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

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?