The tech world’s trailblazers

Northern Spire Bridge
The Northern Spire Bridge in Sunderland opened in August this year and highlights the city’s bright aspirations

Sunderland is a city that quickly realized the importance of the digital economy and it now hosts a technology cluster that is truly leading edge

If you’re searching for the Silicon Valley of the UK, Sunderland may well be it. Steeped in history, the city is a former heavy industry heartland as well as being the ancestral home of the first US president George Washington, but Sunderland is a now a city with a transforming economy.

A city that grew around shipyards and communities created by collieries, Sunderland is now looking to the weightless world of digital and tech to drive its rebirth. And so far, its journey has been a success. The city has the second fastest digital turnover growth in the UK outside London, something that’s not happened by accident.

“We were very quick to respond to the digital economy and recognized the opportunities it could create for us,” explains Councillor Graeme Miller, leader of Sunderland City Council.

“Our role was to create the right conditions to attract tech businesses and support them to flourish. We worked on trail blazing projects around access to broadband, to lay the foundations of a successful digital economy, and critically, before many had even considered the sector, we built an enterprise centre specifically for digital and tech businesses. A flexible space, with moveable walls that could literally make offices expand as the businesses there grew.”

It was this vision that helped firmly establish Sunderland as a digital destination – and businesses came.

Companies like the Leighton Group – which has propelled spin-out tech companies like SaleCycle and Communicator into territories around the world – as well as growing gaming businesses like Coatsink, which counts Facebook among its many clients, have emerged, between them creating hundreds of high-value jobs.

Backed by the City Council and enabled by the soft and hard infrastructure it created years ago, Sunderland’s tech scene is booming.

A partnership between the worlds of public sector, education and enterprise – the University of Sunderland, Sunderland College, the North East Business & Innovation Centre and Sunderland City Council to stimulate the fledgling sector is doing its bit too. Sunderland Software City, which exists today with a wider regional remit, was set up over a decade ago, and is still on-hand to support innovation.

David Dunn, CEO of Sunderland Software City, says: “The digital revolution was like a steam train hurtling forward and I think the foresight of Sunderland, in really grabbing that sector and going after it in a big way, meant they were able to not only keep up, but get ahead.

“That’s been really attractive to businesses that want to be part of a fast-growing cluster. That cluster exists and succeeds in Sunderland.”

What does the cluster look like?

Sunderland - Software City
Sunderland Software City is attracting overseas companies to its centre of digital expertise

Behind closed doors in Sunderland’s two foremost tech incubator centres, Evolve Business Centre and the more recent addition to the city portfolio, Sunderland Software Centre, are scores of companies that are very quietly changing the economic landscape. Often starting very small, these businesses are exploiting advancements in technology to create pioneering firms that are trading successfully around the world. One such business is New World Designs, which specializes in bullet time photography.

“We’ve worked for companies from Budweiser, to Loreal, to film productions like Zoolander. Our business takes us around the world but we’re Sunderland based and proud of it,” says director Steven Reeves.

“Being in Sunderland is great for us. It’s got great connectivity – links to the major roads in the UK as well as an international airport just minutes away – and the connectivity, hi-tech and state-of-the-art specifications in the centre is fantastic, meaning it supports the digital bit of what we do. It’s great.”

Another advocate of the city

With a brand recognized both nationally and internationally, Tombola is an indigenous Sunderland business that, thanks to the skill and ingenuity of its North East team, is operating Europe’s biggest online bingo sites.

The company has assembled a 450strong team, having started out with just ten employees. With a strengthened senior leadership team, the business is focused on breaking into new markets, as well as cementing foundations in Sunderland, having invested $9.2m in a state-of-the-art office, one of a trio of buildings on its stunning campus overlooking the River Wear and just minutes away from the city centre.

The business specializes in developing and building high quality online entertainment, backed by an ethos of responsibly providing affordable, community-focused content. Key to its success has been the talented people who have joined the team as it has grown.

Phil Cronin, chief executive at Tombola, said: “Sunderland is my home, and Tombola was born here, so it’s a place I am incredibly passionate about – but with good cause.

“We are at the heart of a region that is riding the digital wave, with a tech sector that is the envy of many, and our central location within that region – with high-performing universities on our doorstep – means we are in the fantastic position of being able to attract the best people.”

Just the beginning

While Sunderland is already punching well above its weight when it comes to digital, the city believes there is much more to come.

“I honestly think we’re just seeing the beginning of what’s possible. We have incredible businesses that are already doing fantastically well. But they’re growing – their potential has still not been realized,” says Cllr Miller.

“Add to that the magnetic effect that has – businesses seeing a successful cluster forming and wanting to tap into it – and you have a recipe for success. As we welcome more office spaces to the city – our flagship Vaux development for instance in the heart of the city centre – as well as creating more opportunities for tech businesses with the arrival of a 370 acre, nationally significant advanced manufacturing park which will require their expertise, we’re driving the growth of the weightless economy here in Sunderland – and we’re ready to shout about it.”