Igniting innovation across UK tech communities with high-performing clusters

We recently visited Milton Keynes to participate in the fascinating Igniting High-Performing Tech Clusters event, co-hosted by CyNam, Protospace, OxCyber and East Midlands Cyber Cluster.

The focus was on the transformative power of public-private collaboration in igniting innovation across UK tech communities – a specialism of ours at Plexal.

On the day, our Senior Director of Clusters, Russell Gundry, chaired a panel linked to the role of clusters in driving innovation, which he explored alongside:

Tim Atkins, Partnerships Consultant at CyNam (Cyber Cheltenham), a group focused on creating the conditions for local cyber technology innovation.

Oliver Waters, Co-founder and Director at Protospace, a not-for-profit initiative to support, connect and grow the tech ecosystem in Milton Keynes in close partnership with Milton Keynes City Council.

Rebecca Keen, Founder and Director at OxCyber, a community that encourages cyber security and technology growth in Oxfordshire and the Thames Valley area by facilitating interactions. 

Leading the conversation, Russell opined: “Innovation alone can be a difficult word to understand because it means different things to different people. But innovation and tech clusters specifically must achieve several things: (1) Solve problems for customers (2) Develop products people want to buy (3) Ensure the right skills and talent are available (4) Bring in capital to develop infrastructure and IP (intellectual property).”

Tim offered a unique perspective with insight from the lens of local authorities, which are integral to building a strong, functional cluster. He’d spent seven years at Cheltenham Borough Council, taking on roles including Head of Economic Development and MD of Place & Growth, and prior to that held positions with the City of York Council.

Remembering when he first joined Cheltenham Borough Council, Tim explained there wasn’t a close working relationship in place with GCHQ. And as a locally-based, global organisation with 6,000 employees, this prompted him to act.

By no means was this union forged overnight but months and years in the making, which has paid off today as their combined efforts have resulted in the successful positioning of Cheltenham as a leading cyber cluster at home and abroad. As our CEO Andrew Roughan told the BBC: “When someone mentions Cheltenham in a cyber security context, people’s eyes light up around the world.”

The first step Tim took to build a bridge between Cheltenham Borough Council and GCHQ was letting his curiosity run freely, asking plenty of questions, including how the local authority could be of service. “I recognised our role as a council was as an enabler and GCHQ was a tenant, albeit a large government one,” said Tim. “It was important to explore how we could deliver value to the local economy and we naturally developed a symbiotic relationship.”

Cheltenham Borough Council hence forged a role as a key strategic partner to GCHQ. It achieved this from providing support for securing collaboration spaces outside of the GCHQ Doughnut building – areas known as the low side – through to bringing in additional organisations that could enhance their private sector work, such as CyNam, Hub8 and Plexal. This is where Plexal subsequently became the NCSC’s innovation partner.

This is coupled with other developments including: 

  • The urban Minster Exchange (MX) rejuvenation scheme, a partnership between Cheltenham Borough Council and Hub8 by Plexal. The MX Innovation Centre spans 20,000 square feet of facilities, including workspace, The Growth Hub to support business development, café and space for events and education. As part of this project with Cheltenham Borough Council, we’re delivering the Grown in Cheltenham programme to help local startups fast-track their business with six months of tailored support. 
  • The Golden Valley development, which will bring about the co-location of government, startups, industry and academia to foster collaboration and super-charge Cheltenham’s position as a global leader in security and resilience. 

Cheltenham Borough Council is a great example that other local authorities can turn to for inspiration in building out their own tech clusters. 

Meanwhile in Oxford, Rebecca’s work with OxCyber enables her to connect local businesses with one another, while simultaneously presenting a soft landing for organisations entering the local community, which can be invaluable for building connections.

Rebecca drew on her expertise as a seasoned recruitment professional, having founded talent hub Keen People. Rebecca explained: “You can’t separate skills and innovation when creating tech clusters – they’re inextricably linked. It’s essential to have people who will put in the hard yards to ensure meetups and lines of communication. If somebody doesn’t step forward, if organisations don’t come together – local authorities and the private sector combined – that’s a great deal of collaborative innovation potential that will remain untapped.”

Rebecca added that while Oxford doesn’t necessarily have the history of Cheltenham from a cyber security perspective, there’s an important role for cyber to act as an enabler for other areas. 

There’s an opportunity in the nearby Harwell Science and Innovation Campus where the Satellite Applications Catapult is situated. With this regional focus on spacetech and satellite communications – which inherently must be secure – the relationship between Harwell and Cheltenham becomes essential. This is where bridging across clusters comes in.

Over in Buckinghamshire, Oliver’s pathway into clusters emerged organically. A serial entrepreneur looking for a lower cost alternative to London, he decided to set up shop in Milton Keynes.

Through virtue of being in Milton Keynes – a mostly unknown quantity in the tech space at the time – and readily engaging with peers, he was instrumental in building out an ecosystem. Having achieved business success, Protospace was Oliver’s way of giving back to the local tech community.

“This presents an interesting point about why people become part of an ecosystem, highlighted Russell. “It’s not often that people cite place-based marketing as a key reason to move to a location. The more important marketing role could be about encouraging people to build roots in the community – Oliver is a great example of that.”

Animating the Milton Keynes ecosystem for the uninitiated, Paul Thomas, Director of Planning and Placemaking at Milton Keynes City Council, said the town is equivalent in size to the top two London boroughs in term of economic size. In addition, Red Bull Racing, Network Rail, Santander and Volkswagen can be counted among local companies. 

It’s easy to underestimate the might of the Milton Keynes cluster, however: 

  • Milton Keynes has a highly productive economy – producing over £16.21bn of GDP in 2022, with productivity in Milton Keynes at 27% above national levels. 
  • The local economy consists of 180,000 jobs and over 12,300 businesses. 
  • Milton Keynes is one of the UK’s top five cities for business startups. 
  • The city is consistently within the top ten for new patents. 

Milton Keynes is consistently identified as one of the UK’s five fast growth cities – and evidently there is more to come.

Oliver noted the area is something of a testbed where autonomous vehicles have been deployed. Take autonomous delivery service Starship Technologies – although headquartered in San Francisco, the global business has said “Starship’s largest and most sophisticated global hub is in Milton Keynes.”  

Starship Robot Delivery Service Launch Event, Monkston Park, Milton Keynes, April 2018

This can act as a reference for other areas of the UK, reinforcing how the relationship between Protospace and Milton Keynes Council can be applied to physical prototyping.  This in turn drives a reputation for practical, tangible innovation and it would be remiss not to make the connection to the proximity of Silverstone.

The panel reached something of a consensus that the UK is perhaps too focused on the service sector and remarked on the potential for us as a nation to get back to our engineering prestige. If we’re to develop the IP and products that people want, that requires delivery of value and improving people’s lives.

“Through the peak of social media platforms, the tech economy has become somewhat abstract and digital – returning to how the tech economy delivers tangible value is an important test for the future,” Russell reasoned. “Government-led innovation can differentiate the role of the UK by utilising clusters and testbeds, deploying leading-edge technology in densified urban environments like Milton Keynes, with the buy-in of an entrepreneurial council and a community of entrepreneurs ready to build new services on top of this physical platform.

“If you’re prepared to experiment and take some risks, you’re presented with an effective way for rapidly developing innovation that makes a difference to people. At Plexal we tend to think in terms of closing the gap between organisations with objectives that can be complementary. That’s how a cluster fits together.

“Organisations are the bones in the body of an organism. But the connective tissue that stitches the skeleton together is what a cluster does. It animates, breathes life, and creates something that is greater than the sum of its parts.”