Tech East: How do we make Norwich the right kind of city for tech businesses?

PUBLISHED: 15:00 03 July 2019 | UPDATED: 16:07 16 July 2019

In the first of his monthly columns for TechKnow, Tim Robinson, chief operating officer of Tech East, discusses how and why the region can attract 'rockstar' entrepreneurs.

Why has chasing 'Unicorns' become an obsession?

Big, fast growing tech companies produce lots of good jobs and as a region that would be a good thing - our productivity remains below the best in the UK.

They also attract a disproportionate amount of attention from investors, journalists and ministers and put places on the map - consider Edinburgh with Skyscanner or Cambridge with Arm and Darktrace.

Pursuing unicorns is more than 'project vanity'.

Unicorns need two main ingredients: talented people and smart money.

Ideas are important but more so the ability of entrepreneurs to surround themselves with a superb team who can give the right advice, execute relentlessly, often ruthlessly, and change with the times. Remember Altavista before Google came along? We all know Airbnb but who now ever thinks of Roomerama?

Success can have its downsides. In an area with a tech skills shortage a company in hyper-growth would have to poach talent from early-stage startups and SMEs putting pressure on the rest of the ecosystem and potentially stalling innovation.

We need to grow our home-grown talent pool significantly but a Unicorn would also need attract lots of talent from outside (or back to) the region.

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Considering a move to Norfolk or Suffolk compared with Bristol or Brighton - other tech hotspots - might not seem the safest long-term choice for an ambitious 'rockstar' developer or incoming CEO.

This is changing, but we need to make sure we have the right urban offer - funky co-working spaces that act as a magnet for talent and nightlife for this key demographic.

Finding the right investor is a bit more work if you're based outside London or Cambridge as you'll have to hop on the train to Liverpool Street or drive down the A11 to meet lots of investors before selecting the right partner.

There is some local angel capital available but the big Venture Capital money needed to fuel a Unicorn is concentrated in London so having a part time base there is an increasing trend for the most ambitious local businesses.

Which brings me to marketing and sales.

Unicorns are always global in ambition. Having a product that can scale internationally means putting boots on the ground abroad. Luckily we now have quick links to global hub airports: Norwich to Schipol; Stansted to New York.

Finally, I predict that the first local Unicorn won't be a consumer platform like Netflix or Uber.

It will more likely be a hybrid, combining a data platform with AI (the digital part) embedded in a huge B2B market and integrated with hardware.

As a region we have big, growing industries in clean energy and agrifood and world-class research in climate change and bioscience.

Elon Musk has said that the next Silicon Valley won't look like Silicon Valley.

Our first Unicorn will be born when we bring these sectors closer and entrepreneurs combine talent and knowledge in the areas where we lead the UK and the world.

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