terms of the scale of infrastructure.
“I’ve seen the process that these other cities have gone through and they are messy and full of conflict and not collaborative.
“The fact that we’re all sitting around this table and have been talking is great.”
Claire said she was particularly excited about the potential for the region’s new seed fund.
She said: “No one else is doing this. And you know, it hasn’t started yet. Lorna has only been out of the blocks for a few months. None of this has hit the ground yet, but I can see coming together the ingredients for something really special. We just have to keep going.”
Harnessing Liverpool’s superpower energy Since we held this roundtable several weeks ago, Baltic Ventures has officially opened up in the Baltic Triangle.
Using its funding from the Combined Authority it will offer companies up to £50,000 in equity funding, backed by a four-month tailored support programme.
Claire said: “From our hyper-local, creative district base in the Baltic Triangle, we plan to harness the Liverpool city region’s superpower energy and liveable city status as a vital and invigorating launchpad for our founders.”
Carl Wong, who also joined our debate, added on LinkedIn: “This is going to be epic!”
Jonny Clark is continuing his work on his white paper – and we’ll keep following his story and the story of Liverpool’s tech scene in the months and years ahead.
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