How Binary Festival aims to put Liverpool's tech startups on the map

It'll do it one way or another

Liverpool Binary Festival

This article is part of our TechRadar North column, a series focusing on the development of the North of England's digital sector.

Like other cities in the North of England, Liverpool has introduced several co-working spaces to help its tech sector grow.

Many of them are operating around the 'Baltic Triangle', a creative hotspot in the city centre that counts Internet of Things (IoT), software development and e-commerce among its specialisms. And then there's gaming, which has proved one of Liverpool's strengths dating back to when Lemmings and Wipeout developer Psygnosis opened its doors there in 1984.

Kevin McManus, Head of Digital & Creative at Invest Liverpool, says that the city is particularly appealing to smaller, more agile games studios at this moment in time; not least because the city's commercial and residential property rent prices are some of the lowest in the country.

Binary
Credit: Pete Carr (petecarr.net)

Liverpool's newest festival for all things digital, Binary Festival, recently showcased work and businesses from across the city involved in everything from VR to health tech, music and gaming.

McManus tells TechRadar why 2016 was the right time to host the first Binary Festival, why it's an exciting time for the city's tech development and how Liverpool makes the most of its rich cultural heritage.

TechRadar: Why was the first Binary Festival held this year?

Kevin McManus: It was held because the time is right for Liverpool to do this now. It's a really exciting time in the tech scene in the city and Binary provides a platform to showcase the wide range of great work that is taking place here.

TR: How did attendees benefit from it?

KM: Our tech businesses opened up their doors and allowed people to see how strong and diverse the Liverpool offer is. All this and the great keynote speakers that Binary attracted inspired the whole sector from startups to those that are already well established. When you have all this and a couple of great social events then the outcomes are increased creativity, collaboration and ultimately company growth. And we had a great time too.

TR: What are Liverpool's sector strengths right now when it comes to digital? Can you name some of the big tech firms based there?

KM: It is pretty diverse which is a strength in itself but the obvious ones are in the areas of gaming, health tech, virtual reality and IoT. We don't have a mass of big companies but this is changing. Some of big players include Mando, New Mind, Uniform, Ripple Effect, PH Creative, Lucid Games and vTime.

TR: How well-positioned is Liverpool's tech scene in comparison with other cities in the north of England - particularly Manchester?

KM: We are really well positioned as the Tech Nation and recent Tech North reports highlight. I have good contacts among the tech clusters in the other Northern cities and we work well together. Tech North focuses on a proposition that is about the whole of the North and we all sign up to that while obviously retaining the focus on our own individual cities.

We all have distinct offers with some inevitable overlap. The Tech North approach on inward investment for example is a thematic one which highlights which cities have particular strengths in key areas. Manchester has some obvious strengths but so does Liverpool and there is much that is complimentary between the two.

TR: Limited access to finance is held up as one of the challenges for Liverpool's digital sector. Why is that and how do you think it will overcome it?

KM: Again if you talk to any of the Northern cities or anywhere outside of London and the South East it is pretty similar. The Tech Nation report reflected what businesses thought were obstacles to growth and that is a clear barrier here, as it is in many other cities.

It is something that as a city we have been looking to try to improve and we are looking at a number of really creative ways to improve the situation. There are a few individuals here as well who are actively investing in tech businesses in Liverpool but they keep a fairly low profile.

Liverpool Binary Festival
Credit: Pete Carr (petecarr.net)

TR: Why might Liverpool appeal to startups? And how would you convince one to operate there rather than London?

KM: The obvious answer is our low cost base for office space and a strong talent pipeline. These are all important but I think anyone who comes along to Binary will see evidence of the less tangible but really interesting aspects of the Liverpool scene which make a compelling case for any start up to at least consider the city.

There's just a really good feel to the tech scene here at the moment and a genuine feeling that we are at the start of something special. It has happened organically and that means that there is an incredibly supportive and collaborative community here that it is great to be part of. I've shown some London tech companies around the city recently and they have sensed this difference immediately and been genuinely surprised by how welcoming and open everybody is.

TR: How do you think the Northern Powerhouse initiative might benefit Liverpool's tech scene?

KM: I think that is one we are all still looking at closely, to see what it is actually going to mean for us. Initiatives like Tech North have in my eyes shown the value in northern cities working together. But within the tech sector I think there is broad agreement about what we need to make our very significant contribution to really making the North a genuine economic powerhouse.

Put simply we need to be enabled to get on with it and address key issues like skills, talent shortages, and the investment environment. At the moment in the Liverpool City Region the more tangible opportunity is that opened up by devolution and the creation of the Metro Mayor with the potential for greater resources. I'm lucky enough to work in an environment where Invest Liverpool, the mayor and the city council are very supportive of the sector. They all see the huge potential it has as a key economic driver.

TR: Liverpool's Baltic Triangle is the city's notable tech cluster. Has it come about organically or has it been moulded into one over time?

KM: The development has been organic and that makes it a special place to be. I played a part in setting up Baltic Creative Community Interest Company which has been a crucial catalyst in development of the area but the real work has been done by landlords like Baltic Creative, Elevator, and the wider Baltic Stakeholders Group.

All these have played a significant part in the area's development and Baltic Creative in particular I know have expansion plans. The development of the area is reflected in the number of independent bars and venues that have opened there as well over the last couple of years, which now make it a great place to hang out in after hours too.

TR: What notable or interesting tech startups are operating out of this area?

KM: There are some really interesting things happening in Liverpool on the start up front now. I don't really want to single out any one company but the likes of Launch 22, Basecamp, the Santander Incubator and Spark Up are all hosting some exciting prospects. Over the next year I'd expect some really exciting companies to emerge from these places and elsewhere particularly around health tech, games and VR.

Binary Festival
Credit: Pete Carr (petecarr.net)

TR: Can you tell us about some of Liverpool's other creative digital hotspots?

KM: There's a few areas as well as the Baltic. There's now a sizeable cluster in the Commercial District of the city centre with a recent concentration in the Cotton Exchange in particular. Launch 22 is just around the corner from the Cotton Exchange and a few of our highest profile businesses (Ripple Effect, Studio Mashbo, and PH Creative) are based in the area too.

Liverpool Science Park has a long established tech cluster in its base near to two of the city's universities. Outside of the city centre you also have Liverpool Innovation Park which is home to a number of tech companies and with the city's plans to establish a sound stage on the site this is sure to become increasingly important.

TR: Liverpool is known for its gaming heritage and development studios/publishers, but the city has been hit with various closures in recent years. Does the city still hold that appeal?

KM: It definitely does still hold that appeal. Focusing on the closures is misleading really as almost all of the talent that was working in the big studios has stayed in Liverpool and some of those who left have actually come back. Graeme Ankers, Head of Studio at Sony Liverpool is still in the city running the very successful studio Firesprite.

Many of the Bizarre Games staff moved onto Lucid Games and these are just two examples. All that talent is still busy working away in the games sector in the city but mainly in smaller dynamic businesses that are appropriate for the games industry at the moment. Others such as games industry legend Martin Kenwright are working with some former games industry staff to really make a mark in the world of virtually reality with vTime.

TR: The Leeds Digital Festival recently saw a crossover of digital and musical talent take over that city's venues. A similar festival seems perfect for Liverpool considering its musical heritage. How does the city take advantage of its culture when it comes to tech?

KM: It is something that we are pretty good at and looking to do much more of in the future. Companies like Draw and Code to name just one are using emerging technologies to create innovative art and develop sophisticated immersive experiences.

The people behind the much loved and now defunct Kazimier venue are now doing amazing work at their new space in North Liverpool. Liverpool Sound City is known as a music festival but its industry conference focused largely on tech and how it is influencing change in the music industry. And we have got companies like Sentric Music who have had huge growth on the back of their disruptive technology applied very successfully to music publishing.

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