Tech East chief on five years of helping grow businesses in Suffolk and Norfolk
For a man used to starting his day with breakfast networking and finishing it with a business dinner in London, Tim Robinson has adapted remarkably well to lockdown.
In the past 12 months, the chief operating officer of Tech East has managed to grow the non-for-profit organisation to an influence far beyond Anglia, attracting a growing number of investors in the region.
“I have gone from doing a lot of miles to giving a lot of home office meetings,” says Tim, who speaks for many - but does claim to have been an adopter of Zoom before it was ubiquitous.
“Video conferencing has been a great leveller. The East of England stretches a long way but this has brought everyone together. A lot of things we can do online and this can reduce our carbon emissions as well, so I am interested in how things might pan out in the future.
“I am expecting a hybrid (of virtual and physical meetings) as I am missing bumping into people and having those accidental conversations that can lead to something sparking.”
Tim’s ability and enthusiasm to create a discourse combined with his passion and belief in East Anglia - especially his native Suffolk, is an appropriate metaphor for what Tech East is all about.
Tech East is a network created in 2016 that aims to bring together like minded people who have an interest in growing the digital economy in the East of England. It comprises tech businesses, companies who want to use tech to transform or digitise their offering, education bodies, and the local government.
Tim says: “The idea is that we are bringing everyone together in one community, the businesses themselves and those who support them. But we also consider everybody’s needs and how we articulate those to the governments and bodies who might be able to meet it.”
A motivation for starting the collective is to ensure that government policy is relevant, with the East of England being a ‘very different kind of place’ in terms of its needs to metropolitan cities. While the origin of the group was in Norfolk and Suffolk it has now expanded to contain Essex and Cambridgeshire - a group of counties referred to as the ‘tech diamond’.
“You can set up with a tech business anywhere,” says Tim. “There is innovation in Stowmarket and a new tech hub in Haverhill. There is activity going on across the region and it needs an organisation to pull everyone together for a common purpose.”
Tim feels there is a clear goal of ‘shared recognition’ with the tech economy, and there is plenty for the region to shout about from the agri-tech found across the farming heartlands, to the ports and logistics centres in Felixstowe, and the financial hubs of Norwich - to name just three.
There are 24,000 tech firms in the East of England, employing 135,000 people - making up around 10 per cent of the region’s businesses. This places the East only behind the South East in terms of the influence of regions outside of London.
I ask Tim why the East has become such a hotspot for tech industry.
“I think there are quite a few factors. There are longstanding organisations that have cultivated tech for many years, such as BT. And there are big organisations which have large technology departments. Aviva, in Norwich, has more than 1,000 technology staff, including engineers and computer scientists. Then there is Cambridge and everything going on there, and Ipswich. If you triangulate between these three places you’ll find smaller towns each with their own vibrant technology hubs, Bury St Edmunds and Stowmarket being examples.
“There are also great universities scattered around. All of these have great courses and opportunities.”
Tim summarises Tech East as an organisation which puts the region on the map, helping businesses grow in terms of their economic impact by getting the most out of available programmes, and helping the wider economy digitalise and adopt technology rapidly.
He says: “We are thinking about how we can get recognition beyond the region. There are so many solutions to some of the challenges industries face, such as climate change, the future of transport, reducing carbon footprints… All of that requires digital technology, data, perhaps artificial intelligence. And most of all it requires businesses to work with other businesses. There are tech businesses who have the capabilities to do the digital stuff who can work really closely with their colleagues, MPs, and leaders of other sectors to go digital more quickly. Sometimes there can be a language barrier between these. We see ourselves as being in the middle and being a facilitator of good conversations.”
“People have traditionally felt they need to look towards London for some of these services, but that is no longer the case,” he adds.
“I have been to more than one meeting when I have gone to see a company which has some challenges around technology, not sure what is going on - and I have been able to point to that company that two floors down from where they are based is a company that has the capability to do what they need.
“And they just don’t know each other because it is not always apparent what opportunities there are on the doorstep.
“We are putting these businesses on the map.”
"First and foremost, we live and breathe by the success of the companies in the region."
Tech East has the ability to connect businesses needing services with firms who are able to supply their needs. But the organisation has also held conferences and seminars - some of which can identify where businesses can use technology to move onto greater gains.
A big achievement of 2020 was the launch of the Tech East 100. The aspirational list has identified 100 high growth and high potential businesses that have been successful. Users can browse from A-Z, (well, actually from Access Care Management to X-On) to see what the region’s leading lights have to offer. The online list also breaks down by sector which could allow an Eastern healthcare provider - one that is needing a fun way to publicise how to use an inhaler - with a video game developer that can show the process via gamification.
Organisations like Tech East are arguably needed more than ever as the business world comes up against the unprecedented challenges of an economy t-boned by the pandemic, and urgent need to address the climate crisis. The organisation is well placed to play its part for the latter - especially with seven electric vehicle proprietors alone featuring in the Tech East 100.
Tim says: “First and foremost, we live and breathe by the success of the companies in the region. What we are trying to do is bring them together (to make a splash) both locally and nationally. That makes it easier for large organisations to get involved.”
When it comes to large organisations, there are few bigger than EDF Energy, which has sent representatives to Tech East’s fortnightly networking event Tech and Toast. Suffolk is, of course, at the centre of the nuclear debate at the moment with discussions hotting up around the proposed Sizewell C station near Leiston. That EDF is keen to inform Tech East members and get their views is indicative of the growing influence of the organisation.
“This is a massive construction project that will last several years,” Tim says. “For us the question is over how we can use digital technology to efficiently arrange road transport to and from that site... How might a digital supply chain, that is more local, look like.
“We act as a signpost for any organisation looking to engage with technology businesses. We can say, here is a great business, why don’t you have a conversation.”
Tech East has influences all over the region but is a very small operation with Tim being one of two full-time staff, alongside co-ordinator Brigette Currin. Their strength comes from having a strong and diverse board of directors, who take their roles alongside their day jobs. Board members include Lisa Perkins, director of research and innovation at BT, as chairman, John Dugmore, of Suffolk Chamber of Commerce, as chief executive, as well as members of Norfolk and Suffolk county councils.
Key to meeting the technology needs in the East is to bring through a new generation of tech-capable workers who will be able to fill jobs needed to make progress. Tim is aware the region is lucky to have institutions like University of East Anglia, Cambridge University, and Anglia Ruskin University where key skills are all being taught. Tech East also has partnerships with higher education institutions such as West Suffolk College, to encourage more people into tech. “One of the challenges we are facing,” says Tim, “is to get more people to consider technology careers - and how we can diversify the industry to get more BAME and female applicants.”
Tim returned to his home county to take the Tech East role in 2017 on the back of a successful career in technology and publishing. Now, on the fifth anniversary of the organisation, I ask what he is most proud of.
“We had a lot of individually great companies,” he says, “But they were an unconnected mass. I think we have successfully brought people together with an identity.
“I think we have a brand that people recognise. Not just Tech East but the wider brand of East Anglia. That has helped our discussions with the private and public sector.”
He adds: “Pretty much every week I will get an alert to say someone in Tech East 100 has won an award or gone onto an international programme.
“When I started in 2017 big deals were a rarity. You might get two or three per year. It feels like now we are getting two or three a quarter.
“I am personally proud of being able to bring a level of pride to this part of the country. That is not going unnoticed.”