‘Work together to go global’

Lee Strafford
Lee Strafford
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“If we build it, they will come. But collaboration is crucial if the North is to stand alongside London as a digital supercluster and attract investment from global powerhouses.”

That’s the message Plusnet founder Lee Strafford gave delegates at Venturefest Yorkshire.

Speaking to an audience of entrepreneurs and business leaders at the annual science and technology event in York, Strafford – one of the founding board members of the Sheffield City Region Local Enterprise Partnership and a driving force in the creation of the TechNorth initiative – gave a call to action for the region.

“To capitalise on the digital capability in the North and become a global digital force, we can’t afford to do what we have traditionally done: start from public sector funding and build out.

“We have to rise above local government funding competition and collaborate.

“We need to build and nurture entrepreneur hubs, but we mustn’t build a York hub, and a Leeds hub, and a Sheffield hub and a Newcastle hub in isolation.

“We have to build connected funds, ideally through connected hubs, sharing knowledge and working together to create a digital sector in this region that will stand shoulder to shoulder with London, and play our part in TechNation.

“If we achieve this, our investment partners will be the big global economies, and the North of England will claim a well-deserved place on the world’s digital stage.”

Strafford was speaking ahead of the launch of TechNorth, a government-backed initiative developed on the back of the TechNation Report, which analysed the clusters that power the UK’s digital economy.

In October, Nick Clegg launched TechNorth - a plan to unite digital companies across the North, to compete with Silicon Valley, Shanghai, Berlin - and TechCity in London.

It aims to double the number of workers in the sector from 200,000 to 400,000 by emulating the success of the capital’s digital hub.

The scheme has £2m-a-year Government funding and will be established by a handful of key people from TechCity.

Their job will include turning TechNorth into a globally-renowned name, creating a one-stop-shop for finance for members and organising pitch days in northern cities for investors from London.

Last month, the Tech Nation report by quango TechCity, said more than 20,000 people work in digital jobs in Sheffield. And there had been a 17 per cent growth in new digital companies since 2010. Nationally, 1.46 million people – 7.5 per cent of the UK workforce – are employed in digital industries, with job growth predicted to outperform all other occupation categories by 2020.

But business analyst Marcus Gibson, founder of the Gibson Index, said the Tech Nation survey was “deeply flawed”.

He claimed tens of thousands of foreign-born individuals had registered as companies to buy UK homes and avoid stamp duty.

No-one could tell how many staff new digital companies employed - the vast majority were one-man bands. And even defining a digital firm was tricky.