Why tech start-ups fire our imagination

Too many organisations in the region that represent the technology sector don’t understand the power of startups, and why they should champion them, argues Paul Smith

Our house was the first in the street to have an Atari, then a Sky dish, then a home computer: an Acorn Electron, all 32K of it. I spent my evenings after school either hauling a telescope around the garden, watching ST:TNG or programming Jet Set Willy 3 in BASIC – ladies, form an orderly queue. The universe, science and technology – they were my passions as a child, then as a teenager. It’s the stuff I’m built from.

Technology is also the future. In fact, it’s been the future for the past 100 years. The difference is that now there are no barriers to building the future, any future you care to imagine. You can invent the future in a garage. You don’t need a university education. You don’t even need all that much money.


And it’s a sector the north east should embrace. Markets are no longer local. They have the potential to be global at the tap of a screen. The wealth of the world can pour into the region thanks to the internet or the apps on your phone. More wealth, better paid jobs, more opportunities, a stronger local economy. Why wouldn’t we embrace the future and the means to build it?

Technology permeates every business, every sector. I’ve no desire to see Newcastle or the north east become the “Silicon Valley” of Europe. I think that’s unrealistic, and a pointless, cheap soundbite. What the north east can be is a credible source of ideas, talent and world-class companies, a region that recognises that while London will lead in this space, we can play a significant role as a partner, that our universities produce world class graduates and that smart tech companies can build successful, affordable scalable teams here.

Too many organisations in the region that represent the technology sector don’t understand the power of startups, and why they should champion them. They look at the outputs – no revenues, few staff, high failure rate – and don’t consider what they represent. They seem to confuse success with potential.

But SMEs and corporates don’t fire the imagination like startups. The national press won’t spend half a page writing about a reasonably successful business that employs a few dozen people and makes a few million pounds every year. But startups have their own media, dozens of news outlets online specifically tailored to the industry. The mainstream press trip over themselves to find the next big thing to promote to their audiences. Startups have a spotlight shining on them because they excite people.

If we create an environment where startups are seen to flourish, we’ll attract larger firms, corporates and scale-ups. Startups are the canaries of good fortune, of possibility, of hope. They signal potential, skills and ambition. Celebrate them and the whole IT sector in the region will flourish. Patronise them and pat them on the head for trying – as councils and other bodies have done over the years – and we’ll simply struggle on as before.

The fact that we’ve built the country’s leading accelerator programme in Newcastle, not London, gives me confidence that everything is achievable. Investors and entrepreneurs recognise that the city’s technology scene represents startups, corporates and agencies alike. There is so much possibility here… but so much has also been wasted.

I don’t know what part the north east has to play in the world. But I do know it has as much opportunity as any other region. It doesn’t happen by accident, opportunity won’t be handed to us. We need to not only try, but do. We’re good at doing, so let’s get to work.

Paul Smith is co-founder and CEO of Ignite100 and Campus North. You can follow him on TwitterDo you agree with his view of the north east tech scene? Tell us your views in the comments section below – by clicking on the little speech bubble.

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One thought on “Why tech start-ups fire our imagination

  1. Just a couple of thoughts. In general I agree that Start ups are a “good thing” and should be encouraged. I am now retired but I have been a Vice President of Product Development in two Medical Device Start ups in my career including one in Silicon Valley.
    It should be remembered that most Start ups fail and so a culture that accepts that this is OK is required. Access to Venture Capital is another obvious necessity and this infrastructure needs to be encouraged.
    Working in a Start up is the most exciting and rewarding experience and also the most challenging and frustrating. They are not 9-5 jobs but can be amazing opportunities. Even in failure they provide unparalleled personal development as long as you are willing to learn from it.
    They help to create a local culture and ecosystem where anything is possible as people move between companies of all sizes.
    However the caveat is that expectations have to be set appropriately.

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