Bringing startup and business creation magic back to the Thames Valley

The idea started out as a disruptive marketing campaign for my tech recruitment business. I was frustrated by the lack of fresh, relevant skills coming into the marketplace. Yes, our location in the M4 corridor enterprise belt, with traditional tech and telco headquarters, means one in five businesses are tech firms. Oracle, Microsoft, Symantec are all headquartered here. But heritage is not future-focused. In terms of attracting new talent, the Thames Valley pretty much fell off the map.

We’re starting from a position of strength. Tech City UK’s first Tech Nation report placed Reading as fourth in terms of digital employment. It is also the UK’s number one local authority digital cluster, with a proportion of tech enterprises three times the national average. We’ve had real success stories, most recently, DataSift, the pioneering Big Data start-up based at the University of Reading’s enterprise centre announced a partnership with Facebook, to bring Facebook topic data to marketers. The university itself is home to a range of science-led initiatives and recently received funding for a multi-million pound big data centre.

What does this mean for ConnectTVT? We wanted to re-energise the region as a truly innovative tech hub. The opportunity for startups and smaller businesses lies in tapping into the eco-system created by our established tech giants. What’s more, driving entrepreneurialism is very much back on the agenda for the major tech players. One just has to look at the Dell for Entrepreneurs programme at Dell’s UK headquarters in Bracknell to see the role it’s playing within the organisation.

True change needs more than a message, however compelling. To create a real movement we quickly realised we needed to bring people together, in a space. Taking our vision to the next level, we set up GROW@Green Park, in Reading, bringing together like-minded businesses to meet, network, and collaborate. With the launch of The Lab last week, GROW@Green Park has evolved to become the first fusion space of its kind, offering co-working and lab facilities within a startup accelerator hub. We’re gradually building a community of startups, innovators, creatives, freelancers and developers; it’s a mini ecosystem of businesses tapping into each other’s experiences, sharing learnings and collaborating, ultimately, helping each other’s businesses grow. 

Early indications show that big data, open data and internet of things are set to be areas of specialism within the Thames Valley, with a focus on business tech innovation. We’re supporting this through special interest meet-ups and hang-outs right here at GROW.

As a bootstrapped startup ourselves, none of this would have been possible on our own. Collaboration has been critical to our strategy. We’ve worked hard to build meaningful partnerships with like-minded organisations also invested in the startup agenda. Knocking on a few doors and biting our tongues as we battled past a prevailing “what’s in it for me?” culture was a steep learning curve.

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Which is what has made the wins even more rewarding. From Oxford Properties sharing our space through to the Thames Valley Chamber of Commerce running our Big Pitch Competition with us. Endorsement of this kind makes a real difference to our profile and enhances how we can feed back into the startup cycle. Elsewhere, we’ve teamed up with tech specialist law firm Pitmans via a series of new legal clinics and mentoring sessions. KPMG will be providing pro bono advice to our Thames Valley tech businesses to help them set up their business and achieve their growth ambitions.  

Our recent Festival of Digital Disruption was a showcase of partnership in action – from ‘Digital Skills Day’ through to the inaugural GROW Film Festival & Awards and launch of a ten-week startup bootcamp.

Working with our future-focused, proactive partners gives us that catalysing effect. Iterative steps towards change, opening up new opportunities and ways of working for startups in the area is what defines our purpose. Over the next few months we want to build on these foundations, create a little more inspiration, a little more magic. We’re taking this beyond the tech space and a focus for us now is getting closer to a broader profile of start-ups to open up the GROW community. We’re starting with catering, be it a pop-up café, coffee stand or cake stall. It’s when the unexpected collides that the real magic happens – we can’t wait.

Louize Clarke is the co-founder of ConnectTVT

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