Brighton's Silicon Beach tech cluster finally breaks shore

London’s nearest coastal city of Brighton and Hove has probably the worst beach in the world. Full of rocks, the only sand visible is a small patch remaining from a beach volleyball event when sand had to be trucked in.

But what it lacks in sand, it has always wanted to make up for in Silicon, joining most of the Western World in trying to brand itself a Silicon Something. Thus the term ‘Silicon Beach’ was coined more than a decade ago as local quango Wired Sussex attempted to tempt companies down to the South Coast of England to create a cluster of companies that would reinvigorate what was then a town.

This noble venture largely failed at the time. Brighton and Hove lost out to other places such as Montreal that offered huge subsidies for companies to relocate. Moreover, the wages on offer were always terrible, even for the non-lazy (there are a LOT of lazy people in Brighton) while the lure of nearby London – and the better pay – was a tough competitor.

But recently the proverbial tipping point has happened and things have changed. Some would say this began when it was awarded Millennium City status in 2000… I prefer to think it was when those young people with tattoos and piercings outnumbered those who didn’t, and a high proportion started working on the new wave of web technologies, around the middle of last decade.

For whatever reason, in 2011 Brighton is on fire and there isn’t a subsidised quango in sight. Older companies are expanding rapidly and new companies are popping up all over the city and even extending to other towns such as Worthing and Lewes.

Wages are up, the city has a new football stadium (with a half-decent team) and people are even commuting into Brighton from London – it was usually the reverse. It’s a lifestyle choice for those who prefer (stony) beaches and walks in National Parks to more worldly delights in London. The Falmer campus just outside Brighton also disgorges a stream of talented and innovative people every year.

From disruptive start-ups to digital agencies to social media and back again to animation and design, the buzz in the sea air can be defined by this month’s Brighton Digital Festival.

The festival puts on 30 events over 30 days with exhibitions, conferences, workshops and meet-ups, which the organiser describes as the ‘biggest gathering of digital leaders outside SXSW’. Influential conferences such as dConstruct and an augmented reality show Improving Reality would make both San Francisco and Vancouver proud.

But what of the companies themselves? Cogapp is one of Brighton’s pioneering companies that has been going since 1985 and now works with iPads after starting with floppy disks, and serves clients in the museums, culture, media, sports, charity, government and commercial sectors. The company’s staff has more than 200 years’ experience and is regarded by many as Brighton’s digital grand-daddy.

Another company that has traded in the city for a decade is social monitoring analyst Brandwatch. Perched in a spacious office high above Brighton’s station the company raised significant funding this year and is becoming a magnet for talent. With an office in Germany and a new one just opened in New York, Brandwatch hopes to emulate this year’s exit of its rival Radian6 that was sold for $260 million.

And now for something completely different… (nice name) is a start-up that is successfully disrupting the staid world of accountancy. It offers software accountancy for freelancers, contractors and small businesses for a monthly fee that takes the pain out of those who want to set up a company. With trained accountants available at the end of the phone to take potential clients through the process, the company is expanding exponentially.

Away from accountancy, start-up Kanoti is an interesting ‘story-based digital content for emerging platforms’ company that boast clients such as BBC, Disney, Nickelodeon and MTV. The company’s turnover has quadrupled in the past three years and now runs a team of 15 people from its Brighton office.

No city is complete without a search agency and iCrossing is one of Brighton’s most successful digital companies. Originally called Spannerworks, the company has been acquired twice, first by US digital agency iCrossing and then by the legendary Hearst Corporation in 2010. While the company has subsequently lost some direction, its original owner Arjo Ghosh has served as a great example for other entrepreneurs wishing to emulate the company’s exit strategy.

The emergence of Brighton and Hove as a digital city has had an effect on other towns. Down the coast, Fresh Egg in Worthing prides itself on its ‘digital intelligence’ while over in Lewes ten miles in the South Downs countryside, Content & Motion is a social PR agency run by the colourful Roger Warner. The company delivers analytics, branded content, engagement and community management to a growing roster of clients.

So, Brighton and Hove is booming, but it may have to watch its step. One one lunchtime I wandered down to that beach and saw a (brave) young woman coming out of the sea with not a tattoo in sight. A coastal, digital city with a citizen without a tattoo, that will not do, that will not do at all.


Blast Theory – Digital broadcasting

Clearleft – User experience and design

Designate – Digital creative agency

Fugu PR – Communications and PR

Infomob – Mobile and wireless PR

Leapfrogg – Digital marketing

Linguabrand – Brand language analytics

Litmus Games – Online games

Madgex – Recruitment software

Nixon McInnes – Social media agency

Propellernet – Travel/fashion search agency

Ribot – Interface innovation for mobile devices

See That Media – Video, animation and graphics

Story Things – Stories across digital