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How the Digital Sector in Leeds Has Changed Over the Past 10 Years

· Ali Turner · Discussion

What a difference a decade can make.

Wizu

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Leeds has transformed into a major digital hub and that makes it a really exciting place to work.

In the last 10 years, the digital scene in Leeds has changed beyond recognition. It’s bigger, it’s more collaborative and it has so much more potential. Our growing reputation is now bolstered by emerging sub-sectors that could really put the city on the map and our ambition to become one of the country’s finest tech hubs is finally starting to pay off. This is a very exciting time to work in tech in Leeds…

The sheer size of it

To give you an idea of just how much the digital economy has grown, Yorkshire Forward estimated the city’s total GVA at £1.5 billion in 2011 – now the digital sector alone has a GVA of £1.3 billion. And then there’s the employment figures. In the last year, the number of tech jobs in Leeds has risen from 23,734 to 34,742, an increase of 46%.

Leeds has become a vibrant digital hub with a bright future, but 10 years ago, it was only just starting that journey. “A decade ago, Leeds was quietly becoming a hub for small agencies. It’s always had a creative culture, due in part to its university heritage, but fast forward to today and that growth has exploded. In many ways, it’s transformed the city. There’s a reason why companies like Sky, NHS Digital and many others are establishing a significant presence here. Leeds is now seen as a digital hub and it’s home to a great mix of tech start-ups, agencies and client-side businesses,” Renee Hunt, Director of Digital Platforms at Sky UK, explained.

The city has given birth to two tech unicorns, Sky Betting & Gaming and Callcredit (now TransUnion), and it’s home to 23 of the North’s Fastest Growing Tech Businesses, according to Tech Nation. Our reputation as a leading digital hub is growing and we can expect even more big tech businesses to move to Leeds in the coming years.

The growing potential of medtech

NHS Digital

From ‘in silico’ experiments based on data alone to 3D printed limbs and apps that let you access your medical records from anywhere in the world, technology has revolutionised the health sector in ways we couldn’t even imagine 10 years ago – and Leeds City Region has emerged as a key player.

It’s home to four out of five NHS headquarters. NHS England, NHS Digital, Health Education England and the NHS Leadership Academy all have a strong presence here, and they’re accompanied by internationally renowned companies like TPP and EMIS. Meanwhile, Leeds Teaching Hospitals is one of the biggest NHS Trusts in the country – not only does it treat 1.5 million people every year, but it’s also a leader in clinical research.

And now, the ambition is to become a world leader in healthtech. It will require targeted investment in medical technologies, which is why the Grow MedTech partnership, backed by £9.5 million of funding, has been set up to help bring medical innovation from conception to clinical use by removing the blockers in their way.

The rise of co-working spaces

Duke Studios

Credit: James Abbott Donnelly

Co-working spaces have become the cornerstone of the Leeds tech scene. They’re not just a place to work, they create an ethos of collaboration and innovation that helps start-ups succeed. From Duke Studios to Platform, ODI and Hackspace Leeds, these community-centric workspaces are nurturing the tech companies of the future.

“The way people work has fundamentally changed,” Tom Almas, Managing Director of co-working space Wizu, told us. “In order to attract and retain the talent that tech companies need, they need to work in a space which inspires the people. No business survives in solitude, and being in a community-centric workspace is key to collaboration and innovation.”

The big investment in digital

Synap

© Copyright Leeds-List 2018 by Jeremy Kelly

The Leeds Tech Hub Fund was a catalyst for growth, designed to boost the city’s digital economy – and that’s exactly what it’s done. They divvied out the £3.7 million provided by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport to six ambitious, tech-centric projects.

Bruntwood received £2 million for Platform, their shiny new tech hub, and Duke Studios bagged £393,000 to transform their warehouse space into a digital conference centre with state-of-the-art projection, sound and streaming facilities. Meanwhile, FutureLabs secured £455,000 to help support early-stage tech businesses, ODI nabbed £100,000 to maximise the potential of their space and GameMakers netted £36,647 to continue in their mission to support video game start-ups accelerate growth. Finally, East Street Arts was given £550,000 to promote Leeds as an international destination for creative digital projects.

That particular pot is now empty, but the investment continues as the #Welcome Digital Inward Investment Fund works to attract more digital businesses to Leeds with grant funding opportunities for companies of all shapes and sizes.

The thriving digital community

Leeds Digital Festival

Credit: Leeds Digital Festival

The tech community has positively exploded in the last 10 years. There are now hundreds of groups, meet-ups and events in Leeds, with a gathering every day of the week – and it’s helping to propel the city forward.

Take Leeds Digital Festival for example. Launched in 2016, it’s now the biggest digital festival in the North. In 2018, it brought together 170 events and 650 speakers across 75 venues, attracting 20,000 attendees from far and wide. And that’s not the only big event that’s helping to boost our reputation – Fintech North, Leeds International Festival and SearchLeeds have all turned the nation’s gaze in our direction.

But it’s more than that. Leeds has developed an ecosystem of sharing and learning that brings people together to solve problems. “I have seen the digital scene come together with the creation of Leeds Digital Festival, the Yorkshire Mafia and loads of other good things,” Gavin Winter, CEO of Rapidspike, told us. “I didn’t even know the community existed 10 years ago, but now you can pretty much pick up the phone to anyone and they will sit down in a meeting, talk to you about your business and offer you ideas. There’s nothing in it for anybody, apart from the exchange of ideas, which I think is a massive positive, and it happens all the time.”

The move from finance to FinTech

With our longstanding position as the UK’s second financial centre and our growing position as a digital hub, it was almost inevitable that Leeds would set its sights on FinTech as a potential growth area, and indeed, it has.

Our financial services creds are clear. First Direct, Yorkshire Bank, Yorkshire Building Society, Leeds Building Society and Skipton Building Society all have head offices in the region. The three big credit referencing agencies (TransUnion, Experian and Equifax) have a presence here too. Clearly there’s a demand for FinTech innovation, but we need a more collaborative, co-ordinated approach if we want to make the transition from emerging sub-sector to FinTech powerhouse.

The journey has already started. According to the Leeds City Region FinTech Ecosystem Report, there are now 2,600 people working in FinTech in Leeds, which is approximately 5% of the total financial sector employment. And they all come together at events like FinTech North, which started at Leeds Digital Festival in 2016 and now runs a packed programme of events across the North focused on sharing knowledge and best practice. But if we’re to reach our vast potential, we need to open dedicated FinTech incubators, we need to find new ways to connect innovators with investors and we need to need to pool our resources by bringing academics and businesses together.

The power of the tech accelerator

Elmwood

Credit: Elmwood

Leeds has a real start-up culture. In 2016 alone, there were 168 digital tech births in the city, and yet, scale-ups dominate the tech scene. Why? Because the city has a rigorous support system in place to help start-ups grow and develop. The rise of the tech accelerator began as early as 2014, when DotForge became the North’s only Tech4Good programme, and continued in 2015 when Entrepreneurial Spark made itself at home in Leeds, but the options available to start-ups have grown exponentially in recent years.

Now, new start-ups can join tech incubators like Platform, where they’ll have access to a range of support services, or apply for one of the city’s many tech accelerators. Sky Betting & Gaming launched Co-Lab last year, giving businesses the opportunity to pitch and market test their ideas, while Elmwood added their LaunchPod into the mix last July – their first programme will explore the future of consumer health and offers participants free desk space, mentoring and access to global brands in the sector.

The skills gap (and the search for a solution)

As the industry has grown, so too has the need for skilled digital professionals, leaving us with a cavernous skills gap. It’s not just a local problem, this is an international issue that the whole industry is facing and it’s only going to get worse. According to research by Korn Ferry, there will be 3 million digital jobs left unfilled by 2030 and it could cost the UK £141 billion in GDP growth. As a result, it’s a candidates market, and salaries are shooting up.

“The digital industry is growing so fast that we’re struggling to fill the vacancies. This is from big companies all the way down to the smallest digital agencies,” Stuart Clarke, Founder of Leeds Digital Festival, explained. “One of the biggest changes is the interaction between the sector and the universities and colleges. We used to lose a lot more graduates than other comparable cities, but that’s changed over the last few years. There’s been much more interaction between firms and students, and a lot more apprenticeships and graduate schemes.”

In fact, businesses are now taking an active role in education. From primary and secondary school level all the way up to graduates, there’s a real push to get people into the industry and keep them in Leeds. But it’s more than that. The universities are now working with businesses to ensure their graduates are industry ready. Take Leeds Trinity’s new computer studies course, for example, it was created in collaboration with big digital employers to make sure it gives both students and businesses what they need.

The collaboration between academics and businesses

3M BIC

Credit: Mark Hemingway

One big change that has taken place over the last 10 years is the way that universities and businesses are working together to drive innovation. A string of research centres have opened up across the Leeds City Region in recent years. Their aim? To solve real business problems through a collaborative mix of groundbreaking research and business intelligence.

LIDA (Leeds Institute of Data Analytics) was one of the first. Opened in 2014, it brings together over 150 researchers and analysts from across the University of Leeds to tackle a diverse array of social and environmental problems. The Digital Creativity Labs in York followed in 2016, as 30 academics joined forces to offer insight into the games and interactive media space, and the Digital Health Enterprise Zone opened the same year in Bradford with a mission to drive innovation in digital health and care. The last addition was 3M BIC in Huddersfield – they opened in June 2018 and are now working on everything from revolutionising traffic systems to 3D printing artificial bones.

There’s another one waiting in the wings too. In 2019, Nexus will finally open its doors. The new £40 million Innovation and Enterprise Centre at the University of Leeds will see academics working in league with businesses to accelerate innovation, improve competitiveness and explore new technologies.

The new focus on diversity

Leeds now has a reputation for championing diversity, and not just because we want to close the skills gap. “It’s more than just the right thing to do,” Renee Hunt, Director of Digital Platforms at Sky told us. “There’s a strong commercial reason why we need to make sure our products are made by the people who will be using them. We need balance, and I mean a real balance, not just men and women, we need a real reflection of the population that use them, else we run a real risk that we’ll build something that’s not appropriate.”

Sky is leading the charge with its Women in Tech programme, a free software engineering course designed to even the odds in the workplace, but equality is an issue the whole city stands behind. From She Does Digital and Girl Tech to the northern chapter of Healthtech Women and major events like the Empowering Women with Science & Tech all-dayer at Leeds International Festival, gender diversity has become a real priority.

Want to get into tech? Find out what’s out there, where you could work and how to get your foot in the door…