In this Q&A Kane Fulton (Community Engagement Manager at Tech North) tells us all about his role at Tech North, the initiatives Tech North are undertaking over the next year, challenges facing northern tech and more…
Kane Fulton has been the Community Engagement Manager for Yorkshire for Tech North since January 2017. He was previously the Computing Editor at the TechRadar, the UK’s biggest consumer tech website. Kane graduated from Leeds Trinity with a journalism degree in 2009, landing his first writing gig at Shoreditch-based enterprise IT magazine Information Age in 2011.
Seeking a role that would allow him to tap into his love of computers, gadgets and consumer tech in general, he joined TechRadar as staff writer a year later. He worked his way up to Computing Editor, taking the helm of one of the website’s most popular sections.
After interviewing the director of Leeds Digital Festival for a feature, his interest in the city’s startup scene was piqued. After persuading TechRadar to let him return to live in Leeds, he took on a second role interviewing local tech companies in addition to his everyday duties. Nine months later he successfully applied for a role with Tech North, a government-backed organisation set up to champion the North of England’s tech sector. He now spends his time travelling Yorkshire interviewing its many stakeholders – from startups and corporates to accelerators, co-working spaces and public sector leaders.
Your current role sees you as Community Engagement manager at Tech North, can you tell us more about Tech North and what your role entails?
Tech North, part of Tech City UK, is a government-backed organisation that was set up nearly three years ago to accelerate the growth of tech startups in the North of England. If startups are aeroplanes looking to take off, our job is to clear any obstacles on their metaphorical runway. There are many problems that could keep a startup founder up at night (and they’re not always what you would expect!), so the challenge is identifying where we can make the most impact through our programmes and initiatives. We do this by homing in on ‘five areas of focus’, the first of which is profile-raising. Northern Stars, our pitch competition that shines a light on the best early-stage startups in the region, is a major component of this; we also publish Tech Nation and other reports about the sector, in addition to articles about startup founders (and other stakeholders in the ecosystem) on TechNorthHQ.com. The other areas of focus are investment (Tech North Angel Network; proposed co-investment fund), skills (Northern Voices; UpSkill), ecosystem (Founders’ Network; alongside identifying what we need more of – coworking spaces and accelerators, for example), and partnerships (securing private sector sponsorship for Tech North events and programmes). As community engagement manager for Yorkshire, my role is to be the eyes and ears of Tech North on the ground, and a visible presence for startups in the region. I help founders in a variety of ways – from connecting them with other stakeholders in the ecosystem to explaining how our programmes could help them. That’s just the start.
What do you enjoy most about your role?
As a trained journalist (my previous roles have included writing for enterprise IT publications and editing TechRadar.com’s computing channel), I always enjoy interviewing startup founders from Yorkshire and hearing their fascinating stories. Just last week, for example, I discovered that a company in Leeds was the first in the country to import and use the internet to sell Pokémon and YuGiOh toys in the 90s. Founders tend to be highly appreciative of coverage due to a lack of attention on the region from the mainstream media. One recently offered to pay me for my time after I’d filmed a video on their company – it goes without saying that I politely declined! Content aside, satisfaction comes from the small things – such as seeing people chat enthusiastically before swapping contact details at Founders’ Network breakfasts; hosting a successful event that fill’s a venue’s capacity; or seeing a startup founder deliver a knockout pitch in front of 200 people at a Northern Stars regional heat. I also run the local networking group Yorkshire Startups on Facebook. People now post on it daily, and it’s great to watch that constant buzz emanate from the local startup community.
What challenges do you face in your role?
Ensuring that all parts of Yorkshire feel like they’re being served is a top challenge. Being something of a one-man band, I wish I had the ability to be in two (three or four) places at once – I’m often having to apologise to people for not being seen as much as they would like and have to remind them that Yorkshire is a big place! On a related note, it’s no secret that transport in the North is, shall we say, underwhelming. Trains are often packed, delayed and involve moving through routes where 4G signals are patchy (at best) – so adapting to working on the move has been a constant challenge since I started my role back in January. Juggling my responsibilities is another, and one that requires a structured approach to the day. Tools like Feedly, Trello, Slack, Evernote and Airmail 3 are invaluable in keeping on top of my workflow. Each day begins with a browse through bookmarked news websites to fill my Yorkshire Startups newsletter before 9am. After that, I’m either meeting tech companies, promoting Tech North’s events and activities, writing articles (or shooting video), or undertaking admin duties. Usually it’s all the above at once.
In your career you have worked in both London and Yorkshire, how does the Northern tech scene compare to London?
Yorkshire’s tech scene is more laid back than London’s. This is something of a double-edged sword – where founders in the capital can perhaps go overboard on the self-promotion front (driven by a need to stand out in a packed scene), Yorkshire’s startups tend to be somewhat introverted and reluctant to sell themselves. Many of them should be shouting from the rooftops about the brilliant work they’re doing – something that our friends across the Pennines have mastered in recent years. But we’re getting better. Also, the more intimate nature of Yorkshire’s tech scene means that people are less guarded up here, which makes them more open to collaboration. I’ve seen tight bonds forged between startup founders, and a particular willingness from corporates to engage. People are rarely too busy to make time for a coffee to scope out potential opportunities, which is great. Other differences between the two scenes are fairly obvious – there’s simply far more of everything in London – from startups and coworking spaces to accelerators and incubators. On the flip side living and workspace rental costs are stratospheric compared to the North, which means that a startup could enjoy a much longer runway in Yorkshire to get their idea off the ground before scaling.
There is an immense buzz around the start-up scene in The North. Your role sees you working on initiatives such as the Northern Stars Scheme. Can you tell us more about Northern Stars and how it supports northern start-ups?
Northern Stars is a pitch competition designed to find and raise the profile of the most promising tech startups in the North. Now into its third year, our previous winners have raised more than £6 million in funding since appearing on the programme. We receive hundreds of applications from startups based in the region, and after three regional heats and a grand final – both of which see startups deliver three-minute pitches to a live audience – end up with 10 of the best. Northern Stars is attractive to startups for many reasons: first and foremost, it gives them an opportunity to display their pitching mettle (and what their startup is all about) in front of a sizable audience. For others, it’s more about the prize package, which this year includes a stand at TechCrunch Disrupt in Berlin; access to investors at a private event held at the London Stock Exchange; media and pitch training; a stand at The Next Web conference in Amsterdam; and a place at the Northern Tech Awards, among others.
Are there any start-ups in the North that stand out to you at the moment?
Yes – many! In Leeds, Kwizzbit (a mobile pub quiz app) and Love Bomb Cushions (a retailer of emoji-themed cushions marketed with an augmented reality app) have found success after appearing on Dragons’ Den recently. Blind dating app JigTalk recently moved from Leeds to Manchester, which I’ve only just forgiven them for (insert wink emoji), did brilliantly to win a place on the prestigious NASDAQ accelerator in San Francisco. Fllike, a flight rating app based in Leeds, has one of the slickest interfaces I’ve seen on an offering developed in the North. Machine learning-powered revision app Synap, also from the city, is consistently upping its B2B game. Sheffield’s Tutora is going from strength-to-strength having just revamped its online learning platform, and Slanted Theory from the steel city is developing interesting and interactive VR solutions that aid data analysis. Yboo from Holmfirth has developed what is possibly the most comprehensive app on the planet for helping consumers pick a mobile tariff – keep an eye on them. Over in Hull, Ash.tv is going great guns with their mobile video advertising platform and have opened new offices in Amsterdam and Paris since winning Northern Stars last year. The success of software development studio Arc Studios, also from the city, cannot be ignored – they went from winning an award at the Hull Digital Awards to sponsoring a category a year later! There are many other promising startups in the North – I’d be here all day if I were to name them all. Keep a lookout on Tech North’s website for our upcoming Ecosystem Map, which will list their names and locations.
What other initiatives will Tech North be working on over the next year?
Northern Stars and Founders’ Network, our peer-to-peer network for early-stage startup founders, run into 2018. We will also be developing two programmes related to helping startups secure investment (detailed in the answer below). Following the positive reception we received to Northern Voices, a speaker-training programme that aims to help to redress challenges like gender or regional imbalances in the sector, it will likely be rebooted in February next year. We will also be producing another Northern Tech 100 League Table, which this year ranked the fastest 100 growing tech companies in the North. There are other initiatives in the pipeline that we’ll announce on our website when ready.
What challenges do you feel are most prominent in Northern Tech at the moment? (How do we overcome them?)
Investment and finding skilled recruits (the latter particularly for corporates) are the two challenges that crop up the most. When it comes to the former, I’ve had conversations with startup founders who have really struggled to find willing investors in the North. Many find that they have to jump on a train to London to have face-to-face conversations with them, such is their reluctance to travel in the opposite direction, whereas others look as far as the US. We’re working on two initiates to help with this. The first is a proposed co-investment fund between the public sector and private sector business partners that would make up to £30 million of funding accessible to startups in the region. The second is our Tech North Angel Network programme that aims to encourage more high net-worth individuals (or ‘pre-angels’) to become angel investors and invest in tech startups.
What technology are you most interested in at the moment?
It would have to be virtual and augmented reality. I was inspired to pick up an Oculus Rift after trying out new business solutions and games developed by Kotori Studios (based in Leeds), New Moon Studios (York) and Slanted theory (Sheffield). VR is incredibly fun and has huge potential in both the consumer and business space, but I think AR and mixed reality is going to have the biggest impact on both. That’s mainly because it allows you to operate in your field of vision and see where you’re going while wearing the headset, and partly because Apple is pushing the tech. That never hurts!
Follow Kane on Twitter for more news about Tech North and start-up news across Yorkshire.