Bradford sets out stall for tech-driven future

Populist politicians like to talk about building walls, but technology has a habit of knocking them down. Total venture capital investment in UK tech topped £6bn last year, more than any other European country, according to the Tech Nation Report 2019. This flow of capital tells a very different story to the sharp-suited charlatans of this world.

Eileen Burbidge, chair of Tech Nation, said: “The UK holds a pivotal role in the global tech sector. Ambitious tech entrepreneurs across the country are more networked than ever, and they are accelerating growth through international connections.”

According to the industry report, UK tech is punching above its weight and ranks fourth in the world, behind the US, China and India, for attracting investment in high-growth businesses. The UK remains a hotbed for tech talent, employing 5 per cent of all high-growth tech workers globally, more than Japan, France and India.

The findings are a reflection and reminder of the UK’s fundamental social, economic and cultural strengths as an open trading nation. With our young and enterprising population, distinctive offer, growth potential and global connections, Bradford is very well placed to play an increasingly important role in the future development of the UK’s successful technology sector.

Exa Networks is a strong case in point. Founded in Bradford in 2003, the company is now one of the UK’s largest independent internet service providers, giving schools and businesses access to world-class connectivity speeds.

Mark Cowgill, director and co-founder, said: “Bradford is not necessarily the place that makes you think of technology. Wool mills and textiles sure, but technology? But the city’s technological background goes back a long way and has been at the heart of every industrial revolution.

“John Logie Baird, the Scotsman who invented the television, may have been from Helensburgh but the company that bore his name manufactured TV sets in Bradford.

“Following that pioneering start in entertainment technology, the city was chosen as the base for the National Science and Media Museum, had the first IMAX screen in Europe, and was the world’s first UNESCO City of Film.

“More recently, Bradford has become known for its pioneering work in communications and artificial intelligence… and remains one of the fastest-connected cities in the world.”

The University of Bradford is hard-wired into the district’s success in the tech sector through its computer science, engineering and media, design and technology departments. Teaching students is of course vital for the supply of talent, but the university also creates knowledge through research and innovates with industry, local government and the health service.

The university is making a name for itself in the field of artificial intelligence, notably in the automated analysis of vast amounts of text to extract patterns that can be used to better inform decision making. As Dr Liam Sutton, associate director of research and innovation, points out, “universities do the same things with knowledge that banks do with money”. They are foundational and we’re lucky to have a good one.

We have every reason to be optimistic. Mr Cowgill of Exa Networks said: “As we look to the future, Bradford was identified in 2018 by Barclays as the best place in the UK to start a business, and had the biggest success rate for new startups.

“With property values approximately nearly 50 per cent cheaper than nearby Leeds or Manchester, developers and businesses have leapt at the opportunity to grow their companies here. And being the city with the youngest population in the UK, this has led businesses to look at Bradford as great long-term investment.

“App developers, software development houses, graphic designers, cyber security and hundreds more have led to the city being dubbed the ‘Shoreditch of the North’. But Bradford is so much more; it is not a replica of another city in the UK, it is very much its own place. One flooded in history and setting its stall out for a digital and technology-driven future.

“Bradford has had a difficult couple of decades, but the city now embracing technology, helping startups and encouraging growth through collaboration is better placed than ever for a very bright future, and to quote Bradford’s own JB Priestley, ‘to put failure behind you, face up to it’ and that is exactly what the city has and continues to do.”

I couldn’t put it better myself.

• Dave Baldwin is chairman of Bradford Economic Partnership and chief executive of Burnley Football Club

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