Guest post: How does Birmingham's tech scene stack up?

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This is a guest post by Simon Jenner, Head of Incubation for Birmingham Science Park Aston. Simon runs a Tech startup incubator based in Birmingham called Entrepreneurs for the Future.

We hear a lot about the European Tech scene being centred around London with fledgling scenes in Berlin & Paris. This got me thinking, what about Birmingham? It feels like we are in a scene, but when can you call it a scene? Does TechCrunch have to declare it a scene for it to qualify?

Before we can decide whether a place has a Tech scene, we need to decide what the building blocks for a Tech scene are? I feel that any fledgling scene needs to have the following elements before it can be truly called a scene:

– People (Tech & Entrepreneurs)

– Things happening (meetups, conferences, hack days, un-conferences, demo days, free pitching)

– Tech startups being created

– Startup support (incubators, accelerators, mentors, Big Company support schemes – think BizSpark and the like)

– Finance (3F’s, grants, angels, VC’s)

So if this is the measure how does Birmingham stack up?

In terms of people, we have three Universities in Birmingham and 13 in the West Midlands all delivering Business, computing and games courses, We have 25% of the Games industry workforce based in the West Midlands including Rare Games, Blitz Games & Codemasters. We have games specific courses like Gamercamp at Birmingham City University; which covers games development for iOS, PSP, PS3 and xBox 360, and is open to any aspiring developer/designer. With all these projects taking off and communities developing I think we have the right type of people with the right skills to create the next big thing in Tech.

There are an abundance of activities happening in the Tech sector in the West Midlands. I have counted over 25 regular activities happening including; Ruby Meetup, Mac Meetup, PHP Meetup, Tech Wednesday, Startup Mill, Digital playground, Social Media Cafe, Linux Meetup, Perlmongers Meetup, GamesCentralWM, Birmingham Entrepreneurs, Launch 48, Hello Digital and hack days a plenty, not to mention a large scale week-long Tech conference, euroPython, but who’s to say it will be the only one? Watch this space.

Equally there are Tech startups being established. I have counted 30 so far based in and around Birmingham. These are startups doing something that TechCrunch might be interested in rather than just Tech businesses or just startup businesses. How does that compare? It is difficult to say how many are in London or Paris to compare with Birmingham. I attended a demo day in London last month and four startups were from Birmingham, four from Glasgow and 10 from London so if that is a barometer then Birmingham is not that far behind.

A recent TechCrunch guest post by Projjol Banerjea about Berlin suggested they had over 200 startups which would put them in line with London but it does depend on their definition of startup. Birmingham’s huge advantage over other cities is its central location to the rest of the UK (1hr 20mins to London by train) and its relatively low cost of living making it an ideal place to start a tech business (slower cash burn rate)

For startup support, we already have a Tech incubator, and an accelerator programme for digital media companies is in the pipeline. What we do lack however, is for a local equivalent of Google or Microsoft to support the scene like they do in London.

However, the real gap emerges when we come to finance. There is almost no private finance available in Birmingham. We have angel groups, we have private equity companies, we have Venture Capitalists but none of them understand Tech. The result is it doesn’t matter how big the funds are that they can provide, if they don’t get it they won’t invest in it. We are yet to see a Birmingham based Tech entrepreneur who has made it, and for that matter one that can repay their investment by investing in startups.  I am sure a successful investment in a Birmingham based Tech company will bring the fish to feed. So for the moment we will rely on public funds, building relationships with London money and utilising our cunning and acumen.

So does all this mean Birmingham has a Tech scene? Well I certainly think we have a fledgling scene, which in the next 2 – 5 years will deliver some Tech stars. I guess many across the UK also think they have a Tech scene, why not apply these criteria and see how we all stack up?

  • Franz Glatz

    There are more hubs in Europe than one big in US called silicon valley.

    I know only the best about Birmingham told by Peter Harmon, UKBI.

  • West Mids tech fan

    …and don’t forget the ICT Cluster, for West Midlands technology companies. The organisation provides West Midlands companies with expert advice, market intelligence, and networking events to help increase innovation, market share and profitability.

  • Jackson

    “There is almost no private finance available in Birmingham”

    And here we have the nub of the problem. Birmingham is, as you say, 1h20m from London. This should not present a barrier to any half decent london vc or birmingham startup. If we’re not willing to invest 3hrs of time, then that suggests that something else is broken…

  • Janos P Toth /

    The startupmill people have a neat little twitter list of Brum startups:

    If you’re one, may worth contacting @StartupMillBrum.

  • David Weblin

    This idea of a tech incubator in Birmingham (edf at Aston Science Park) is a joke and most of this article is flawed. For the following reasons:

    The programme run by the author provides “6 months office space”. In an age of Skype, flexible working and when you are working on a startup 24/7 in the early hours, this has no real merit as a benefit to offer.

    It also provides ‘office infrastructure’ such as ‘phones’. This is a tech startup we are talking about here not a call center!! What kind of feature/benefit is that! People have mobiles and can have web based 0800/0845 numbers routed to their mobiles etc.

    It offers ‘specialist support (legal, finance, HR). This basically means a group of service companies who can easily sell their services to a startup in house as they are tied into the scheme. Hence the reason on their site, that they ideally don’t want you to have setup the company prior to applying, as they want you to do it through them.

    The whole point of a tech incubator is to have top class mentors (not office space) such as Brad Feld, Paul Graham etc. guiding and directing you who does Birmingham edf have? Does it have someone with a tech based track record? No, just two ‘old fogie’ non tech business angels and run by a self proclaimed ‘serial entrepreneur’. Show us the track record of these guys, companies they have created, revenues, profits, exits.

    In terms of access to grants it is like any other science park setup in towns/cities across the U.K, all government funded. This money does not go to the best ideas, how would it? as the people handing out the money don’t even know what is a viable business idea, as they are 9-5er pen pushers and not the high level entrepreneurs who are tech business angels in the States, who know their stuff inside out.

    Also, most clients are handed to these incubator startups (science park) inside the public sector. So these startups have never had to cut it in the real world, fight for clients as they have the buffer of public funded money and ready made public sector clients. There are countless examples of science parks across the U.K where there are flashy cars outside driven by the directors (public sector money) and when you look at their company accounts most are loss making. How does the state know how to fund the right independently viable businesses? These regional development funds, business link etc. are all a joke! It’s a good thing that these resources will no longer being allocated wrongly after the Tory cuts. Even Duncan Banatynne complained recently on Dragons Den what a disgrace how some of these unviable businesses that were getting funded with state money. Don’t cry about lack of funding, bloody hustle, get a loan, friend or family, best of all get sales. This is entrepreneurship not ‘I need funding to exist!’ mentality that we seem to have in the U.K tech community.

    On their incubator site it says another benefit is ‘access to people resources eg grads/interns’. What a non selling point. Anybody can post a job at uni or an internship on etc. So that is another non benefit.

    Just look at the mentor list on the edf site, it’s ridiculous. Mostly made up of the solicitors (who coincidentally are the directors of the solicitor firm that are partners to the incubator), and the ‘head of the science park'(who has the relevant skill of a phd in microbiology) and another mentor whose business failed in mid 2009. What the hell do these people know about running a tech business and topics such as customer acquisition, SEM, viral loop, MVP etc.

    An incubator should be run if it is the real deal, by top business angels with a track record of entrepreneurial success themselves. Having a bit of a west midlands grant, and some office space is not going to cut it. Also, funding? Tech startups can bootstrap, with sites so cheap to build, cloud hosting services etc. and don’t need funding to get to product/market fit and should learn to grow off revenues.

    If the funding is so hard to get here in the U.K (let alone Birmingham) unlike in the States then get used to it and stop moaning and build your companies off SALES. Don’t try and do some ‘free’ monetise later as you will not be getting Sequoia Capital or some super angel backing you in the U.K with millions to have a three year runway to get to profitability.

    Also, with sites such as Mixergy and This week in startups, entreprenurs based in Birmingham, Manchester etc. can gain an insane amount of knowledge that they don’t need to go to a science park to learn. On these sites there are interviews, discussion from top entrepreneurs who have built multi million pound companies, where you can learn about marketing, negotiating etc.

    Even London just about has SeedCamp (and that’s for start-ups across the whole of Europe not the U.K) and the funny thing is Open Angel Forum is happening in October. It takes high profile american entrepreneurs to come here and run a free angel event!

    As a tech entrepreneur myself based in the East Midlands and London, you don’t need a Z rate incubator, as run by the author here. So you might be thinking of going down to London which has it merits in terms of contacts, resources. However something to not fall into the trap of as an entrepreneur in London there are too many playing entrepreneur, getting seduced by the glitz and glam as stated by a recent techcrunch europe article see

    This comments above sounds negative, it’s just a warning that you can become super knowledgeable with live webinars, blogs, startup sites mentioned and if you need a mentor. Just contact someone via social media who has a track record etc.

    You can run a top tech startup, that is highly profitable from anywhere, see (no angel funding, incubator help etc.) However unexperienced startups might think that they have to get onto an incubator (as that is the thing to do) run by nobody’s in the entrepreneur/tech space and get funding, which in Birmingham is nonsense!

    By all means network with fellow entrepreneurs help each other out, learn from each other etc. just stay away from these science park incubators. All run by people with no credentials and service companies to leech off public sector money, grants etc all in the name of promoting entrepreneurship etc.

  • Simon Jenner

    I share some of David’s (last commenters) synicism about Government funded incubators and had the same reservations before taking on the e4f (not edf) programme.

    I welcome David or anyone else to come and visit us and see we are not as descirbed above and are adding value to the businesses in incubation. But don’t take it from me speak to the businesses and ask them what they think.

    We are adopting a lean approach to startups driving each business to an MVP. It should also be recongnised that we are not just about web tech businesses as we also incubate green and medical tech businesses which have different life cycles to a web tech business.

    I don’t know what David’s business is as a google search showed nothing but not all web tech businesses can be built in a bedroom using skype some business require physical spaces to interact with each others, suppliers and customers. We have a telepresence suite being built to allow our business to interact with businesses all over the world giving them a competitive advantage over the average bedroom competitor.

    Our mentor list continues to grow and we would love to have successful tech entrepreneurs on our mentor list and I am sure given time we will.

    David I extend an invite to come visit us – my email is

  • Jason Hall

    I hear where David Weblin is coming from and have heard that argument re publicly-supported initiatives many times. I’ve also seen evidence of a lot of the things you’ve mentioned many times, but don’t tar all with the same brush. I agree that bringing viable and experienced mentors on board brings immense value – and this is exactly the kind of thing BSP is working hard to achieve, along with a range of other services.

    I’ve also built a business from scratch – grown exclusively from winning contracts and making sales, not funding, and – like many people who have been through this – I found that whilst during the early days I managed to get by working from home and coffee shops and anywhere with free wifi, there comes a point – if you’re doing your job right – when you need to hire people. For all the possibilities of remote working, there’s still no substitute for being in the same physical space as your team when you’re working on a big project to tight deadlines and need the best possible communication between all team members at all times. It allows you to be more focused, more reactive and responsive to those inevitable curve balls that you’re going to get thrown at you and build a better sense that your business *is* a team rather than a collection of individuals, (albeit individuals working towards a common goal). In short, there comes a time when you’re going to need office space.

    Low-cost or subsidised incubator spaces are a lifeline to any startup with serious aims towards keeping their startup costs down whilst building for growth – and if you’re in the tech or digital media sector then the fact there are spaces out there like BSP that are focused on your sector is always going to be an added advantage.

  • Victor Nettoyeur

    I had this article forwarded to me by a friend, it ironically now seems to circling within the very circles it questions the existence of.

    Trying to find and focus on the original point of the article, really it seems it answers it’s own question, on a gobal stage Birmingham blurs into London, it’s like a suburb you ride the train a bit longer (1hr 20mins as mentioned) to get to.

    This article also shows how public funded business support in the UK wastes time focusing on irrelevant matters that only concern those who depend on it. The whole beauty of start up success now, particularly for tech based startups, is that location rarely matters. It’s of little concern to anyone other than the regional support networks who’s accountability comes down to how their statistics compare to the other regions.

    Seriously why does this matter? And why should local investors feel any obligation to focus and reinvest in Birmingham based start-ups? Why would any feel the need to stay in the area when they flourish?

    Regardless, I think the reason for this assumption that no Birmingham based tech success stories or tech savvy investors exist is because:
    1) The public sector business support network hasn’t created any and the blog author can’t see beyond it.
    2) Those entrepreneurs that do exist don’t want to, or have no need to be associated with his network.

    I’ve rented offices in one of the West Midlands Science Parks, I’ve visited the incubators and talked to the business owners working within them. I know that some of these business pre-schools have had tenants residing rent free for years because they can’t stand on their own two feet.

    I’ve spoken candidly to the incompetent business advisers who, despite being able to secure their own funding, can’t even get their own start-ups off the ground. I’ve personally witnessed how the system greases the palms of a parasitic swarm of privately owned suppliers bottom feeding off the tax payer gravy train.

    I’ve even been to swanky events at the Botanical Gardens and sat at the tables and listened to the directors of these organisations debate what businesses need. The gaping chasm in their knowledge and experience felt like eavesdropping on XFactor contestants discussing wormhole theory.

    Show me public sector touted business mentors who’s project portfolios aren’t littered with Advantage West Midlands stamps. Show me the acclaimed businesses who’s awards haven’t come from the incestuous organisations that created them.

    If the public sector wants to help businesses in the region then it needs to stick to educating people on the theory, which it can do well, and stop railroading young talent into this self applauding pseudo business echo chamber.

    The last thing entrepreneurs need is diverting into a world of where they are conditioned by subsidisation and unqualified mentor-ship by people who are, often quite frankly, just trying to justify their own role in these organisations.

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  • Dan

    At least people are trying to be helpful to some extent. It’s easy to sit and complain about false marketing in existing government schemes, but who is really taking steps to establish a better government?

    It’s these kinds of programs that offer to support potential leaders of the future, even if it’s only a useful in a small way…

    Even if it isn’t as huge as the trumpet makes it sound, at least the effort is being made somewhere in some way by someone…

  • Birmingham hotel

    I hope you are right mate. I hope that the big fish will come. The lack of finance is a problem but I believe the big companies can handle it.

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