Coming full circle

April 2, 2018

Paul Smith began his career in radio before moving into the tech and digital sector where he co-founded one of Europe’s first angel-led accelerator programmes, based in Newcastle. He has also travelled the world thanks to the generosity of his Twitter followers – writing a best-selling book about the experience – and has helped make Elon Musk’s revolutionary ultra-high speed land transport system, Hyperloop One, a reality by forging public and private-sector partnerships in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Paul, who relocated back his native North East at the end of last year, established Newcastle Tech Trust in January. Here, Alison Cowie talks to him about his varied career and why the region’s tech start-up and scale-up companies need to be supported in a more targeted way

As a child, Paul Smith – who was born in Darlington – was a voracious reader and devoured the volumes of children’s encyclopaedias that lined his grandparents’ bookshelves, learning about Nikola Tesla, Alfred Nobel and Florence Nightingale, among others.

Paul’s mum also instilled her love of astronomy onto her precocious son, who was gifted his first telescope on his 11th birthday.

“I’d spend my nights doing amateur astronomy and would contribute to the British Astronomical Association and the Junior Astronomical Society,” Paul reveals. “Sir Patrick Moore once phoned me because I’d discovered sand storms on Mars.”

After finishing his exams (completing his GCSE in astronomy aged just 14), the natural next step for Paul seemed to be university and he enrolled at Leeds to study physics and astrophysics. But his student days were short lived and he dropped out after just three months.

Paul began working part time in a record shop in Darlington while he followed another childhood passion – radio.

“I adored radio as a medium and when Darlington got its own radio station, A1FM, I hung around the station like a bad smell until they let me do things,” he recalls.

Paul worked at the fledgling radio station for two years before moving to Newcastle in 1998 to become a copy writer at Metro FM, where he wrote “an assortment of radio adverts for carpet sellers and used car salesmen”.

Over the next nine years, Paul worked at TFM Stockton, BBC Radio Newcastle, BBC Radio Cleveland, BBC 7 Radio, BBC Radio Leeds and BBC Radio Manchester.

In 2006, he took the position of programme director at GMG Radio, where he and his team masterminded Century Radio’s infamous ‘hottest ticket in town’.

The promotion gave listeners the opportunity to win a pair of Take That reunion tour tickets by finding the Century Radio Ticket Tout in Newcastle. If the tout wasn’t found, he burned the tickets live on air during the breakfast show.

Two days in and with two sets of tickets already turned to ash, the station began fielding calls from angry listeners, disgruntled charities and even Take That’s management, who demanded the promotion be stopped.

“There was such astonishment that we’d dare do it; also absolute rage from the people ringing up. But everyone was talking about it. I felt as though I had done what I was meant to,” Paul reflects.

Century Radio bosses didn’t agree and the promotion was swiftly dropped. It marked the end of Paul’s love affair with radio and he quit the station soon after.

With the demise of his radio career, Paul made his first foray into the tech sector – an area in which he’s made an indelible mark over the past ten years.

Paul – who tried his hand writing computer games in his youth and has a life-long love of gadgets – co-founded an agency to develop early apps for the iPhone. One such app, ‘Ask the Hoff’, enabled users to ask David Hasselhoff a question via their phone.

Around the same time, Paul also began exploring the power of emergent social media channels, which lead to an unusual venture.

“I did something called Twitchhiker, which was an idea I had in the carpark of Gateshead’s Tesco,” Paul explains.

I wanted to know whether you could take the social capital you built up on a social media network such as Twitter and turn these connections into something of tangible value.

Paul came up with the idea of travelling to the opposite side of world in 30 days spending no money and instead relying on the strangers he met via Twitter.

“I thought ‘this is a ludicrous idea but if I don’t do it, I’ll be reading about it in six month’s time’.”

Paul set off on this Twitchhiker journey in 2010 and travelled to Stewart Island (off the south coast of New Zealand) in 28 days, thanks to the generosity of around 50 different businesses and individuals he met on Twitter.

Paul’s journey attracted attention from around the world and he eventually turned his experiences into a best-selling book.

Paul was then contacted by Jon Bradford, the former founder and managing director of The Difference Engine, who invited him for a coffee in Hexham.

The Difference Engine, based in Middlesbrough, had been one of the first accelerator programmes run outside of the US but was forced to close in March 2011, with the demise of the regional development agency, One North East.

Jon was moving to Cambridge but was keen that an accelerator programme continue in the North East and asked for Paul’s help.

John and Paul established Ignite, a Newcastle-based angel-led accelerator programme in June 2011.

“Newcastle at the time had a very embryonic tech scene and the aim was to identify and support early-stage tech founders,” says Paul.

Chosen tech companies were given £17,000 of private-sourced funding, from the likes of Northstar Ventures, and over a 14-week period took part in an intensive programme of business training to develop their ideas.

After three years of running the programme – which attracted start-ups from around the world – the team established Campus North, a co-working space in Newcastle city centre where early-stage and start-up tech companies could base themselves.

In early 2016, shortly after Ignite was expanded into London and Manchester, Paul announced he was leaving the programme – a decision that shocked many in the industry.

“At that point, Ignite had pretty much been the longest job I’d had since I was a copywriter,” Paul reflects. “I’d recruited a brilliant team behind me with Lyndsey [Britton] and Tristan [Watson], who had more ideas about how they could take the project on.

“I felt I wasn’t really needed any more and had effectively made myself redundant.”

Paul admits that he left Ignite with no plan and spent the next three months “drifting around Newcastle and London picking up bits of consultancy work”.

He then received a call from the office of Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice president and prime minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai, who asked if he would run a state sponsored technology and innovation programme.

Paul relocated to Dubai and for the next 10 months helped to established the Dubai Future Foundation, which engaged and supported later stage technology companies.

While in Dubai, he accepted his next position as global field operations manager for Hyperloop One, the revolutionary ultra-high speed ground transportation system – currently in a concept testing stage – that promises to transport commuters in excess of 700mph, via sealed tube systems.

In the role, Paul managed a team that was looking to engage governments and partners across Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

“Ultimately, Hyperloop isn’t going to be developed in isolation,” says Paul. “It not only needs to partner with a Government that is keen to help develop the R&D, it also needs to bring in the private sector aswell to help develop the technology to share the Intellectual Property and to create new systems and new technologies.

“Although [Hyperloop One] has 200 of the most brilliant engineers in the world, who have worked at NASA and developed the rockets you now see landing at SpaceX, they’re not arrogant enough to assume it’s all going to come from within.”

Paul recently relocated back to the North East of England and when not travelling, he spends his days at his old haunt, Campus North.

He has also recently set up Newcastle Tech Trust – to offer business support especially targeted to the tech industry.

“If you look at the region,” Paul explains, “there’s a belief that we’re already providing a level of support to technology businesses but it’s actually very generic activities that only set a broad base of business principles.

“It’s not to say that technology companies don’t need to learn about PR or to learn how to do a cash flow properly. But it’s the Trust’s belief that the challenges facing a technology business that is capable of scaling globally without necessarily scaling resource are unique. Trying to support these technology businesses with ‘broad brush’, generic business support, may ultimately do more damage than good.”

Paul has gathered a group of eight specialists in tech, including Deborah McGargle (chief legal officer at SeedLegals), Aubrey Chiduku (director of technology production house, Flux Outdoor) and Paul Fellows (chief operating officer at Performance Horizon Group) who will support and empower local tech start-up and scale-up companies through mentoring and peer support activities, events and advocacy.

Paul reflects: “I’ve brought these people together for two reasons: first is they are all founders or operators in technology businesses. They have experience and understand the unique challenges that similar businesses face. Secondly, I wanted to bring together a group of people who weren’t all white, middle-aged business men.

We have such a challenge in the North East of encouraging diversity and you look at the panels at business events, they’re almost all made up of middle-aged men in suits.

“I’m sure they know a great deal but are they going to encourage or inspire people of colour or women?

“One of the things we want to do with the Tech Trust is to point out that, actually in the North East, it doesn’t matter who you are and where you’re from, you can have success and we want to help you achieve that.”

Asked what drove him to establish Newcastle Tech Trust, Paul recalls a recent conversation with his former colleague, Tristan Watson.

“He said to me, ‘this is something that we absolutely have to do because our children are growing up here’. Tristan has two girls and is living in Tyneside and I have twin boys. I want to make sure there are opportunities for them in this region. Or, if they do choose to move away, I want them to know that there’s always high skilled jobs and well paid jobs and a great lifestyle to come back to.”

Newcastle Tech Trust

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