‘I don’t buy into the idea that Tech City is taking over’: Tech North’s new leader on autonomy, councils and northern humbleness
What can the body charged with boosting the tech industry in the north of England offer local government? According to its new director Richard Gregory, a lot. Rebecca Hill reports.
Richard Gregory - Photo credit: Jackie Hole and Don't Panic
It’s hard not to be caught up in Richard Gregory’s enthusiasm for his new job.
Speaking to PublicTechnology at the end of a weeklong tour to meet the groups he’ll be working with, the director of Tech North – the body tasked with promoting the north as a centre for technology – doesn’t seem tired. That’s despite last night’s party to celebrate the end of the trip, and being up since the crack of dawn for a workshop event
Sitting on an up-cycled pallet in a co-working-space-cum-coffee-shop in Manchester, Gregory – a born-and-raised northerner who has retained his accent despite a few years in the south – explains what attracted him to the role.
“I’ve always wanted to put something back into the industry,” Gregory says, between bites of his sandwich. “I know that sounds like a bit of a cliché, but when you’re running a business, as a leader or founder, you have two roles. The first is to make sure your organisation has the largest slice of the pie possible, but the second is to make sure the pie is bigger overall.”
And this is where Tech North comes in. Set up in 2014 as an arm of the government-funded Tech City UK, it has an annual budget of £2m to boost the northern slice of the tech pie, as Gregory might call it, with a focus on Hull, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield and Sunderland.
Although it’s only his second week in the job, Gregory notes with a smile that he has been doing his homework.
“The last couple of weeks have been learn, learn, learn,” he says. “I met a lot of people, I asked as many questions as I could along the way – so I had started a little before I walked in.”
Part of this is down to the somewhat drawn-out recruitment process Gregory went through. Originally approached about the job in March, he at first rebuffed the group’s advances.
“I had four non-exec roles and was about to launch my own mini agency, so lots of stuff was going on,” says Gregory, who began his mostly private-sector career in marketing before switching over to digital in the 90s.
Not to mention the fact that Tech North was, as Gregory puts it, “getting a bit of bad press” at the time, due to the surprise departure of his predecessor Claire Braithwaite in January. There were widespread media reports that this was in part because Tech City UK was trying to increase control of the northern outfit and its budget.
So what changed his mind?
“It went quiet for a few months, and then out of the blue [Tech North chairman] Herb Kim made contact and said, ‘Look let’s just have a chat anyway’,” Gregory recalls. “And then a 40-minute breakfast turned into a two-hour conversation and I started to warm to the idea.”
And again, he did his homework – asking people what they thought about Tech North, what it was like to work with and what it should be doing. “And I started to get wrapped up in this really positive sentiment.”
‘There’s a lot of autonomy’
As for the perceived problems with Tech North, Gregory says they were misconstrued.
“People have a lot of passion for this industry and its potential in the north of England, so it’s easy for people to get upset if you don’t do things the way they want you to,” Gregory says. “I didn’t then, and still don’t, buy into the idea that Tech City is taking over.”
However, Gregory adds that he “isn’t going to go over who said what to who”, and it’s clear he isn’t going to spend time establishing more formal lines of governance. “There’s a lot of autonomy, I can tell you that,” he smiles and pauses. “I’m definitely feeling the autonomy!”
And what about the money – is Tech City able to siphon off funds from Tech North’s £2m? “The money is ring-fenced,” Gregory says. “But to be honest there’s an over-obsession with the money.”
What he means is that some people think Tech North’s role is simply to distribute that £2m in a way that benefits the northern tech sector. But, he says emphatically, “that’s absolutely not our job”.
“Our job is to develop the northern tech economy as fast and successfully as possible. If that costs one, two or four million, it costs what it costs and I’ve got to sort the funding gap if there is one,” he says, hitting his stride.
“If we’re doing things that add value and benefits the economy, then the money is going to come – and it already is. We’ve got initiatives that resonate with people and they want to get financially involved.”
‘Local government is more risk averse’
Gregory is also keen to engage with the public sector, saying his northern cities tour involved numerous meetings with local government.
“A lot of the opportunities for tech start-ups are in the public sector,” he explains. “You’ve got that perfect mesh: governments that want – need – to save money and tech companies that are typically disruptive that find ways of doing things quicker and more effectively.”
But a lot of councils don’t know what start-ups there are in their region, Gregory says, adding that he sees Tech North as acting as a matchmaker to bridge that gap.
Another issue that’s stopping the public sector from opening up to innovative ideas and companies, he says, is fear. “I don’t quite understand it yet because of my private sector background, but for some reason [local government] has been more risk-averse.”
Could this be because it’s seen as too risky to use part of an already tight budget on an idea that might not work, especially when you have to provide essential services to your community? He nods a concession, but counters that it isn’t necessarily risk-taking and it doesn’t have to blow your budget.
Accelerator programmes – incubator schemes that provide start-ups with some initial funding and training for an intense period of time – could cost around £250,000, he argues.
“And, at the end of 13 weeks, you’ll get 10 amazing companies, most of which get financing. What if local government was part of that? If they could co-fund it?” he says, clearly fired up at the idea of a council–led tech incubator.
And there’s more local government could learn from the private sector, starting with how to be ruthless – “you have to be brutal,” he says of ideas that aren’t going anywhere – and to prioritise.
“I was looking at some of the wonderful stuff one [area] had going on in Edtech, Medtech, smart cities and so on, but my take-away was that they can’t do all this,” he says. “You can’t do everything – you can do some of it very, very well or all of it medium-bad.”
‘Making ourselves redundant’
Despite Gregory’s assertions that he is new to the job and so might not have any concrete answers, he is bubbling with ideas for Tech North.
“I’ve got three or four different plans – I haven’t picked the right one yet,” he says when asked about his strategy. “But predominantly there are three things we’ve got to focus on: skills, funding and raising profile.”
Gregory says Tech North will work with schools and universities to develop tech skills, but notes that such investment will take five to 10 years to make an impact on the sector – in the meantime, he says, the team will look at other ways to boost skills and attract new talent.
When it comes to funding, Gregory’s focus is on the pressure point between the accelerator stage – which provides funding for tech companies to develop prototypes – and gaining investments of more than £2m.
“If you want a chunk of money between £250,000 and a million, the kind of person you go to is an angel investor, but there aren’t many of those up here,” he says. “It’s quite grim, that space, at the moment.”
Tech North’s co-investment fund – aimed at encouraging private investors by matching their funding with public money – is one way of addressing this, he says.
Finally, he says, there is the need to raise the tech industry’s profile in the north – focusing on getting companies into the press and “telling the story” to a bigger audience.
“There’s a danger this sounds like the fluffiest of them all,” he says. “But we just don’t shout about our businesses. I don’t know whether it’s a northern humbleness… we just get our heads down and crack on with it – we don’t go, ‘Bloody hell, look at this’.”
But Gregory is well aware that Tech North has been created to serve a particular purpose.
“I don’t know if many people appreciate this, but we don’t want to create a legacy – we’ve got to create something sustainable,” he says.
“If it works, we don’t need to do it again. There’s a certain point where we’ve done it, and that’s it – we’ve made ourselves redundant. And that’s fine. That’s the point.”
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