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How Sheffield has transformed from Steel City to tech powerhouse

Benjamin Elliott via Unsplash

Renowned since Victorian times as the home of steel production, tech leaders in Sheffield are keen to show why the city shouldn’t be overlooked as it transitions into a leading tech and digital powerhouse. 

“Sheffield, historically, has been a city of makers. The steel industry was huge and I think there is a perception that Sheffield is industry-heavy,” Dean Hughes, Investment Manager at Sheffield City Council, told Prolific North.

“It used to be the case… but we’ve moved away from that now.”

Fuelled by Northern grit to pivot from its traditional roots in steel and mining, the city now boasts a burgeoning scene of tech and digital start-ups, scale-ups and international businesses.

According to investment firm CBRE’s 2022 UK Tech Cities report, Sheffield has muscled its way into the top 10 now employing over 14,750 across 1,135 tech companies.

It has led to Sheffield success stories including data activation platform WANDisco and telematics data management firm The Floow, which was snapped up by Israeli firm Otonomo Technologies in a deal worth around £52m earlier this year.

The city is also home to one of the North’s few tech ‘unicorns’, a company with a valuation of over $1bn, with ITM Power paving the way forwards for green hydrogen technologies.  

“We want to do more to make it known that Sheffield has changed and that we’re continuing to grow in this space,” said Hughes. “It’s about changing perceptions.”

Often overlooked for its tech capabilities in the shadow of Manchester and Leeds, Sheffield City Council is on a mission to change this.

Hughes works alongside Marianne Hawksworth as investment managers at the council, tasked with driving investment, relocations and expansion in the region.

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Dean Hughes and Marianne Hawksworth
Dean Hughes and Marianne Hawksworth.

When it comes to attracting bigger, more established companies to the region, the duo both believe drawing businesses to the area is “not easy” at times, especially when “competing against many, many other cities, not just Northern cities”. 

Attracting international names from Boeing, BT and Rolls-Royce

Despite this, a number of global names such as aerospace manufacturer Boeing have set up facilities in Sheffield, tapping into the rich pool of manufacturing expertise in the city.

With its £40m, 6,200 sq ft facility in Sheffield Business Park, Boeing recently became the founding member of the University of Sheffield’s new Energy Innovation Centre to develop low carbon technologies.

“Start-up right through to international businesses are locating into the area and expanding,” emphasised Hawksworth.

Boeing's site in Sheffield.
Boeing’s site in Sheffield.

From aircraft to car manufacturing and telecommunications, Sheffield is also home to facilities used by the likes of McLaren, Rolls-Royce and BT, which recently revealed plans for a new 67,000 sq ft flagship office to host 1,000 jobs.

In homage to its manufacturing heritage, Sheffield’s tech scene has evolved and “diversified” into advanced technology which is attracting these bigger companies, explained Hughes.

Home to one of nine Catapult Centres in the UK, which serve as hubs of innovation, The University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) works with BAE Systems and Airbus. Through its research and innovation centre, it is drawing in international players for either one-off projects or long-term partnerships.

“They [AMRC] are playing a pretty crucial role in the ecosystem over here,” said Robert Bell, Managing Director at Sheffield-based accelerator Bulldozer. 

AMRC Sheffield
AMRC Sheffield.

Bell is a champion of tech in the city, whether it’s from working closely with established firms like tech consultancy Razor or investing in start-ups through the Bulldozer network.

But it’s not just about the big international companies in the region, there’s a big focus on nurturing the budding tech entrepreneurs in the city too.

“We have a lot of inventive people, people coming out of the universities or that have moved to the city,” explained Marianne Hawksworth.

“The university spin-outs are a whole beast on their own”

The two universities in the city, The University of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam University, are a catalyst for innovative spin-outs – anywhere from insect-inspired AI companies like Opteran to robotics firms such as Cyberselves.

“The university spin outs are a whole beast on their own with more of a focus on hard tech and deep tech,” said Robert Bell. “I think that’s really flourishing at the moment and it’s testament to the work that the University of Sheffield have done in modernising their programs.”

Robert Bell
Robert Bell, co-founder and managing director at Bulldozer and CEO at Exciting Instruments.

Exciting Instruments, which aims to simplify the drug discovery process for scientists through its tech solution, is just one of the many spin-outs embraced by the universities. Robert Bell is currently supporting the medtech company in the role of CEO until the team is complete.

“Exciting instruments is testament to this, the universities are willing to build these businesses with local people on projects that 10 years ago they wouldn’t have touched because they thought it’s going to be too small. But now they’ve had a total mindset change and there’s quite a few spin-outs.”

With a “thriving” digital and tech economy, he recalls how Sheffield tech success stories like Technophobia, which was acquired by Capita in 2011, have played a vital role in transforming the ecosystem where tech talent has branched out to set up their own companies or initiatives. 

“A number of those are growing rapidly, Twinkl being probably one of the largest content providers in the UK for learning materials. Since then, they’ve set up their own accelerator independently as well, which is really successful,” said Marianne Hawksworth.

Developing the tech ecosystem

According to research by Startups Cities Index 2022, Sheffield was crowned as the top city to start a business outside of London thanks to its low cost of living, transport links, talent and business support.

“We’ve seen a real surge in these coworking managed workspaces. So many of those popping up around the city facilitate these tech start-ups and that’s something we want to support within the city,” said Hughes.

Across gaming, sports and entertainment in the city, technology is the catalyst behind companies such as Sumo Digital and ZOO Digital, where Sheffield is home to its tech research and development centre called ZOO Digital Labs. 

“We have tech scale-up advisors that are funded through the council support services, which is a critical thing for getting some of these businesses to scale up. These experts have grown businesses, sold them for a considerable sum and are now helping others in a similar situation.”

At Sheffield and South Yorkshire Incubator Accelerator Network (SIAN), there is a varied network of incubators, accelerator programmes, investors and local authorities which includes Robert Bell’s Bulldozer, Kollider Eagle Lab, Sheffield Technology Park and TEAM SY.

“You can set up a business, it’s cost-effective, you’ve got access to staff on tap, there’s so many programs and networks,” said Hawksworth.

TEAM SY, which is part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund and non-profit organisation Capital Enterprise, works to drive the start-up ecosystem across South Yorkshire through more than 12 bespoke accelerator programmes from AI to games development.

“Our whole reason for existing is to develop the tech start-up ecosystem across South Yorkshire,” said Samantha Deakin, a business advisor and ‘super connector’ at TEAM SY, a role that oversees the programmes.

Samantha Deakin, TEAM SY
Samantha Deakin, TEAM SY.

What’s unique about Sheffield and its “ups and downs” 

Although the past 10 years has had its “ups and downs” for start-ups in the wider Yorkshire region, TEAM SY was “born out of a realisation that although London is now a great place to start and scale, there is a lot of untapped potential in the regions outside of London”.

There are, however, a number of obstacles the city still needs to address if it’s to continue on its growth trajectory. Deakin said: “I think we need more people running hackathons, start-up weekends, those kinds of things. You really need that at the very early stage, just to create a culture of entrepreneurship and making ideas happen and doing and trying and failing.”

Investment, as many cities can attest to, continues to be a challenge. “If start-ups cannot raise the finance they need, they will go elsewhere. And once they build their companies elsewhere, the likelihood they will come back is low.”

But the deep collaboration between the universities, the council and accelerator networks like TEAM SY appears to be driving the development of innovative start-ups, scale-ups as well as drawing in established companies. 

“They’re connecting not just pre-start but all the scale-up businesses within the various different fields of digital and tech into wherever they need to go. Whether that’s to the council for inward investment or scale activity with one of the tech advisors, it could be putting them in touch with other like-minded businesses,” added Marianne Hawksworth. 

American tech ‘unicorn’ and software company is one of these businesses. “They bought out a Sheffield-based homegrown business [Receptive] and are currently undergoing a massive rapid expansion program, looking to expand into some of our new developments in the city centre.”

On what attracts businesses to the city, Samantha Deakin believes its the support mechanisms Sheffield has in place. “It’s a really great place. It’s cheaper to build here, the talent is there. It has brought a lot of gems out of the woodwork as well as attracting companies in.”

An example of how talented entrepreneurs can flourish in the city can be seen with Dean Sadler, who was the former Chief Information Officer at Sheffield-founded Plusnet until 2008.

Dean Sadler, co-founder and CEO at Tribepad.
Dean Sadler, co-founder and CEO at Tribepad.

Sadler moved on to co-found enterprise hiring recruitment software platform Tribepad in 2008, which now works with clients in over 120 countries including a number of NHS Trusts, Greggs and the BBC.

He thinks although Sheffield is smaller, which has been “advantageous to the type of companies” he’s been involved in, it all stems down to the people who are “friendlier”.

“At both Plusnet and Tribepad, that was really important to us, primarily because at Plusnet it’s all about customer support and service. At Tribepad, we’re in the people industry, helping people find jobs. You need people who can actually empathise with what people are going through when they move from one job to another.”

It’s something Marianne Hawksworth agrees with too: “What struck me moving to Sheffield was very quickly people would help you. It’s the friendliest city ever.”

“We want to demonstrate that we’re not just for the small business, there’s also scale.”

Equipped with the tenacity and “Yorkshire spirit of getting things done”, it’s clear Sheffield is a city to watch as a tech powerhouse as its ecosystem continues to thrive.

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