The small Northern towns that nestle between our big cities haven’t had the greatest of profiles in recent years.
Many of them rarely make the national news except for stories about crime or decline, but that’s not a fair situation. Take Burnley for example.
Recently, trade body Digital Lancashire invited me to Burnley to see for myself some of what’s happening there. We began the day at a meet-up of digital businesses. It was held in the office of software development firm JP74, in a room decked out with retro games consoles.
JP74 co-founder Pete Walker told me how the 16-year-old company largely focused on client work had now developed its own product, Prept. But finding funding for a software product in Burnley isn’t easy.
There is a great deal of work to be done to put in place the support levels that are in places such as Manchester. Support in Lancashire has traditionally been for manufacturing and engineering - says Walker.
Burnley has moved very fast and has nearly completed a change to its own fund so it can be open to support digital companies. For us, Burnley Council are partnering with Rosebud Micro (a Lancashire County Council fund) to support one of our companies.
Away from the hustle
Flow XO Product Manager Steven Booth says he’s a big fan of Burnley and its advantages over cities. He says less competition for staff and being away from the “hustle of the city” are appealing.
That said, the hustle of the city has its benefits too.
Whilst there are several companies here that we can say are in ‘tech’, there’s no true ecosystem. It’s impossible to source from the complete supply chain without going further afield – there are no full service agencies, for example - says Booth.
Flow XO has recruited staff from elsewhere in the UK, and South America to deal with this problem. It’s also opened a Manchester presence for better access to customers and partners.
Bonded to Burnley
A funding environment designed for traditional manufacturing was a roadblock I heard mentioned repeatedly when talking to people in Burnley. However, an unusual approach to business support may well give it an edge over similarly-sized towns in the UK.
Burnley Bondholders is a scheme that sees local businesses pay into a pot of money to promote the town. Speaking on the phone, Burnley’s Brand Manager, Amber Corns told me how half a decade ago the town sought to reposition itself in the public eye, after having appeared in far too many lists of deprived areas.
People had an impression of a dying mill town, but that wasn’t the modern Burnley.
The town invested in schools and its hospital, and successfully lobbied for the first direct train service from Manchester to the town in 40 years. But it was the inward investment fund it set up that has had other towns looking to Burnley for inspiration.
To build a warchest to encourage businesses to invest in the town, Burnley set up the Bondholders scheme. 182 businesses are currently members. Smaller companies benefit from networking opportunities, while for larger firms, involvement counts towards their corporate social responsibility targets.
Money from membership fees funds marketing efforts that attract companies to move to, or expand within, the town. “We open industrial parks and fill them right away,” says Corns. The Bondholders scheme helped Burnley to win Most Enterprising Area 2013. The model has since been replicated in other areas, such as Hull.
Burnley Bondholders is a great example of how businesses can come together to work with other stakeholders to effect change rather than just sitting around complaining about what the government isn’t doing - says Pete Walker.
From Burnley to Hollywood
One particularly enthusiastic member of Burnley Bondholders is its chairman, Mark Crabtree. His company makes a global impact on the entertainment industry from an industrial estate on the edge of the town.
AMS Neve is a legendary name in the world of sound recording. Crabtree explained to me how he cofounded AMS back in the 1970s after tinkering around with electronics he had access to through his job at Lucas Aerospace.
AMS developed a digital flanger audio effect, initially for Strawberry Studios in Stockport. Before long Crabtree was giving a demonstration to Paul McCartney at Abbery Road studios in London.
After bringing more studio gear to market, AMS floated on the London Stock Exchange in 1985. And in 1990 it was acquired by Siemens. Two years later, the electronics giant merged AMS with British studio tech firm Neve Electronics. Eventually, Crabtree bought AMS Neve out and led it into a new age of innovation. The company now sells to everyone from Hollywood studios to musicians like Snoop Dogg.
Manufacturing the future
If AMS Neve is an example of longstanding tech success out of Burnley, FDM Digital Solutions represents the future. It produces 3D-printed parts on tight turnarounds for industries like aerospace and Formula One racing. Meanwhile, a collaboration with the NHS sees the company develop prosthetics aimed at minimising foot amputations among diabetes patients.
The three-year-old company now runs nine additive layer manufacturing machines. Sales Manager Andy Higgins says the market is starting to catch on to the benefits of its approach to manufacturing. This sets FDM up for a promising 2017. ‘Industry 4.0‘ is currently a hot topic, and the company is well placed to take advantage of interest in this blend of machines, computing, the internet and decentralisation.
A new hope
Burnley is adapting well to the post-industrial world through a blend of grit, determination and positivity about its strengths.
As technology gradually transforms almost every element of every industry, the world will need more than just a few hub cities shaping the future. Burnley is proof that small Northern towns can offer a lot in the 21st century. They just need a clear picture of both where they’ve come from and where they want to go.
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