The day after Britain officially began its Brexit breakup with the European Union, representatives from 100 tech companies with a combined revenue that topped $2 billion gathered at The Boiler Shop, an old railway building reborn as an event's space in the northern city of Newcastle. There, the Northern Tech Awards, organised by tech-focused investment advisory firm GP Bullhound, was celebrating its fourth year cataloguing the region's fastest growing and most promising startups.

Despite the clouds of economic uncertainty hanging over the country, the talk among attendees focused more on opportunities than threats.

The Northern tech community throws its net wide to celebrate successes. The $1.7 billion acquisition of Edinburgh, Scotland-based flight search engine Skyscanner by Chinese travel giant Ctrip was talked about in the same breath as Newcastle's own successes, business software behemoth Sage--the largest UK-owned tech company in the London Stock Exchange's FTSE250 index--and $398 million financial services upstart Atom Bank.

Pete Flint, a partner in investment firm NFX Guild and co-founder of real estate marketplace Trulia, which was acquired by its US-based rival Zillow for $2.5 billion in 2015, was the evening's headline speaker. He grew up in the southern English county of Essex and studied physics at Oxford, then started out at LastMinute.com before heading to Silicon Valley--so he's hardly an example of Northern entrepreneurial achievement. But he was bullish nonetheless about the region's potential to produce successes. "It's hard to see there ever being a Silicon Valley of the UK, because it's a very special place," he said, "But there will be hundreds of billion-dollar companies built in the North of England."

Some of those potential unicorns were represented among the Northern Tech Awards finalists. As investment in autonomous vehicles grows, The Floow, based in the former steeltown of Sheffield, is well-placed to provide vital data to the industry. Buoyed by a recent $16 million investment from Chinese conglomerate Fosun, the company is currently a force in analysing consumers' driving data for major industry players--among them insurers Direct Line and AIG  and auto companies Renault and Nissan--but its vision is much bigger. Co-founder Sam Chapman explained, "We see ourselves as a platform for understanding mobility and we're already heavily involved in autonomous vehicle projects." In the very near future, its data on driving habits will feed directly into how autonomous vehicles understand our roads.

The world of automobiles is the focus of another winner at the awards. Scooping up the Judges' Innovation Award: Newcastle-based Zerolight provides 3D visualisation using virtual reality to the industry, allowing consumers to see how car customisations will look before they commit to them. The firm has signed clients that include the likes of Audi AG, VW and Toyota.

Enterprise software businesses such as Zerolight dominated the Northern Tech Awards' Top 50 list of fastest growing companies in the North, making up 38% of the firms honored. The next largest sectors were digital media and IT services, with Manchester-based youth publisher TheLadBible Group, whose flagship title is followed by half of UK men aged 18 to 24, and fast-growing real world analytics firm, Purple, among the standouts. The fastest growing company on the list was Bradford's The Car Buying Group, with a 191% increase in revenue for its marketplace for selling automobiles.

While there is plenty of scepticism around political rhetoric about "the Northern Powerhouse" (the UK government's buzzphrase for economic development in the region), the potential of UK tech firms based outside London is undeniable. Direct flights from Manchester Airport to San Francisco began in March 2017, giving entrepreneurs in the region a much easier way to connect with high-profile and deep pocketed investors on the West Coast. The winner of the Northern Tech Awards prize for international success was Interact, an enterprise software firm based near Manchester, that has built intranets for over 750 customers worldwide. It also has opened offices in New York, San Francisco and Sydney.

The UK's Northern tech scene is also harnessing public investment to develop the future talent it requires. Dynamo North East, an industry led not-for-profit which was recognised at the awards for its contribution to the startup community, is building a school just 60 metres away from where the event took place. The $12 million North East Futures University Technical College will open in September 2018 with 600 slots for 14 to 19 year-olds; those students will spend 40% of their time on coding projects.

Pete Flint is right that there will never be a 'British Silicon Valley'--the conditions and that geography that created one in California are impossible to mimic--but the UK's Northern startup community isn't trying to create that. Instead, just as The Boiler Shop has harnessed the region's industrial heritage in new ways, its tech community is tapping into the unique DNA of the area. That's why you'll find more firms in enterprise software, financial services and business information management in the list of its fastest growing success stories. There's a practicality and a solidity to this community that's refreshing in a startup world still so often attracted to consumer-focused novelty.

Published on: Mar 31, 2017