Knowledge transfer

7 November 2016

Middlesbrough’s innovation hub DigitalCity will forge close partnerships between disruptive technology start-ups and established industry in the Tees Valley, says director Rob Earnshaw

Q. Why was DigitalCity set up?

A. DigitalCity is a business support organisation based in the Tees Valley, which is funded by combined authority, Teesside University and European Regional Development Fund money. It’s a project aimed at fostering innovation. We are helping not just digital companies in the Tees Valley to grow but also our traditional non-digital businesses to accelerate their growth through improving their digital capacity.

Any negative perception of "smoggies" is our greatest asset

Q. Why is the project based in Middlesbrough?

A. Any negative perception of “smoggies” is our greatest asset. We’ve got a huge industrial sector that is booming. We’re the only region that has a positive balance of trade in the sector - we’re exporters. We’ve got a university that’s leading the way in “Industry 4.0” technologies and now we’ve got a digital support programme at DigitalCity actively looking to invest in and accelerate companies delivering technologies in this sector. The Enterprise Research Centre lists the Tees Valley as the most innovative region in the north of England, and seventh in the country.

As a director of this digital support programme I have been tasked to grow the digital cluster. Our businesses are growing faster than the talent that’s actually coming in, so we’ve got a skills shortage. The best way to encourage new businesses and people to locate here is to strengthen the region’s brand.

Q. Will you focus on improving digital skills within existing companies or supporting start-ups?

A. We can offer to help companies relocate for £7,500. We have an investment programme of up to £10,000 worth of consultancy to help businesses with an innovative idea to accelerate their potential to attract investment.

It’s not physically possible to have more web-service based companies in this region because not enough people are coming out of schools, colleges and universities with the skills to meet those needs. So we’re very heavily focused on product-based innovation for digital products. We want to support businesses that are innovating with new technology that’s going to disrupt their marketplace. We’ve partnered with the industrial sector so that we’ll be able to identify real technological needs that we can help take to market. We’re also looking for innovators who are developing technologies that will help to get more people into our town centres.

We can link start-ups with academics that specialise in their particular areas to establish high-level knowledge-transfer partnerships

Q. What kind of help and expertise do these new businesses need?

A. The biggest challenge that any innovator has to face in technology is time. It takes time to develop technology. We can give them the financial support and help protect their intellectual property. We can encourage the private sector to invest into their ideas. And, because we’re attached to the university, we can link them in with the academics in the universities that specialise in their particular areas, to establish high-level knowledge-transfer partnerships – consulting in a way that people usually can’t afford.

Q. What will success look like for DigitalCity?

A. We’re trying to reduce the risk of failure by providing the time and expertise start-ups need to be able to innovate, and the marketplace they need, so that they’re safe in the knowledge that there is demand for their particular product. Our job is to help them to commercialise their product as quickly as possible.

Q. Is funding for DigitalCity secure?

A. We hope DigitalCity will show not only a commercial but a social benefit for our region so that we can prove to the private sector as well as the local authority and Local Enterprise Partnerships that it makes sense to invest into this programme because we’re creating jobs for the Tees Valley. I think DigitalCity will be around after the European funding goes. Theresa May has decided to invest heavily in the industrial sector, so Tees Valley’s industrial background is now our biggest asset.

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