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Why Bristol’s ship-shape for starting a business

Is West best? Oli Barrett makes a compelling case for Bristol as a city to start a business after leading a ‘field trip’ for London-based business people

Mischa Dohler knows a thing or two about Smart Cities. As head of the Centre for Telecommunications Research, the professor of Wireless Communications also has great taste in shoes. Red, in case you're wondering.

Smart Cities, as you may know, “use digital technologies to enhance quality and performance of urban services, to reduce costs and resource consumption, and to engage more effectively and actively with its citizens.”

I was intrigued, and chairing a recent Tech London Advocates event, I asked Mischa where in the world we Londoners should go if we wanted to see a Smart City in action. Would he, I wondered, send us to Singapore, or perhaps to Seoul? He recommended somewhere a little closer to home; Bristol.

DeskLodge_Bristol118 miles from London, it would be wrong to claim that the Village People had Bristol in mind when encouraging fellow villagers to “Go West”. That said, last Friday, “go west” is exactly what a motley crew of London-based business people did. And I have to tell you, life DOES seem a little more peaceful there, in the open air. The Village People, once again, were right.

Cluster of creativity

Our day begins at the Engine Shed, home to SetSquared, the enterprise collaboration between the Universities of Bath, Bristol, Exeter, Southampton and Surrey. Welcomed by Rick Chapman, an entrepreneur in residence, we hear about the five key clusters based in the Bristol and Bath region (aerospace and advanced engineering, creative and digital, high tech, low carbon, and professional services).

The region is also home to four leading universities, which adds up to an incredibly powerful research area. Founders already pondering a Bristol base might also want to consider that prime office rents are typically up to 70% lower than in London's West End.

Pervasive_Media_Studio_Bristol_WatershedLater, at the Pervasive Media Studio, based in Watershed, we meet and hear from the most extraordinary of innovators including Laura Kriefman who is attempting to co-ordinate the cranes of a city in a beautiful artistic display. As with many crane-based endeavours, we pick things up as we go along.

Our minds already bursting, a founder of Pocket Spacecraft stands up and shares his vision: “We want anyone to be able to send their own spacecraft into space.” Our visitors are transfixed.

Spirit of generosity

A phrase which resonates is one used by Clare Reddington, creative director of the Pervasive Media Studio. She explains that the projects housed within their space do not pay rent. Instead, they sign a contract of “generosity and interruptibility“.

Tom_Ball_Desklodge_BristolGenerosity. Interruptibility. For me, those words sum up the spirit of many of the people who meet with us throughout our day. Take for example Roja Buck, of JustEat, who explains how the British success story (founded by a Dane, now in the FTSE 250) with operations in 13 countries has established itself in Bristol (alongside its London office).

As he speaks of the company's responsibility to support its local tech community (the office has become the regular event space for dozens of local meet-ups), I’m reminded far more of the supportive spirit I've seen in San Francisco than of the current London scene, vibrant though it may be.

George_Ferguson_Bristol_MayorThe formal part of our day reaches its end at the newly opened DeskLodge, masterminded by the brilliant Tom Ball. A co-working space which resembles, in parts, a multi-coloured ski resort, it is the perfect location to invite local founders to join us for a Friday drink. To see everyone plotting and mingling together reminds me of what the day is all about.

Speaking of VIPs, I am pleased that Bristol's first elected mayor, George Ferguson, is able to join us. He exudes a terrific energy which must leave less optimistic civil servants pausing for breath.

As he wishes our group well, his passion for Bristol is, unsurprisingly, clear. He speaks of measuring the success of a city in more than just GDP. Refreshing and colourful ideas from a man also famed for his colourful trousers. Red, in case you're wondering.

Forging business alliances

Can I imagine spending more time in Bristol? Absolutely. To quote Nick Park, founder of Aardman Animations: “What I love about Bristol is that it's got the buzz of a city but you can still walk down the street and bump into people you know. There is a very good community feel.”

That comes across strongly, even on a day trip. For London-lovers, it's less than two hours on a train, and for jet-setters, it has an international airport. I'm already pondering my next visit.

In the run up to #LDN2BRS  (to coin the hashtag), I was grateful for the support of Dan Martin (now at Enterprise Nation) and David Maher Roberts (serial entrepreneur, UKTI dealmaker and founder of TechSpark).

It's impossible to overstate the importance of local knowledge and networks when plotting a visit of this kind. They can turn a regular “guided” tour into a one-off VIP visit, simply through the power of their recommendations.

Since getting back, a few people have asked about a return trip to Bristol, and perhaps another to Manchester, or further afield. My answer would always depend on the appetite of local connectors to forge an alliance and to create something together.

London_Bristol_networkingOf course, my not-so-secret agenda on days like this, alongside meeting new people, is to spend quality time in the company of some of my favourite friends and colleagues. There's something about leaving London, about the introductions and coffees on the train, the spring in your step as you arrive, the shared observations, the laughs, the new connections, the sense of shared adventure. It gives me more energy than I could ever describe, and I massively recommend it.

So I'm grateful to all who hopped aboard (including Michael Acton Smith, Tom Ball, Andy Barnes, Suzy Barnes, Ellie Barrett, Tom Boardman, Dan Bowyer, Emily Brooke, Alex Butler, Duncan Cheatle, Paul Clarke, Dorothy Constantino, Anna Dingley, Drew Ellis, Ella Goldner, Adam King, David Lester, Marc Lewis, Alex Luff, David Maher Roberts, Dan Martin, Elisabeth Prager, Brett Putter, Rikke Rosenlund Jacobsen, Malcolm Scovil, Max Slaght, Sophie Taylor, Ian Wallis and Pete Ward).

To them, and to anyone keen to join our next excursion, I'll see you next time.

Picture credit: All images supplied by Paul Clarke. For more information:

‘All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.' Martin Buber

Oli Barrett MBE, is a founder of Cospa, the co-sponsorship agency that helps to create and deliver social action projects, such as Tenner, Web Mission, Clean and Cool Mission and Volunteer It Yourself. He also co-founded StartUp Britain and can be found on Twitter


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