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Disruptive tech: How these Bristol businesses are transforming the economy

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Written by: Hannah Baker | Posted 17 November 2017 10:14

Disruptive tech: How these Bristol businesses are transforming the economy

There’s no doubt about it, the technology industry is transforming Britain’s economy.

Last year, digital tech investment reached £6.8bn – it’s 50 per cent higher than any other country – and there are now 1.64 million digital tech jobs in the UK, according to the Tech Nation 2017 report.

In fact, the digital sector is creating jobs twice as fast as non-digital industries and turnover of digital technology businesses reach £170bn last year – that’s an increase of £30bn in just five years.

And Bristol is among the cities getting in on the action.

The technology sector in the city increased by 38 per cent between 2012 and 2015 – this compares to a national average of 14 per cent – and is home to a thriving start-up scene which includes many fast-growing technology businesses.

Many of these businesses have been described as ‘disruptive’. But what does this really mean?

It’s a word that’s been associated with global businesses Uber and Airbnb, which have changed the industry in which they operate but, says Steven Day, co-founder of Bristol-based green energy firm Pure Planet, companies can actually disrupt without a positive impact.

“All of the best new things that make a positive difference are disruptive,” he explained. “We don’t use the word much. We try to talk about making things better rather than just being disruptive.”

Read more: Opinion: How can Bristol fill the tech skills gap?

Pure Planet is among the many technology firms that has been attracted to Bristol because of its growing tech scene.

The company is an energy provider which is challenging its competitors, including the Big Six (British Gas, EDF Energy, E.ON, npower, Scottish Power and SSE) with its cheap prices and positive environmental impact.

And the secret to its success so far? Technology.

“When we looked at the industry, all the companies follow a typical model which is a people-centric, call-centre service model and have developed very little in the way of tech to solve simple customer issues.”

Pure Planet, which officially began trading in September 2017, decided the best way to solve customer-service issues and keep costs low for consumers was to develop an app.

Among other things, the app allows Pure Planet members to take a photo of their meter reading on their phone and send it straight back without the need for paper.

“The future is electronic and we want to avoid paper and all the needless calls generated. By reducing the number of calls about trivial things you reduce your costs,” said Steven.

The company also uses artificial intelligence in the form of a chat bot called Watt Bot.

“We named it after Scottish inventor James Watt,” said Steven. “It is effectively a search engine against a knowledge base and there are people monitoring it so if the robot runs out of responses to questions that come in, we can pick up the conversation.

“The bot handles 70 to 80 per cent of queries that come in and that helps reduce costs too.”

Steven believes Bristol is a “great alternative” to London for tech companies.

“Bristol has got a good reputation for being technological. And the whole South West is basking in that glory.”

Read more: Bristol Airport wants your views as it plans for the future

Luke Trimmings, co-founder of Appeal Digital, decided to move his business from Bournemouth to Bristol in 2016 because of the city’s “huge pool of talent”.

“It was easier for us to hire relative to other areas in the UK. It’s an awesome place to live, work and grow a business and there are some incredible opportunities in Bristol to do that.”

Luke set up the company with his friend Ben Kelly in 2011, while the pair were at university, after seeing a huge potential in mobile and tablet devices.

The business now works across web, mobile and voice technology for membership and subscription-based businesses. 

Luke believes disruption is “anything that makes something more convenient for the end user or customers and makes the old way of doing things inconceivable or ridiculous”.

For Appeal, he says, that is currently voice technology. “It’s something we’re increasingly exploring. The growing popularity of things like the Amazon Echo and other similar devices means that more consumers are starting to use voice as a means of interacting with people and businesses and we’re figuring out how we can bring this to businesses.”

When attracting talent, Luke believes it’s “crucially important” to give people ownership over what they do and the opportunity to further develop their skills.

He explained: “For Appeal, this means that everyone gets a half day every week for their own personal and professional development in an area that is mutually beneficial to them and the business.” 

But Luke says the skills gap is something that needs to be tacked at a national level.

“We need proper investment in the right teaching, making it easier for businesses to bring in the right people wherever they’re from. There’s no short-term fix, but any way that we can cultivate and provide opportunity for people to learn these skills is good, in Bristol or nationally.” 

Looking to the future, Luke says the industry is going to see an increasing number of “old-school” professions and skills become important within the tech space “as the lines between voice, automotive, automation and machine learning become more common place”.

“It’s going to be interesting,” he added.

Read more: South West business activity grew at faster rate last month

Nick Bird is the co-founder of a Bristol-based tech firm and he believes innovation is the key to businesses being able to successfully ‘disrupt’ an existing market.

Nick set up his digital and marketing agency, Squarebird, in 2015 with his brother Jon. The duo, who are aged 28 and 26, already have seven members of staff and are on target to hit £400,000 turnover in 2017.

“We are certainly disrupting the market in Bristol with our innovative approach. We’ve found that clients usually know what they want to achieve in terms of digital presence, but lack the ability or capacity to do it themselves,” said Nick.

Traditional business models are being disrupted by innovative tech firms, explains Nick, which are “helping people and other businesses to have a better experience, at a better price, more quickly”.

He believes the next major challenge for the industry will be managing the “incomprehensible” amount of data the Internet of Things – the idea that all devices, including everyday objects, will be connected via the internet and will be able to send and receive data – will generate.

“Extracting what is relevant and utilising that data in a safe and ethical manner will be a real challenge”.

Nick says the tech sector needs to engage and inspire young people from an early age: “Bristol has a fantastic amount of creativity bursting out of it, and we need to provide tech-related jobs, apprenticeships and college and university courses with the capability of developing inspired youth.”

Rav Bumbra, who runs Bristol-based tech recruitment firm Structur3dpeople, says disruptive tech companies are revolutionising every industry and as technology evolves the business world “has to adapt or will be left behind”.

“We live in a world that is being disrupted constantly; we book our own flights rather than with travel agents, we rent more rooms through Airbnb, a company that doesn’t own or manage property. 

“The idea of disruption excites some people but terrifies others. Being disruptive has become the driver for more companies to break old models and build better ones that benefit us all.

Rav believes Bristol is contributing to a growing global movement which is seeing successful companies harnessing technology.

She added: “Bristol businesses and universities are at the forefront of innovation in super-computing, sensor technology, the Internet of Things, next-generation networks and 5G.

“Bristol is increasingly focused on the future, it is a centre for creativity and in recent years has become a home for start-ups.

“The city has been attracting new companies seeking to capitalise on the rich talent without the same costs as London.”

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