California may be able to boast of Silicon Valley but, in a (not so) quiet corner of South-West England, lies Bristol and its very own hub of digital prowess – BS1 or, as it’s fondly known amongst its residents, Silicon Gorge. Home to a growing number of exciting Bristol Startups, this zone of commercial enterprise is fast becoming an aspirational hotspot for tech wizards and ambitious business leaders alike, with only one message for California… “Watch out. We Byte!”
“Bristol is fast becoming known as a national and international digital hub… and this report cements our position as leading the UK in this sector.”
Rick Chapman, High Tech Sector Specialist
Bristol: A Smart City
Chapman speaks of the 2016 First Smart Cities Index, an evaluation of 10 cities within the UK based upon their strategies, key projects and overall willingness to embrace progressive technological visions. As a result of Bristol’s pioneering attitudes, it was rewarded alongside London with the accolade of being one of only two “smart” cities in the UK. Scoring 92/100, Bristol was judged to be particularly strong in the innovation category, which pinpointed its focus of evaluation upon strategies to develop and exploit digital and tech services. It was of note that Bristol held strengths in open data access, energy innovation and community engagement. Furthermore, the Tech Nation Report identified Bristol as the most productive digital tech cluster in the UK.
Bristol Startups: The Enterprise Zone
Leading the way in this arena is Bristol’s Temple Quarter, also referred to as the Enterprise Zone. Since 2012, 3,000 people have come to work in the ‘zone’ which is engineered for tech and digital success. Superfast broadband and its proximity to Temple Meads train station mean that its 360 connectivity is second to none. Plans to further improve Bristol’s rail links in 2017 will secure its status as a truly 21st-century facility, ensuring even better connectivity and social integration with surrounding areas and beyond. Indeed, journey times to London are expected to be as little as 80 minutes, making Bristol an attractive prospect and realistic commute for digital talent which has not yet made the leap from capital living.
As evidence of Bristol’s aspirational vision, a mission statement published in 2016 sees Mayor Marvin Rees commit to expanding on this success by promising to secure 17,000 jobs within the Enterprise Zone throughout the lifespan of the project. Due to conclude in 2037, the project will concentrate its energies toward attracting business within the innovative high tech, creative and digital, low carbon and professional services industries.
Perhaps Bristol’s promise lies in its unique position of being able to boast both of established prowess, along with its ability to nurture and educate young talent. Historically, Bristol has had a strong tech presence, with many industry leaders in the fields of media, tech and aeronautical engineering enjoying success here. Meanwhile, two first-class universities are educating the tech talent of the future. The University of Bristol, for example, graduates more than 5,000 software engineers and other computer-science related students each year. It is unarguably a city with a wealth of digital and tech talent waiting to be unleashed.
Aside from the education of future entrepreneurs, The University of Bristol is playing a far wider role in the technological innovation of this great city. Situated within the Enterprise Zone is the Engine Shed, home to SETsquared, a startup incubator affiliated with this prestigious institution. It provides modern, dynamic and supportive business space – everything you would need to grow your high tech enterprise. This is a unique environment which has played a substantial role in raising Bristol’s profile in the tech and digital space. It currently houses 65 of Bristol’s most innovative ventures but, to date, has supported more than 184. These have included those from the worlds of telecoms, biotech, clean tech and security to name but a few. If further evidence were needed of SETsquared’s prowess, their trophy cabinet includes numerous awards including Global Number 1 Business Incubator 2015 (UBI Global) and Best Designed Incubator award (UKBI).
In a further demonstration of Bristol’s supportive culture is Oracle, who have introduced a new accelerator program to support startups within the city. A partnership of cloud computing resources and mentoring by Oracle executives contribute to a scheme which provides selected start-ups with a springboard to success. The 6-month program consists of state of the art cloud tech, a co-working space and access to Oracle customers, partners and investors – not to mention invaluable insight from Oracle experts. The undeniable opportunistic benefits of being included in such a scheme are further underlined as these promising entrepreneurs will not have to relinquish any equity from their business. Oracle does not demand any financial stake from the startups it supports.
Oracle supported startups have many success stories. One of which is that of Bristol based YellowDog – a cloud supercomputing capacity provider. Oracle’s support and resource provision have enabled such companies to upscale at a far faster rate. For example, over the course of year one, YellowDog’s customer base grew to 577.
In addition to this, local government schemes such as business rate relief for fledgeling businesses give support to those within the Enterprise Zone. Buoyancy aids such as these have allowed many young projects to call this opportunistic venue home, and have made trading from this hub of innovation a realistic aspiration – not just an ambitious pipe dream.
Perhaps one of the most successful enterprises to come out of the Enterprise Zone to date are food ordering service “Just Eat”. They have embraced tech and startup innovation to completely remodel how we think about ordering take-out. In evidence of their ambitious business model, they have announced their intention to further disrupt the space. Speaking at the Mobile World Congress, Just Eat’s CTO announced their plans to use voice interfaces so that customers would no longer have to use menus, or even speak to anybody when ordering food. They plan to sync their services to home devices, such as Amazon Echo and Google Home, whilst embracing other areas such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR). In a seeming act of “paying it forward”, they also announced the introduction of the brand’s second startup accelerator program.
It’s not only Bristol’s tech scene which is enjoying such growth. Bristol is well known for its diverse cultural influences and its strong sense of community. All over the city, innovative and interesting projects are emerging, which only underlines these attributes. One overwhelming example of this is the introduction of The Bristol Pound, the only city-wide local currency in the UK. This unique method of payment was introduced to build community connections and to support the local economy. Used within the city limits in place of other more familiar payment methods, it ensures that Bristol money is kept within Bristol.
Its many other attributes, such as strong transport links, only secure its appeal as a destination for employers and candidates alike. Cultural and leisure attractions, museums, festivals, a strong cafe culture, independent retail and inner-city regeneration to name just a few have made it a residential hot spot as well as a hub for industry.
Notable Bristol Tech Startups
Don’t just take my word for it! This who’s who of Bristol and south-west startups is only the tip of the iceberg…
- Ultrahaptics: Using ultrasound to project sensation onto a hand. Working to create a connection between people and technology.
- Reach Robotics: The future of Gaming. This Bristol startup are leaders in innovation and champion a new level of play.
- Five AI: Driving the future by developing AI & machine learning software for autonomous vehicles.
- XMOS: A Bristol based microprocessor and microcontroller designer, leading the way in voice capture solutions…think Alexa and co.
- UltraSoc: Paving the way in developing performance monitoring tech to embed complex system-on-chip designs. This alumni is a living, breathing example of a Bristol SETsquared University incubator startup.
- Zeetta Networks: The developers of NetOS; software to simplify and increase the performance of ICT networks.
- Open Bionics: This award-winning Bristol startup uses 3D printing to create affordable bionic hands for amputees.
- Yellow Dog: Tech to speed up and simplify cloud rendering for 3D & VFX artists.
- Graphcore: “Accelerating Next Generation machine intelligence”; tech to develop and enhance human potential.
- Duel: Tech to personalise the Ecommerce journey. A customer testimonial platform designed to engage customers post purchase.
- GreenHedge: A developer of low carbon electricity generation.
- Mongoose Energy: Created by Bath & West Community Energy, this South West startup are champions of low carbon electricity generation.
In sum, the City of Bristol has succeeded where many others before them have not. It has embraced innovation and been handsomely rewarded with industry support and, as a result, overwhelming success within the tech and digital arena. The Enterprise Zone and, in particular, The Engine Shed have created a space where individuals and exciting fledgeling business can be nurtured and supported on their journeys toward prosperity. As we have seen, community is at the heart of such projects, something which Bristol can strongly demonstrate throughout its rich and diverse culture as well as its business practice.
This is the third part of our Silicon Gorge series.: