Manchester has a hugely rich history of producing talented people and groundbreaking technology – not least the first modern computer Baby, in 1948, and Ernest Rutherford who made the not-so-small accomplishment of splitting the atom 30 years earlier. Two hours on the train from London, Manchester is far from worlds apart from the capital and, while it does have a totally different feel, it shares many of the same aims: to dominate the tech landscape.
The city gained significant connectivity credentials in 2012 when the London Internet Exchange (Linx) opened a Manchester hub, giving the city a much-needed networking boost. This followed the establishment and growth of the Media City, where the likes of the BBC and ITV have chosen to base many of their operations along with numerous independent media producers.
It has been claimed that the 36-acre site – which is likely to expand to more than 200 acres in the coming years – will contribute more than £1bn and 10,000 jobs to the local economy, much of which could come from new and innovative startup businesses.
Earlier this year, a further £800m investment in a so-called "Airport City" project was unveiled which, if successful, will bring enormous opportunities to the city.
Rob Coupland, UK managing director for Manchester-founded data centre firm TelecityGroup, believes the investment has brought with it a flourishing new economy that needs bandwidth.
"The BBC investment in Media City has been important, but what sits around that is a fascinating value chain and ecosystem of creative organisations and people involved in the delivery of media springing up around it," he said.
"A lot of them are very small organisations who are IT centric, and they need the tools to build their platform."
Connectivity isn't guaranteed, as Coupland sees bringing enterprise-grade connectivity to a new location as a "chicken and egg-type situation". "If the connectivity isn't there then the businesses don't happen, but if the businesses aren't there then the data centres don't understand why they need to come there," he explained. "London Internet Exchange understands that in order for cities like Manchester to succeed, they can't be London centric."
Doug Ward (pictured left), founder of startup incubator TechHub Manchester and an advisor to Number 10 Downing Street, one of seven TechHub spaces worldwide, is fiercely proud of both his birth city and of the UK as a whole. "I love this country, I want my technology company to be based here. But things have to change."
Much of the attention on the UK's tech scene goes towards London, and it's not unwarranted. Many of the UK's fastest-growing tech startups are based in the capital, either in east London's Tech City or elsewhere. That has led to some grumblings of "we have tech too" from cities outside of London, according to Tech City's head of partnerships Tiffany MacRae, who spoke to V3 in October.
Surprisingly, however, Ward does not believe it should be London doing all the work, admitting the Tech City brand is doing more than enough to try and unite the UK's tech clusters.
"My hope is that the rest of the UK will embrace London more," the 26-year-old said. "We're one of the most connected places on the planet, let's not forget that. There should be an agreed vision, which I think we can all get excited about – the UK being the most fertile place for technology businesses. We need to make sure it's not just fluffy dreams."
The popularity of Manchester as a tech destination has several catalysts beyond that of connectivity, and Ward is quick to highlight an often-forgotten aspect of UK living. "Happiness is a very powerful thing", he said. When businesses look to house themselves at TechHub Manchester, happiness is something Ward and his team look for, along with "humility and passion. We don't want talkers, we want to be known as the city where things get done." TechHub Manchester rejects 62 percent of the business that apply to make TechHub their home.
While Manchester boasts a world-renowned university, churning out hundreds of talented computer scientists every year, Ward laments that their ultimate destination tends to be anywhere but Manchester.
"For me, the computer scientists are the most important part of this," he explained. "There's a peer pressure to go to London or the States. There is a perception that there aren't the same kind of opportunities here. But they're invisible, and we want to make them visible."
As the UK's tech startup scene continues to wait for a significant stock market flotation to boost its stature, it is clear that the issues affecting London are the same ones affecting tech clusters across the country, including Manchester. How the country responds as a unit will really define how it moves forward to become a real tech powerhouse.
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