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July 6, 2018updated 16 Jun 2022 5:58am

Too Modest, Under Recognised, Underrated – Birmingham’s Thriving Tech Ecosystem

Underrated, under recognised? Let's talk about Birmingham's tech ecosystem.

By Umar Hassan

Many technology ecosystems across the world are replicating the success that Silicon Valley in California has had over the past several decades; one city in the UK is bringing its own take on the tech ecosystem.

The UK’s Second City, Birmingham has a vibrant tech sector with over 7,500 firms employing in excess of over 40,000 people, boosting the local economy by £2.3 billion every year according to 2017 figures from Business Birmingham.

With clusters situated around the city such as the Innovation Birmingham Campus in Aston, Longbridge’s Technology Park to digital companies and startups within the Jewellery Quarter.

Birmingham is rising from its post-Industrial Revolution days to be one of the UK’s leading tech cities for professionals to move or relocate from London to the West Midlands.

Wait…There’s a Silicon Hub in Brum?

In the UK, there are plenty of “Silicon” hubs with Silicon Roundabout in London to Silicon Fen in Cambridge.

Birmingham has its own version with Silicon Canal, owing to the fact that the city has 35 miles of canal, compared with Venice in Italy which has 26 miles.

Silicon Canal is a Community Interest Company run by volunteers in which they put on regular tech events in Birmingham.

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From the yearly Tech Awards to Tech Drinks, Silicon Canal connects CEOs, CTOs and senior-level tech workers together to network and share ideas.

On their website, it mentions their aim is to “create a world-class tech ecosystem in Birmingham”.

The Apprentice 2012 Finalist Nick Holzherr, CEO of HR software and food tech companies Whisk and Air, Jodie Cook, Founder of social media marketing company JC Social Media, Leigh Purnell, Founder and CEO of Petalite, and entrepreneur Simon Jenner are the main board members.

Chris Meah, Founder and CEO of the School of Code and a Silicon Canal Ambassador spoke about Silicon Canal promoting the city’s tech scene.

Meah said: “Silicon Canal wants to promote Birmingham and there is a lot of support from volunteers and ambassadors. The city has historically had a reputation for being understated and not shouting loud enough.”

“What Silicon Canal has done is that they are good at bringing it into focus as they let the city’s population know that they are not left behind and there are job opportunities in tech out there within the city.”

Silicon Canal may have found the inspiration for their name from Birmingham’s canals!

Diverse, Collaborative, and Flourishing

The UK average for employing Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority (BAME) workers in tech is 15 percent, figures from Tech Nation 2017 showed Birmingham has 26 percent of digital tech workers from a BAME background.

Birmingham has overseen a steady increase in their tech sector. Businesses in the city have turned over £2.2 billion in 2017 as well as creating 17,581 jobs within digital tech, an increase on the 2015 and 2016 figures.

The School of Code, Birmingham’s first-ever coding bootcamp received 275 applications for 19 places on their 16-week programme.

90 percent of the graduates are now working in tech either in software development or project management after three months.

Tim Kay, Sector Lead – Technology and Media Practice for KPMG mentioned about capital starting to flow for tech startups within the city.

Kay said: “The cluster is thriving with increasing levels of activity across the board.  Start-up numbers, which already ranked towards the top of the league tables, are being fuelled by an increasing variety of co-working spaces, accelerators and support programmes.

“Capital is also starting to flow.  Our research based on data from Beauhurst has been tracking at about £1 million per week of equity funding this year, and this will only accelerate with the Midlands Engine Investment Fund coming fully on stream.

“Further up the scale we’re seeing increased M&A activity driven by a range of factors as diverse as Brexit and the need for corporate innovation.”

Under recognised, too modest?

Among Birmingham tech leaders, they feel their tech ecosystem is under recognised and Brummies tend to be too modest when it comes to shouting about their achievements.

Veejay Lingiah, CEO of Learning Labs emphasised the need for the Innovation Birmingham Campus to scale up to keep up with demand.

“The city needs the current innovation campus to scale quickly, to provide an internationally recognised centre of excellence that both attracts and retains the best companies and strongest talent.”

Dr David Hardman MBE, CEO of Innovation Birmingham Campus has played a key part in growing one of the prominent locations for tech in the Midlands.

Over 160 tech businesses are housed in three buildings, including iCentrum, and Faraday Wharf.

Dr Hardman explained that Birmingham needed a “better voice” when it came to promoting the city’s tech ecosystem.

“The focal point is to not just create a belief for startups, but an ecology of businesses so that graduates can see a career structure to develop a career in tech in Birmingham and not move out the region.

“Something is changing with regards to Aston University and the University of Birmingham, less so with Birmingham City University for retaining graduates in tech-related jobs. There is growing confidence in businesses moving to Birmingham.

Dave Maclean, Chair of the West Midlands Combined Authority Digital Board highlighted the need for businesses and startups within the city to create job conversion programmes to help people transition careers in tech.

Maclean said: “Some graduates have degrees that are difficult to be used within tech startups and businesses. By having new recruits solve problems through job conversion programmes that are already used in professional services companies, it gives them the fundamentals for their toolsets within the role.

“That could be code testing, quality assurance and product design and by having migration funnels such as the School of Code can give them the pathway to pursue a career in tech within the Birmingham area.”

The Future

Birmingham’s tech ecosystem has generated a substantial amount of interest from start-ups to established companies, moving from London to the Midlands including HSBC.

As the youngest city in Europe, Birmingham has all the selling points to attract and retain talent for their tech ecosystem.

The groundwork is there although the city needs to shake off its modesty tag if it’s to be recognised as having a serious tech ecosystem for other cities to look at.

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