Lee Strafford: Accelerating to a bright tech future

THIS month Forbes revealed the top three brands in the world: Apple, Microsoft and Google.

Steve Jobs

In fact of the 100 brands spanning 15 countries across 20 industrial categories, tech brands are the most prevalent, taking 11 of the top 25 spots.

Famously, tech has created dotcom billionaires whose lives take on a guru, celebrity status. They range from Steve Jobs to Mark Zuckerberg.

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It’s not surprising the younger generation are ambitious digital entrepreneurs, particularly as many start life in debt before they properly begin their careers with university fees, housing costs, and stagnating wages as the cost of living soars. They also can’t be blamed for the brain drain to London as they chase their ambitions.

However recent research outlined the economic challenge facing the North. The Office for National Statistics concluded the North has lower labour productivity. Life expectancy is shorter and average reported happiness is slightly lower than the rest of England. Household income per head is below the English average. Nearly 25,000 more young people moved south rather than north.

But we were, in fact, the original Silicon Valley.

The Industrial Revolution was driven by entrepreneurs who embraced technology and was a turning point in history. We were the original inventors and entrepreneurs, an amalgamation of cities with strong links to the supply chain and venture finance, operating as a meritocracy.

The North had a global influence but today, that’s London’s job. The walls built by local and central government meant regional development agencies and cities in the North West, North East and Yorkshire and Humber were fighting and competing against each other. This fragmentation stopped us exploiting the supply chain across the whole of the North.

Dotforge is an accelerator scheme for tech entrepreneurs – yes we’re based in Sheffield – but we’re tearing down walls across the North, connecting us to London and the world. It’s about constructing a convening point for global entrepreneurship. Investors and venture capitalists want a pipeline not fragmentation.

As an accelerator and incubator of tech start-ups, we will create that network across major cities across the North of England. London has lots of accelerators, and they’re all supported and linked together, creating a hub that investors swarm over. We need that if we’re going to compete globally and stand alongside London.

It’s not that the North isn’t happening when it comes to tech, it’s just not visible – we don’t make it easy for people with money to find us. The founder of Tweetdeck was a Sheffield guy; he went and set up in the US. I see that story a lot. We believe there’s enough talent and quality talent, we just need to keep it.

Northern universities draw students from across the UK, and the world. What we lack is an eco-system to support that talent. What works well in London, Berlin, Tel Aviv, Boston, San Francisco is their visible support systems around tech that facilitates growth, attracting talent and investors.

We’re working with the Government and other accelerators and tech hubs across the North to develop that eco-system. Dotforge was a founding partner of Nick Clegg’s recent launch of the agency Tech North and his vision for a Powerhouse of the North.

Reinvigorating the original Silicon Valley will work from the top down with devolution and from the ground up, with accelerators investing in and supporting entrepreneurs and a collective effort removing barriers.

Last year, the G20 forecast for the digital economy in the UK was seven per cent; it’s already been revised upwards to 12 per cent. I grew up in a world shaped by 200m consumers across Canada, the US, Western Europe and Japan. Today, there are five billion consumers coming into the market with the emerging economies of India, China, South America, Africa and Eastern Europe. Whether you’re in the so called developed world or the developing world we see an unprecedented demand for new forms of public or voluntary services.

Back to the Industrial Revolution. It was fuelled by immigration; there were 50,000 people in Sheffield before it, now there are approaching one million. We have a new generation of ‘millennials’ coming through who don’t see borders – geographic or racial – the UK is a hotbed of activity as the most inclusive country on the planet.

But our Tech Revolution differs to the Industrial Revolution in one key aspect; we are far removed from those poor working conditions or greedy entrepreneurs.

On a wider policy level, the Government is also recognising the value of socially-focussed companies – particularly those that step into the breach left by public sector cuts. If technology can transform health and social services, as well as generate profitable business, it has the potential to literally lift the North and transform our society for the better.

Our accelerator scheme wants teams to come forward from all walks of life, not just tech geeks with a brilliant idea but people who understand social problems and are looking for solutions through technology – and we can help build the tech skills around their enterprises.

There’s a global market waiting for technological solutions to civic life – whether it be housing, health or education.

Yorkshire has one of the strongest legacies of social enterprise thanks to the Key Fund – the UK’s biggest regional social investor. This pioneering community development finance institution is now shaping government policy and advising Europe to help fragile economies in austerity.

It’s a “power to the people” approach to business. It’s a no brainer then that Dotforge has been planned with the Key Fund, making it a rather heady mix of morality and ethics matched with the tech industry’s clout for profit and commerce.

Love or loathe Russell Brand, he’s tapped a nerve by highlighting inequalities: 85 people have the same wealth as the poorest 3.5bn. Our belief is we need to generate wealth. It’s fundamental to our success and to reignite the North, but we want our tech to offer more than profit. Imagine. Dotcom gurus with Northern Soul. It’s an inspired offer.

• Lee Strafford is the founder of internet provider PlusNet and start-up guru for the Dotforge Social Accelerator.