For many businesses, having to find new ways to do business, which in many cases has included offering new contactless and online forms of payment, upgrading their website or pivoting their business entirely to full e-commerce, South West tech businesses, have not only avoided the Covid crunch but may well have saved many others too.
Dan Pritchard, Tech South West co-founder, believes the regional tech cluster, which has more than 2,000 business members from the Isles of Scilly to Bristol, is best placed to reap the benefits of rapid digital transformation brought about by the pandemic.
He believes new opportunities and innovation are well underway.
Dan said: “Technology has saved businesses. Uncertainty leads to opportunity and it’s already happening; companies pivoting, shifting their offering, finding new markets.”
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According to Tech South West, some 4,170 online shops opened in the South West during the pandemic, more, in relation to the total number of businesses in the region, than any other part of the UK.
With a new £5m innovation centre set for Taunton, expansion at Exeter and Plymouth Science Parks, the breakthrough of more tech startups from Falmouth University’s Launchpad programme, the new Centre of Technology and Innovation Excellence in North Devon and Gravity development at Junction 23 of the M5, the long term future looks bright for the region’s tech industry.
Toby Parkins, chairman of Tech South West and co-founding director of software firm Headforwards in Pool, said: “Tech companies are making big decisions.
“Many have realised they don’t have to be in London paying premium rent. It’s the perfect fit for the South West. We’re not talking big industrial units that impact the landscape. Clean tech is low visibility, high pay and rapid growth.”
Underpinning much of the region’s innovation, and with a track record of attracting companies from beyond the South West, Plymouth and Exeter science parks continue to evolve in unprecedented times.
Over the summer, Plymouth Science Park welcomed a number of specialist firms to the park’s growing tech, academic and medical cluster.
Israeli medical-technology start-up Eye Control uses artificial intelligence-powered eye-tracking and technology to help locked-in and ventilated patients communicate through eye movements. Modus Laboratories, relocating from the Thames Valley, are a contract research company for the oral healthcare industry, combining scientific discovery with customer research and development.
Close to 100 organisations now operate from what is the region’s largest science park, with more to be announced in the coming months.
Ian McFadzen, CEO of Plymouth Science Park, said: “The pandemic has shown just how vital cutting-edge science and technology is to every part of our economy. These are tough but exciting times. The collaboration and knowledge exchange being facilitated by both us and Exeter Science Park with our universities and other key partners, will be instrumental in delivering a resilient economic resurgence.”
Exeter Science Park has reopened to tenants and guests, transforming the site into a COVID-secure environment.
Dr Sally Basker, CEO of Exeter Science Park, said: “We’ve been working hard to create a demonstrably safe and pleasant working environment and community space for our staff, tenants and guests. This includes launching Exeter Science Park Connect, the digital hub for the Science Park allowing tenants and visitors to connect, collaborate and access services virtually. We’re pleased to be welcoming back tenants and guests to a COVID-secure environment.
“As we look ahead, we’ll be completing work on the 20,000 square foot Ada Lovelace Building in early 2021, and beginning work on a third Grow-on Building. We’re continuing to provide high quality office and laboratory space and to help innovative STEMM companies to deliver extraordinary growth.”
Paul Coles is BT Group English Regions Director and on the Tech South West steering group.
“We rightly talk about investment for the region but need to put digital skills at the forefront. Farming, fishing, food and tourism are staples of our economy, yet Covid has shown they are vulnerable. We have to be innovative and creative across every sector.
“Farming has been innovating for centuries and you can see it now with the emergence of agritech. Investment and innovation needs to accelerate if we are to really thrive economically.”
Despite the pandemic, 2020 has been a good year overall for the sector and many tech service companies have never been busier.
Paula Byers, founder of cloud app integration firm LimeCloud and tech cluster Digital Northern Devon, said: “The service side has been inundated. Digital transformation has advanced hugely. It’s not just tech firms.
“All sectors – NHS frontline services, manufacturing, retail and many more – have been adopting digital solutions, not least of course, for remote working. That’s highlighted the vulnerability of rural broadband in many areas.”
In a turbulent year companies have moved quickly to adopt technologies to support their operations.
Alongside helping clients to adapt, Exeter-based IT and tech strategy and support specialists Timewade were already running a free technology group for South West businesses. Covid-19 changed everything.
Managing director Julian Wills launched the Technology for Success group late 2019 after running a regional tech survey.
“It was startling. There was a clear divide between companies considering technology across their whole business, and those who definitely were not. Now we’re seeing that play out to full effect.”
Unsurprisingly, those taking a more strategic approach were seeing the greatest productivity benefits.
Lockdown saw Timewade expand the free support for SMEs, launching a webinar series and SME Business Summit with partners including Bishop Fleming and Stephens Scown LLP, and ramping up free resources on a new technologyforsuccess.co.uk website. A 2020 tech survey of SMEs has just been completed.
Julian adds: “Looking at the early results, investment in technology is going up and there are new challenges. Cyber security and data control are priorities, areas that probably slipped during lockdown but are imperative to business resilience, especially with remote and blended working here to stay.
“When you are relying on home broadband and various kit, new solutions are needed.”
He added: “Electronic trading is now a priority and 80% have already identified new opportunities. We are having to think differently. How business leaders embrace the right technology solutions will be key to so much in the months ahead.”
However it is not the perfect rosy picture for all tech companies and many fear that further growth could be hampered by a lack of investment in infrastructure and digital skills. In addition, some tech firms supporting struggling industries such as aviation or automotive industries have also suffered.
Kate Doodson, joint chief executive of East Devon’s Cosmic, said: “Many people rely on colleagues or an IT department to get through a standard day and now they are working from home they have been really struggling. There is suddenly a reliance on technology that there hasn’t been before.”
The tech sector has been the fastest growing part of the region’s economy for several years now. But there have been ‘winners and losers’.
Paula adds: “It is very much feast and famine. Aspects of advanced engineering in aviation have struggled. For some, it has been dire.
”But overall tech is agile and resilient. In the long term, we have an amazing opportunity. Our expertise in clean tech fits perfectly with our National Parks, coastline, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and UNESCO Biosphere.
“If we really want to rebuild the economy in a way that least impacts our environment, it has to be through the tech sector.”
Digital infrastructure for the South West is considered essential in helping to close the productivity gap with other UK regions. And it’s not just cities that are the focus of major upgrades.
Backed by £250million investment, Exeter based Jurassic Fibre is on target to provide world-class broadband connectivity to over 300,000 premises across the South West by 2024.
In the last year, the company has recruited over 150 employees and completed a state-of-the-art network covering 15,000 residential and business premises in Exmouth and villages to the East of Exeter.
They are now extending their network to Taunton and Honiton, as part of a five year plan to introduce full-fibre ultrafast broadband to villages and towns across Devon, Somerset and Dorset.
CEO Michael Maltby said: “We live ‘tech-driven’ lives. There is an increased requirement for more efficient and faster broadband, particularly since the pandemic, with UK data consumption rising on average by 21% every year.
“The South West has long lagged behind the rest of the UK for fibre-to-the-premises availability, and our aim is to create a major step change in daily Internet use for people living and working in the region.
“A migration has started from towns and suburbs, convenient for five-day office working, to areas in the South West offering a higher all round quality of life, underpinned by the availability of fibre-to-the-premises Internet connectivity.
“As the roll out of the railways in the 19th century defined the winners and losers for the next hundred years, the roll-out of fibre-to-the-premises networks will do the same in the 21st century. Our intention is that the South West will be one of the winners.”
This article has been produced for the Annual Business Guide Top 150, sponsored by PKF Francis Clark.
The guide profiles the biggest firms in Devon and Cornwall and takes a comprehensive look at the sectors that dominate the regional economy.
We examine how they have been affected this year and chart the Covid-19 bounceback.
See the full list of Top 150 businesses here and in print in the Western Morning News.