Forget Silicon Valley, Silicon Gorge And The South West Do It Best.

Bristol has had many faces during its long history, but nowadays its punching way above its weight as an emerging tech giant, destined to rival its Silicon Valley counterpart. Those already in the technology sector fondly refer to Bristol and the wider region as Silicon Gorge, and it’s quickly gaining a reputation as the home of commercial enterprise and innovation for ambitious businesses and talent alike.

“Bristol has long been a place where we do things differently, but now its gaining both national and international reputation for its innovation, and getting things done differently”

Karl Sweatman, Managing Director, Peaple Talent

Silicon Gorge Startups

The Silicon Gorge success stories owes itself to many factors, one of those being the regions approach to dedicated spaces for innovation. Leading the way in this arena are places like the Bristol’s Temple Quarter, Bristol Robotics Lab and UnitDX. With the recent improvement to rail links from Bristol, Swindon and Bath the cluster has secured its status as a truly 21st-century and world leading destination. With journey times to London now as little as 80 minutes, it has become an attractive prospect and realistic commute for digital and technology talent.

As testament to its meteoric rise, the annual TechNation report highlighted that companies in the region received over £300m in VC capital investment, in addition it has birthed 2 new unicorns in Graphcore and Ovo Energy, plus has one of the most productive technology talent pools in Europe.

Talent Is The Key

Alongside the births of unicorns and the arrivals of corporates like Channel4 moving into the region, the clusters success is also due to its ability to nurture and educate young talent. Historically, Bristol and Bath has always had a strong tech presence. Many industry leaders in the fields of media, tech and aeronautical engineering enjoy success here. Meanwhile, Bristol boasts two first-class universities who are educating the tech talent of the future. The University of Bristol graduates more than 5,000 software engineers and other computer-science related students each year, with its strong connections into industry with companies like Toshiba and Hewlett Packard Enterprise supporting industry placements and projects, students graduate with a wealth of opportunities to really excel in their chosen field.

Aside from the education of future entrepreneurs, The University of Bristol is playing a far wider role in the technological innovation of this great city. At the heart of the regions technology sector is The Engine Shed, home to SETsquared, ranked the global number one university business incubator for the third consecutive time by leading research and advisory firm, UBI Global.

The Engine Shed isn’t just a space, its an ecosystem that is built to develop entrepreneurial communities, linking high tech innovators, angel investors and institutional finance, education and research programmes to support the continued success and growth of the technology industry in the region. This is a unique environment which has played a substantial role in raising Bristol’s profile in the tech and digital space. Playing home to over 65 of Bristol’s most innovative ventures, including those from the worlds of telecoms, biotech, clean tech and security to name but a few.

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Nick Sturge MBE, former Director of Engine Shed addressing residents and peers at The Junction, one of many event and networking space in the hub.

The Engine Shed has served as a soft landing space for some of the regions most exciting and fast growing businesses, including pre-unicorns and haptic technology developers Ultraleap, multi cloud high performance computing company YellowDog and semiconductor company Graphcore who are at the cutting edge of developing accelerators for AI and machine learning.

Supporting the Silicon Gorge Startups

In a further demonstration of the clusters community spirit, the region, and Bristol & Bath specifically are built upon a number of pivotal networks. One of the most prominent is TechSPARK who operate throughout the West of England with a single mission to help strengthen the tech and digital sector. TechSPARK deliver over 80 events each year, including the largest tech awards outside of London The SPARKies, alongside these they also deliver a number of impactful programmes to support every level of business from startups to major corporates. TechSPARK recently launched a UK first initiative called the Investment Activator Programme (IAP), the 2 year programme is designed to strengthen the finance ecosystem in the region, developing stronger relationships with investors and VC’s, aswell as increasing engagement with the regions scale-up founders.

Their aim is to make it quicker and easier for technology businesses to access investment. In March the programme reported to have helped attract over £180m of investment into businesses based here.

In addition to this, local government schemes from Business West and West of England Combined Authority has given many young founders the support and finance they need to innovate and scale.

Silicon Gorge Startup Success Stories

Perhaps one of the most successful enterprises to date is “Graphcore”. They have embraced technology and startup innovation to completely reimagine the future. In evidence of their ambitious business they have announced an additional $150 million in new capital to secure its position as the leading pure-play machine intelligence AI processor company. The private placement has been made by leading financial asset managers, growth equity funds and investment trusts and includes new investors Baillie Gifford, Mayfair Equity Partners and M&G Investments alongside existing investors including Merian Chrysalis, Ahren Innovation Capital, Amadeus Capital Partners and Sofina.

This is an extension of Graphcore’s Series D round which closed in December 2018, bringing the total investment in Graphcore to date to over $450 million at a valuation of $1.95 billion. Currently, Graphcore is extremely well-capitalised, holding over $300m in cash reserves after this new investment, the vision is to use this to support the company’s continuing, major R&D investment and global expansion.

Graphcore CTO and co-founder, Simon Knowles, explains: “We are at the dawn of this second age of computing, in which machines are given the capacity for intelligence. The value to society of intelligent computing will be far greater than that of all computing so far. Silicon is still our best technology for building such machines, but the design details will be quite different from today’s microprocessors. Graphcore is at the vanguard of this revolution in computer design and has assembled a peerless engineering team to deliver the first processors designed from scratch for general intelligence.”

(Left) Graphcore CEO & Co-founder, Nigel Toon and (Right) CTO & Co-founder, Simon Knowles

It’s not only Bristol’s tech scene which is enjoying such growth. Bristol is well known for its diverse cultural influences and its strong sense of community. All over the city, innovative and interesting projects are emerging, which only underlines these attributes. One overwhelming example of this is the introduction of The Bristol Pound, the only city-wide local currency in the UK. This unique method of payment was introduced to build community connections and to support the local economy. Used within the city limits in place of other more familiar payment methods, it ensures that Bristol money is kept within Bristol.

But of course, there are many other attributes, such as strong transport links, that help secure its appeal as a destination for employers and candidates alike. Cultural and leisure attractions, museums, festivals, a strong cafe culture, independent retail and inner-city regeneration has made this city and wider region a residential hotspot, with over 81 people per week moving from London to Bristol, according to Invest Bristol & Bath.

Notable Silicon Gorge Startups

Don’t just take my word for it! This who’s who of Bristol and south-west startups is only the tip of the iceberg…

  1. Ultraleap: Using ultrasound to project sensation into the hands of users.  Working to create a connection between people and technology, the tech business currently has a valuation of more than $1bn
  2. HdE: The Performance Growth Agency for technology companies, have helped many of the regions high growth technology companies grow their brand, audience and revenues. HdE recently secured a lucrative £500K deal with one of the worlds largest enterprise cloud provider, looking to utilise the agencies acute specialisms scaling technology companies in the UK.
  3. Five AI: Driving the future by developing AI & machine learning software for autonomous vehicles.
  4. XMOS: A Bristol based microprocessor and micro-controller designer, leading the way in voice capture solutions…think Alexa and co.
  5. Immersive Labs: A cyber skill experts, transforming the way people learn by engaging their curiosity and unleashing their potential with content informed by real-world events and threats. Recently secured $50m investment to scale their operations in the UK & North America.
  6. Zeetta Networks: The developers of NetOS; software to simplify and increase the performance of ICT networks.
  7. Open Bionics: This award-winning Bristol startup uses 3D printing to create affordable bionic hands for amputees.
  8. Yellow Dog: Tech to speed up and simplify cloud rendering for 3D & VFX artists.
  9. Graphcore: “Accelerating Next Generation machine intelligence”; tech to develop and enhance human potential.
  10. NMI: A leading provider of payments enablement technology, previously Bristol born Creditcall startup they were acquired by US company NMI in 2018 and now are scaling rapidly to power the next generation of payments.
  11. Gapsquare: Led by CEO Zara Nanu a global and evangelist for FairPay, Gapsquare have developed software that allows business to analyse and track pay disparity statistics and produce instant reports on equality and diversity data.

What makes Silicon Gorge Startup hub?

In summary, Silicon Gorge is a region comprising Bristol, Gloucester and Swindon where there is a particularly large cluster of tech companies compared to the rest of the UK (London aside). Bristol is the jewel in the crown of this tech cluster.

It has embraced innovation and been handsomely rewarded with industry support and, as a result, overwhelming success within the tech and digital arena. The region has a very mature tech ecosystem, which plays an important role in the economy of the region as a whole.

Indeed, the digital tech sector was responsible for a turnover of over £7.9 billion in 2017 alone. Per person, Bristol has the highest digital turnover in the UK at £320,000. As we have seen, community is at the heart of such projects, something which Bristol can strongly demonstrate throughout its rich and diverse culture as well as its business practice.