Supporting the North East tech sector amid COVID-19

May 1, 2020

Jamie Hardesty, newly appointed head of communications and stakeholder engagement at Sunderland Software City (SSC), shares insights into evolving North East tech sector support during the coronavirus pandemic

Six weeks ago, I started a new role with Sunderland Software City. I’d long admired the organisation for its role in enabling the growth of the North East’s tech sector – especially in supporting early-stage businesses – so to be asked to join the team was a no-brainer for me.

It’s been a strange time to begin a new job, given the changes to working patterns and priorities. Luckily, I’ve joined a team full of passionate people who have been both welcoming and are driven to bring value to the sector.

Let’s be honest, it is a uniquely testing time for our region’s tech sector. Whether you’re a digital service provider or a potential high growth startup with a product to sell, the needs of both clients and customers have rapidly shifted from the status quo of the pre COVID-19 world. People are acting cautiously and rightly so, given the level of uncertainty reigning supreme. Who isn’t worried about cash flow or sales or securing new customers?

While our team would be the first to admit we don’t have all of the answers, we have been working quickly to try new things as, like everyone else, we simply can’t do what we do in the same way anymore.

We’ve had to innovate our delivery service, whether in helping new businesses get off the ground or in the digital skills initiatives that we run, and we’re still learning what the best ways of virtual working are.

First and foremost, we’ve been listening.

We want our region’s tech companies to know that they absolutely aren’t alone. Given the disruption to business as usual, we’ve been hosting regular virtual drop-ins with companies and entrepreneurs in the region.

There are more than 3000 digital tech businesses in the North East ecosystem, each with their pain points and shifting focuses. While we’ve been dealing with a lot of signposting requests and bespoke asks, we’ve also been recording responses in a live data management dashboard. We hope that this will help to inform interventions needed to protect the sector moving forward.

While we’re lucky that we live in an age where we’re able to harness the most high-tech response to a pandemic in human history, the power of good conversation remains vitally important. Many companies which we’ve interacted with so far have simply acknowledged how cathartic it is to be able to air concerns.

I’d therefore encourage any tech company in the region to drop in with us.

We’re also working closely with the Government to ensure the region’s voice is heard, based on the anonymised data we’re analysing. As chair of the UK Tech Cluster Group, we’re working with other regional clusters to help shape the most effective means of sector support.

Our business support service remains in full swing too, with sessions taking place via video calls and virtual whitewall technology. Founders can interact with our team and shape both new and revised business plans.

Whether companies are looking for help with marketing strategy and customer engagement, market research and intelligence or are scoping out specifications for a new tech platform, we’re still talking to enterprising people looking to bring exciting new businesses to life.

Our partners at the North East Fund and Muckle LLP are working with us to host remote sessions for founders too, meaning companies looking for legal and financial advice can still access such expertise.

We’ve also extended a COVID-19 digital adoption support offering, meaning we’ve been on-hand to help more traditional businesses embrace digital technology to alleviate disruptions to their workflows.

In our work with the charity sector for instance, we’re finding that many organisations simply need recommendations on which digital tools to consider embracing. This has been a challenge many North East tech SMEs have got involved in too.

While threats to the tech sector are well documented, and indeed rightly so, it is essential to reiterate that opportunity does exist too. Tech is an enabler, a problem-solver and an efficiency driver. Conditions are ripe for the innovations of North East tech companies to enter new markets and play a role in making businesses more efficient as we’re all forced to think differently.

I’ve been impressed to see our friends at Wordnerds, a Gateshead-based SaaS business specialising in AI and social linguistics, using their technology on behalf of customers to listen to and provide insight on COVID-related stories.

Similarly, I’m excited to see Middlesbrough’s Annimersion launch immersive meeting spaces, as they bid to overcome public health challenges and provide a new way for businesses to showcase products.

It’s also been a real pleasure for us at SSC to work with Coatsink, a Sunderland video game developer, on a ‘design a video game character’ competition with families at home on lockdown.

The North East digital tech sector grew by 45 per cent between 2013 and 2018. It’s a sector that has been on the up and played a key role in the region’s business success in the past decade.

I’d be remiss to suggest that the sector will come out of this unscathed or that a positive mindset will simply see us through; the reality is that we are in a crisis and being an entrepreneur is difficult.

It always has been and it’s even more so amid a pandemic.

However, North East tech has resilient strengths that can and should be leaned on right now. We have a close-knit tech community where credible mentors and businesses actively help each other. We have venture capital companies with money to invest and we have organisations dedicated to strengthening and supporting the sector. I’d encourage anyone in the region who is struggling and in need of support to reach out to us and
we can help move forward together. Let’s keep talking; you aren’t alone.

Sunderland Software City

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