“The leading tech consultancies in the UK are generally in Cambridge. But we didn’t want to live in Cambridge. We wanted instead to become like a Cambridge consultancy of the north. We felt the possibility for growth was big in this part of the world, where we can give local engineers a great start to their careers.”

These are the words of a young, Sheffield based entrepreneur named Tom Milton. His business, Amodo Design, a sector agnostic tech company, won the Sheffield Start Up of the Year Award for 2023. He is one of many entrepreneurs in the city who grew up elsewhere in the UK – west London in Tom’s case – who came to Sheffield to study, found he liked it and then stayed and built a business there.

I met Tom after I had come to Sheffield to interview people for a report I’m leading on around job creation and employment as a way of alleviating poverty across Britain, for a charity called The Jobs Foundation which champions the role of business as a force for good.

I knew very little about the Sheffield tech sector before arriving, but after speaking to several small companies working in that arena in the city, what I found surprised me – Sheffield’s technology sector is much more impressive than I had been prepared for. The city’s technology firms attracted over half a billion pounds in venture capital in 2022, with the 2023 figure expected to be in a similar range. Sheffield is also home to one of the north of England’s rare tech companies with a valuation over a billion dollars, ITM Power.

The city is adding tech jobs quickly as well. According to CBRE’s 2022 UK Tech Cities report, Sheffield has more than 14,750 people working in the tech sector, which is up 49% since 2015. A lot of this comes down to some of the city’s foremost tech institutions. Tom Wolfenden is the CEO of Sheffield Technology Parks, a large building on Arundel Street, right by Sheffield Hallam’s City campus. It acts as not only an office but an all-round incubator for tech start-ups in Sheffield, housing around twenty or so businesses at any given time.

“Phase one of Sheffield Tech Parks began in 1988. It was originally a non-profit established by the university, as well as the polytechnical college that existed at the time and the city council. Most importantly in retrospect, they set us up completely independent of any of those organisations on a formal level. As a result, we haven’t been at the mercy of political headwinds, financial headwinds, institutional politics, all that kind of stuff. We’ve sat as this sort of anomalous entity in the city centre, working in lockstep to make the economy better, yet not necessarily beholden to anyone.” said Tom.

When the British technology sector is thought about, particularly abroad, London and Cambridge come first (and possibly last, as the end of the thought process), with any secondary interest landing on Manchester and Leeds. Yet as technologically centred businesses become a larger and larger part of the economy as the 21 st century proceeds, it’s places like Sheffield that will come under greater spotlight. Thankfully, the sector leaders in the city are an impressive group of people.

Of course, challenges remain. Tom Wolfenden told me the story of one of the entrepreneurs the Sheffield Technology Parks has incubated. This individual had what was obviously a scalable business, but devoting himself to it would have required leaving his stable IT job behind. “His parents, his wife, all his mates were saying, “What the hell are you doing? You’re on 50k a year, you’ve got a nice house, why do you want to risk all that? Think of everything that could go wrong! Four years later and he’s just exited his business, setting his young family up for life and creating a dozen careers for his employees.” 
 
“There is still a culture, a hangover, 40 years on, from being a big, industrialised, unionised workforce – the mentality that you should keep your head down, work hard and you might get a company car in five years; if you stay in your lane, you’ll be fine. You were never asked to be entrepreneurial when you were working in the coalmines, you were never asked to be entrepreneurial in the steel works.”

If we want to truly “level up” Great Britain, bringing jobs and economic might to parts of the country that have had less of those things than the Southeast of England over the years, then we must think more heavily about growing parts of the economy, like tech, and not try and recreate the past too much. While manufacturing will always have a big place in the economy of Sheffield, sectors like tech, which can draw huge international funding, need to be continually encouraged and sung about nationally. The tech sector in Sheffield appears to be a great blueprint for other places outside of London, Oxbridge and Manchester, looking to escape from the past and emerge into the future. There are a lot of jobs waiting to be created out there.

This was first published in the Yorkshire Post, February 14 th edition.