Our big question for this TechTown meeting was centred around what cities can do to support digital start-ups and businesses. As is usually the case, two days flew by as we crammed a huge amount of discussion, ideas and learning into the limited time we had together.
The value gained in just being able to spend time with one another is often unmeasured, but the benefit it brings to the TechTown project is immense.
In Limerick, our key points of investigation and consideration for the sessions were:
What support can cities offer?
How can they position themselves to better optimise the conditions for competitiveness?
What sort of additional support do digital start-ups want and need?
How does this differ from ‘normal’ business support, what is different?
How can they help start-ups to survive and grow to grow jobs?
What can they offer post incubation in particular?
As you can see, we had a lot to think about!
Firstly, we must consider what the TechTown cities are already doing. This gives us a good baseline to work from and allows us to share information about successes and key learning points.
In Barnsley, there’s an established business support offer, as Tracey Johnson, Manager of the Digital Media Centre explained. She told us about Enterprising Barnsley (EB), a programme that has been running for more than six years. EB offers general business and start-up support but has always included a specific strand of support for digital.
Now, there is a more focused approach in relation to digital business start-ups with a dedicated team.
One of the innovative ways in which Barnsley promotes digital working is by actively seeking to create networks between digital companies and sectors that may have ‘digital challenges’ such as health, manufacturing, etc.
They run regular ‘Connected’ conferences, with the aim of generating relationships and cross-collaboration that is beneficial to both sides.
In discussions, it was clear that business support is the backbone of every programme organised by TechTown cities, with individual consultations, ongoing advice and financial assistance on offer too. For example, Limerick has done a lot of work to establish a network of available support for entrepreneurs and SME’s. This enables the provision of a comprehensive package of support, including incubation space, advice, help with sources of funding and importantly, assistance with getting small businesses to develop an online presence and the ability to carry out e-commerce, etc.
In Dubrovnik, as an add-on to the business incubator, a ‘smart city laboratory’ has been created to encourage more IT and IoT start-ups within the digital and tech sectors.
Importantly, one of their aims is to get the community involved in what they’re doing – the target here is to teach the community what a modern city is.
As you can see, there are a lot of innovative ideas and ground-breaking initiatives being developed and opened up across the TechTown cities. At the end of the first day, we asked
the next logical question:
“but what more can we do?”
The answers to this question were broken down into four main categories:
Physical space – our cities are all convinced about the importance of dedicated space to house digital start-ups. It’s also vital to meet the needs of these fledgeling businesses, through the provision of specialist tech facilities and support.
Training and Skills – cities need an ‘industry-ready’ talent pool, with people who are ready to work in and around digital start-ups.
Finance – helping start-ups to access sources of funding is key, especially in understanding new and alternative routes to obtaining finance.
Business support and connectivity – such as opening the door for businesses to connect and collaborate with customers and big business. Enabling them to have access to high-quality open data and encouraging them to use it to work on city challenges.
Fundamentally, clear direction and accessibility are essential. People wanting to start a business need to know where to go for help and support.
Our speakers added further insight, from their own experiences of helping to develop modern cities. Benoit Membré, Director of Le Bivouac in Clemont-Ferrand, spoke about the importance of co-location and how this leads to ‘cross-fertilisation’.
This concept works for both the start-ups and the major companies who are encouraged to work with them.
Professor Brian Donnellan, from Limerick, spoke about the importance of data. His point about guaranteeing the quality and ongoing delivery of data is a very important feature in giving start-ups a more solid base upon which they can build their business.
Processes were highlighted by Peter Matusko, co-founder of Universal Industries in Dubrovnik. In particular, the non-technical side of running a digital business, such as dealing with customers and other businesses and of course, the administration and paperwork side of things. Peter also raised a crucial issue; it’s better for the city if existing businesses and start-ups came together to develop solutions, rather than the city managing it all.
In addition to physical space, Laura Bennett, of Tech North, UK gave us somewhat of a watershed moment; simplifying the offer, but with the addition of something that can make an enormous difference to take-up and usage. This was simply having money available to provide refreshments.
Creating the conditions that enable entrepreneurship, rather than trying to enforce it can have a big impact on the outcomes.
As always, hearing from the very people cities are trying to encourage is a big help. A business may not consider themselves to be ‘digital’ but still have a large digital need. This was the case for Hannah Rickson, co-founder of Last Minute Minders, who stressed the need for cities to firstly classify businesses, in terms of whether they need digital to work.
From that, it is easier to establish what initial and ongoing support they will need.
As always, we come away with some answers and a lot of additional questions. We gained further confirmation that the development of a digital entrepreneurial ecosystem is not something that a city can do from the top down. Cities must be facilitators, creating the conditions under which the ecosystem can develop and grow.
What cities can do, is to provide the foundations upon which the entrepreneurs can build their businesses; namely, space, facilities, a network of thought leaders and structured support. Only a truly combined approach will facilitate the successful creation of a sustainable entrepreneurial ecosystem.