What’s your background?
Between 1998 and 2001 I studied the world’s first computer games technology degree, at Abertay University in Dundee. I loved playing computer games so naturally thought I wanted a career in that. But when I got to university I realised that there are two people in the world: those with a natural technical competency for coding and those who struggle with it. I fell into the latter group. I did complete the course but after graduating I disappeared from the world of tech. I set up my own business writing manuals on building kit cars before returning to the North East to work for a company called Financial Inclusion Newcastle where I helped people start businesses – from window cleaning enterprises and fish and chip shops to technology companies. I joined regional development agency One North East as an enterprise senior specialist and worked on enterprise strategy for the region. I did a couple of other roles there and my final one was looking after creative, design, digital and other knowledge-intensive businesses. One of the projects on my desk at the time was for Sunderland Software City. That was in 2008.
What was the initial concept for Sunderland Software City?
The concept of Sunderland Software City was to build on the ground swell of software companies that we had in Sunderland and the North East. The idea then was to support new companies and to help existing companies to grow. We felt at the time there was no dedicated and specific support to the software industry. There was generic support in the form of Business Link but this didn’t reflect the unique way software companies started, how they grew, how they scaled, the way they raised finance or how they took a product to market. Sunderland Software City would become a publicly funded organisation that delivered something that the market wasn’t delivering. To date, we’ve probably worked with more than 600 software companies. Essentially, it’s all about economic development. If you have a successful software industry in the region, you’re generating GVA and helping to create more and better jobs. It’s a concept that’s just as relevant today.
When did you join the Sunderland Software City project full time?
I became the first employee of Sunderland Software City as the rather over-titled chief operating officer for what was, then, a one-person organisation. I had to go through the slightly unorthodox process of interviewing for my own chief executive along with the board. But it worked out great. Our first chief exec, Bernie Callaghan, had a lot of industry experience running and selling software companies and was very good at getting our story and concept out to a wide audience while I was the inward-facing person, making sure that everything worked internally and that we were reacting to what was happing in the industry.
How has Sunderland Software City developed in the past nine years?
I always talk about the three phases of Sunderland Software City. The first phase saw us provide a very traditional public sector business support and advice service. It served its purpose at the time but as the industry grew and got more demanding, we realised that we couldn’t provide such bespoke support to everyone and had to become more efficient.
Phase two saw us group our services together. We recognised that there were two types of people who set up tech and ran successful tech businesses. One was a very technical founder who struggled with how to get a product to market while the other had business experience and could usually raise investment for a tech idea but needed the someone with the technical expertise to build the software. We developed a suite of service based around that. One service was around market intelligence and how to get a minimum viable product to the marketplace. The other revolved around due diligence and focused on getting a scalable business model.
Phase two then moved into phase three in about 2015. I call this the ‘opportunity creation stage’. We had seen a growing number of software businesses but owners were telling us that they struggled to get access to major revenue-generating opportunities.
At Sunderland Software City, we realised that this was something that we could help with by using our established national and international networks – by being one of three (now four) national digital catapults and our work with organisations such as Tech City UK, Tech North, Innovative UK and the UKTI.
We began working with organisations and corporates who we knew all have problems that could be solved by digital innovation.
We asked these companies and organisations to sit in a room with around 20 or 30 North East SME software companies. They would then articulate their problems and let the SMEs ask questions. The software companies would go away and work on solutions and have an opportunity to pitch their ideas – individually – to the corporates the next day.
We feel this process is much more efficient – where corporates don’t need to write lengthy specification documents and SMEs don’t spends days and days developing solutions and ignoring other potential revenue-generating work.
So business development for the North East tech industry?
Yes, I suppose. But we call it ‘opportunity creation’. We’ve already worked with Nissan and Barclays on multiple projects and we’ve done some work with big corporate charities and for Sunderland Council, Newcastle Council and North Tyneside Council.
It’s a completely new way of bringing opportunities to innovative software SMEs in the region. I strongly believe that the North East should position itself as a place where you can get your problems solved through digital innovation.
Is ‘problem solving’ the future for the region’s tech industry?
The North East must become a lot more niche and promote the areas that we’re good at. Positioning ourselves as a place to get your problems solved through digital innovation, I think, is a fantastic draw. We already have fantastic examples of corporates coming here and getting innovative solutions because of the good mechanism we have for this. We have great innovative companies who are agile and can create solutions quickly and we have very good educational establishments and facilities such as The Core and the National Institute for Smart Data Innovation (NISDI) that’s coming to the North East. Plus, you have some fantastic stuff happening at Sunderland University about data forensics.
We have the story and we have the underpinning. Now we must go out and tell that to a national and an international audience. That plays into exactly what the Government’s new Industrial Strategy Green Paper advocates – that regions should have specialisms in certain areas.
Is there not a threat that if the North East becomes too specialist – in, for example, data analytics – that we are exposed to market changes? As a region, we’ve suffered from this in the past with the decline of traditional heavy industry.
I’ve always viewed digital technology as a horizontal enabler that allows people to constantly change and adapt when innovation occurs. For example, we may do a project this year – where some fantastic ideas arise – and do it again next year and see ideas based on a completely different technology sets. Ensuring that companies in the North East learn and understand what those technologies sets are – through events and education – and how they can be applied in certain areas, will help us keep ahead of the game.
What’s the future for Sunderland Software City?
We will continue to support new and growing companies through our business intelligence and due diligence services. We’re also about to roll out a new marketing campaign for those people who may have had a great tech idea but are unsure how to set up and start developing it. We know there are many dormant companies where people are sitting on great ideas but not doing anything about it. Wouldn’t it be better if everyone in the North East had the support and confidence to take the plunge?
We’ll also be concentrating on continuing phase three of our development. Sunderland Software City has a responsibility to deliver on its promises and if we’re going out and telling people that the North East is the place where digital innovation can solve problems, we need to be able to create the opportunities for local software companies to provide the solutions.