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Why Leeds is One of the Most Exciting Digital Hubs in the UK

· Ali Turner · Discussion

It's not just that the tech industry is booming, it's got the potential for exponential growth.

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Leeds Digital Job Fair will bring together 50 digital employers at First Direct Arena on Wednesday 28th February 2018. Meet tech innovators, attend high profile seminars & find your next role. Register now.

The UK is the digital capital of Europe, but that accolade doesn’t just belong to the London…

The tech industry has spread far beyond the capital, with digital clusters appearing all over the UK, including right here in Leeds. In fact, according to Tech Nation we now have a digital GVA of £688 million with a growth potential of 92% – a number that’s matched only by Edinburgh and Brighton. The sector isn’t just thriving, it has huge untapped potential, and as a city, we’re working to fulfil that potential by attracting more investment, more talent and more businesses to Leeds.

Leeds has real clout in the healthtech sector, with 22% of the UK’s digital health jobs based here, but when the NorthInvest Healthtech Investment Summit came to Leeds earlier this year, the overwhelming conclusion was that more needs to be done to realise our potential. And the same is true of fintech. With its grounding in both financial services and tech, it’ll come as no surprise that fintech has emerged as one of our core strengths, but recent Finextra research revealed that the Leeds City Region has a real opportunity to increase its activities in the sector. Now’s the time to build on that solid grounding to drive Leeds’ tech scene forward, so we can compete on a national, and even global, level.

An influx of investment is driving growth

Sky Betting & Gaming

Whether you’re a start-up or a huge household name, it’s an exciting time to be working in the city’s tech industry. Over the last few years, we’ve made huge strides with major investment in the city’s tech scene. In 2016, Leeds City Council used a £3.7 million grant from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport to create the Leeds Tech Hub Fund to help drive innovation and growth in the digital sector. They’ve since allocated the money to six tech-focused projects.

You’ve got Bruntwood – they received £2 million to create a new tech hub in the recently completed Platform building. Covering two floors, with space for over 1,000 people, it’s a collaborative space where tech entrepreneurs, start-ups and scale-ups can come together to share ideas. £100,000 was given to Leeds Open Data Institute to help improve facilities and upgrade equipment at the popular co-working space, while Duke Studios received £393,000 to turn their Sheaf Street warehouse into a new innovation lab and event centre.

“Duke Studios is a creative hub with 85 residents that collectively turnover £5.2 million. All the residents in Duke have either doubled in headcount or turnover since being in the studios, and the tech fund has given us the ability to ramp up what we’re doing,” Co-founder Laura Wellington told us. It’s allowed them to sound-proof their Sheaf Street warehouse and buy industry-leading projection, sound and streaming equipment.

“It means we can host more tech conferences and meet-ups, so when people come to Leeds for conferencing, they don’t have to sit in a boring white box,” She explained. “In terms of the innovation lab, it will start a bigger conversation around manufacturing, technology and what that means for design in the future. What we’re saying is ‘this is the future of technology, come and experience it’, whether you’re a young person looking for inspiration, an older person thinking about re-education or someone within the industry who needs to be able to prototype stuff.”

Elsewhere in the city, East Street Arts were allocated £550,000 to promote Leeds as a global location for creative digital projects and GameMakers bagged over £36,000 to provide specialist game development hardware to help computer game start-ups in the city. It’ll come as no surprise that FutureLabs took the final portion of funding – it’s one of the most exciting additions to Leeds in the last few years, a dedicated digital hub that provides both space and support to start-ups. Their £455,000 pot will be used to create an engagement programme of meet-ups and events to bolster the city’s tech industry.

Collaboration is powering innovation

Glug Leeds Digital Festival

Glug

These projects are helping to drive growth from the ground up, by creating a vibrant digital community where people in the industry can come together to share their knowledge. And they’re not the only ones – Leeds boasts an ever-growing calendar of events that covers everything from coding to innovation and marketing.

They attract people from every corner of the industry, so you’ll find developers from global leaders like Sky, TPP and RockStar Leeds rubbing shoulders with entrepreneurs from the start-ups like BigChange Apps, Synap and Kwizzbit. The events on offer range from simple get-togethers like Digital Drinks, which gives you a chance to get to know people in the industry over a drink, to a full two-week festival dedicated to pushing boundaries in the industry.

That’s right, we’re talking Leeds Digital Festival – it’s the north’s biggest digital festival, offering 115 events across more than 50 venues with over 10,000 people in attendance. And this year, they’re going to make it even better, by taking it up to 2 weeks and teaming up with Leeds BID to run even more events. Expect to see old favourites like Code in the Dark and Fintech Leeds, alongside brand new concepts.

And thanks to our growing reputation, we’ve also attracted events from outside Leeds, like Glug. They started in the Capital, but they’ve spread to the major digital hubs around the UK. “We couldn’t have come to Leeds at a better time,” Hannah-Natalie O’Sullivan, founder of the Leeds chapter of Glug, told us. “Over the last two years, the creative sector in Leeds has really grown in size and confidence. I see a lot more independent businesses setting up and coming forward to shout about their values and success, it’s a really vibrant scene, the polar opposite from the old adage of ‘it’s grim up north’.”

But our growth is fuelling the skills shortage

Leeds Digital Career Fair

Credit: Sam Toolsie

Here in the UK, the digital sector is growing 50% faster than the wider economy, but such rapid growth presents its own problems. The more we grow, the more jobs we create, so tech professionals are now in higher demand than ever before. The problem is, there simply aren’t enough to go around – and it’s not just us facing the problem. Around the world, the tech industry is facing a serious skills shortage.

Leeds has one of the most abundant talent pools in the UK, with a constant stream of graduates coming from the city’s universities and educational institutions. In 2015, the University of Leeds launched the Leeds Institute for Data Analytics (LIDA), a dedicated data centre where they use applied research and data science to drive business growth in the North of England. And alongside Leeds Beckett, they offer their own start-up programme that offers workshops, mentoring and funding to help you turn your ideas into a reality.

But despite all this, we’re still feeling the effects of the skills gap. Right now there are 825 tech jobs up for grabs in the city, but that number has risen by 405 since 2014 – an increase of almost 50%. The good news is, we’re doing something about it. Businesses like Sky are taking matters into their own hands with a series of events designed to change perceptions and drive more people into tech, including targeting women, one of the most under-represented groups in the industry.

And in 2015, Amy De-Balsi, the founder of Herd Digital Jobs Board, launched Leeds Digital Job Fair. It’s now an annual event that brings together businesses and candidates. This year, they’ll showcase 50 tech innovators, including Sky Betting & Gaming, NHS Digital and cap hpi, with a series of seminars that will show you what it’s like to work in the industry and CV advice from Google and Fruition IT.

“The industry is booming and the number of job vacancies is absolutely sky rocketing,” Amy told us – and that means it’s full of opportunities. “There is a complete and utter choice of who you can work for, so you can work for startups, small businesses, large corporates, all doing really exciting projects, and with so many jobs, you can choose off where you want to go.”