As one of the driving forces accelerating tech ecosystems across the UK, growth platform Tech Nation has helped to supercharge and support the meteoric success of hundreds of tech start-ups and scaleups from Monzo, Just Eat and Peak AI. But now, the future for Tech Nation is uncertain.
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) had invited bids in 2022 for the grant, which was launched to accelerate the growth of tech start-up and scaleup ecosystems across the UK.
In a government statement, the funding package was awarded following “an open competition and rigorous assessment process” adding that the bid from Barclays Eagle Labs offered the “best value for taxpayers’ money”.
Many Northern tech leaders were left reeling over the decision, taking to social media to voice their support for Tech Nation as its future hangs in the balance.
A significant portion of Tech Nation’s funding comes from the government but Tech Nation said it has been “working around the clock” to secure its future and plans to “continue delivering for UK scaleups”.
“There’s such a gap in equity for Northern funders still. Organisations like Tech Nation are effectively the connective tissue between what is ultimately still a nascent ecosystem on a global scale,” Ben Davies, group marketing director at financial services firm Praetura, told Prolific North.
On route to one of Tech Nation’s Rising Stars events, he noted how pivotal these events are for Praetura when seeking out the next innovative start-up to invest in.
“From our point of view, they’ve been great at pulling together founders who’ve been there before and done it, to then inspire other founders. They’ve helped with political swing. Ultimately, it’s not up to us where the government puts their money. We just want to make it clear that the work Tech Nation has done today, on a grassroots level of galvanising the tech community, has been absolutely critical.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Dan Sodergren, co-founder of people support platform Your FLOCK, based in Manchester.
“Tech Nation has proven itself to be non London-centric and very much about the regions, diversity, inclusion, and about getting behind the people who aren’t normally in tech to get into tech, as well as backing to amazingly successful companies,” he told Prolific North.
“Without Tech Nation, we would not have the ecosystem outside of London that we have. They also were fundamental with programmes like Libra, Net Zero net or Rising Stars. These things were happening way before the rest of the market.”
The story behind Tech Nation and reaction from Northern tech leaders
Starting out in 2010 as Tech City UK, the organisation was launched by David Cameron’s government to shine a spotlight on East London’s thriving tech cluster known as ‘Silicon roundabout’
After accelerating its reach across the UK, Tech North was formed to run programmes and activities across the North of England until both Tech City UK and Tech North merged in 2018 to become what we know it as today – Tech Nation.
Through a number of initiatives such as growth programmes, a visa scheme, a digital academy, networking conferences and events as well as in-depth sector research, analysis and reports, Tech Nation has helped to build a thriving tech community in the North.
Tech Nation said since its inception, 40% of all tech ‘unicorns’ and ‘decacorns’ created in the UK have graduated from one of its growth programmes, 13,000 jobs have been created nationally across the tech sector and over 95% of startups on its growth programmes moved to scaleup level.
“I think what they’ve built in terms of a community is really impressive,” explained Davies from Praetura.
“Everyone throws around the word community so freely but what Tech Nation did over the years, because they grew with the North’s tech sector, they actually grew a community. I think that’s pretty invaluable because so many people have a go at it but it’s really difficult to do.
“I’m not saying Barclays can’t do that. What they’ve done with Eagle labs is really impressive, such as the work that they’ve done in Leeds and some of the work that they did in MediaCity in the early days.”
There is optimism from some tech founders across the region about the future and hopes that Tech Nation can continue in some form.
Ryan Swann, co-founder of Manchester-based risk management platform RiskSmart, was a winner of Tech Nation’s 5.0 Rising Star City Award last year and one of Prolific North’s Top 25 Tech Companies to Watch.
Michael Aldred and Ryan Swann, Founders of RiskSmart
He commented: “As more of a newbie to the Manchester tech community, Tech Nation have been brilliant for us. They’ve helped facilitate intros to other businesses and founders, provided lots of access to great content and sessions with seasoned pros and the Rising Stars competition has been a real highlight for us.
“I had no idea that the funding could be pulled and have not seen any reason whatsoever why they shouldn’t continue. We’ve only been working with them for a short while but already it has helped supercharge our business. Barclays Eagle Labs seem good too and I don’t see why the two cannot co-exist to keep the innovation around the UK flowing!”
Hannah Bratley, co-founder and CEO of Frame, hopes Barclays Eagle Labs will continue to support the North’s tech scene in the same way.
“Over the past few years, Tech Nation has done an amazing job helping tech firms right across the North and the UK grow. Losing the grant will be a bitter flow for the team there but their legacy and the value they have delivered will live on.”
“I hope Barclays Eagle Labs will continue to support the tech ecosystem in the same innovative ways. As a tech start-up based in the North, it’s been heartening to read that 80% of the 22,000 businesses that will benefit from the next phase of funding will be based outside of London.
“Our region boasts some of the country’s most exciting and dynamic tech businesses but they need the right kind of funding and training to help them thrive. Time will tell but I’m confident in Barclays Eagle Labs vision of making the UK tech sector an engine for growth and for the UK to be the best place in the world to start and grow a tech business.”
The future for Tech Nation?
Tech Nation will continue to receive grant funding from DCMS until March 2023 and Barclays Eagle Labs will receive the Digital Growth Grant split over two years from April 2023.
With the funding package, Eagle Labs is set to launch new programmes to grow tech companies, increase access to its existing services and double the number of mentoring sessions offered to tech firms to 1,500 a year.
Since launching in 2015, Barclays Eagle Labs said it has a record of supporting over 8,000 start-ups and high-growth businesses and has numerous locations across the UK including in York, Liverpool, Newcastle, Sheffield and Greater Manchester Digital Security Hub (DiSH).
Amanda Allan, Director of Barclays Eagle Labs, said at the time of the announcement: “Eagle Labs’ vision is to make the UK tech sector an engine for growth and for the UK to be the best place in the world to start and grow a tech business
“Through the Digital Growth Grant, we’re excited to double down to reach more businesses across the country with our best-in-class business growth programmes and bespoke regional support.”
However, some have voiced some concern over a financial institution receiving the government grant.
(L-R) Dan Sodergren, Michal Wisniewski and Chris Marsh at Your FLOCK
“I don’t think that Barclays are going to add more programmes for underrepresented groups, I think they’ll cut those because those things aren’t profitable,” said Sodergren.”My concern is the political side of it and it being linked to a bank. The government’s paying the bank, the bank is then helping us. That doesn’t feel like it’s going to be very revolutionary.”
How the change in culture might impact the wider tech ecosystem is a worry too.
“Anyone who takes over anything brings their own culture, even if you keep the same people, you’re going to bring a different culture to it. My worry is that siding with a very old and very well established bank means that innovation won’t happen and risks won’t be taken. If we’re honest, that is the spirit and ethos that Tech Nation got behind and what you have to be like in start-ups. Start-ups are high risk, are diverse, and that diversity inclusion point I think we’re going to miss because we’re going to have a change in organisation culture,” he added.
For Davies, he hopes the tech community or private sector can rally round Tech Nation to secure its future: “We wish Barclays well and hope that they bring something new to the table but simultaneously, I think it’s important to mark how important the work that Tech Nation has done up until this point.”
“I personally hope they continue because I think they’re a great organisation and I do think the tech community will still derive a huge amount of value from the things that they do, particularly their events.