Digital sector must break free of identity crisis, insist tech leaders

A clear identity and awareness are crucial to help the Tees region’s digital sector continue to thrive and strive towards being a national leader, say three of the leading Tees tech principals.

Ashley Tizard of Tascomp and Paul Drake of Sapere joined Tees Tech Ambassador winner Dominic Lusardi, one half of the team that founded Animmersion, on the latest Tees Business Leaders chat with Tees Business executive editor Dave Allan.

“There are hundreds of digital companies in the Tees Valley, but the reality is that we still don’t know them all,” said Ashley Tizard of Billingham-based Tascomp, finalists in the Company of the Year category in inaugural Tees Tech Awards.

“There are businesses who are covering off areas that could be useful to each other and we are not aware of it. We need to raise the profile locally and then go past that.”

Paul Drake of Stockton-based Sapere added: “It’s about giving other sectors an idea of what already exists digitally in the Tees Valley. There’s so much benefit that could be reaped which would bring in more revenue for the region and create quality jobs.

“How we do that, I don’t know. The likes of Teesside University, DigitalCity and both the mayors are doing a good job of pushing in that direction, but it’s this one voice, this ‘digital city’ – well, we’ve worked in this ‘digital city’ for ten-plus years, but we still don’t know exactly what it is!

“If it had a proper identity that the Tees Valley and the rest of the country knew about, then we could make this sector amazing – country-leading.”

Dominic, who has roles advising both Middlesbrough Council and Tees Valley Combined Authority, said: “It’s a great honour to be Tees Tech Ambassador, but we wouldn’t need one if there wasn’t room for growth.

“The digital sector was going great guns with programmes and development, but then we hit quite a drastic pause around about 2015. This meant that companies carried on growing but the space around them didn’t, so it fractured the cluster and spread us all out geographically in different locations. The digital sector was also badly affected by austerity and public funding cuts.”

He added: “I think we are building that head of steam again with the Boho developments coming in and a cluster around that development. We’re on the right track, but we can’t stop and give ourselves a pat on the back because we are only just beginning.”

Referring to the soon-to-be-completed Boho 8 development and the revised Boho X plans, Paul agreed: “Teesside is the place to live and work. I’m loving the idea of all these Boho buildings condensed into Middlesbrough and making it the place to be for digital, but we’re not quite there yet.”

Dominic admits that the frustrations felt by the tech sector isn’t unique to our region, but we do have one ace up our sleeves.

“Some of the work I have done with central and regional government lately is speaking with some of the other clusters around the country,” he revealed.

“It’s easy to look at ourselves and want more, but the problems we face are not unique to us. Liverpool and Humberside both have the exact same issues. What stands the Tees Valley apart, however, is that we do come together. There is a willingness to help each other that you don’t necessarily see in the other clusters.

“In fact, people look at us with jealous eyes and ask how the hell we remain friends when we’re in competition with each other. The answer is that we want to see growth and we want to see success for the area. That’s a great start-base to go from.”

Moving forward, all three leaders agreed that it’s about time the component parts of the local digital sector put their heads above the parapet.

Ashley admitted: “Tascomp spent years under the radar but recently we’ve changed tack and started to promote more awareness of what we do and how we do things, and in the long run we know that is going to pay dividends. We’re already opening up doors as a result of that now.

“Raising our profile and promoting the region will ultimately create growth and promote employment – not base level but well-paid jobs.”

Dominic concluded: “We’ve proved that Teesside can have a successful digital cluster, but now is the time to carry on that support by creating new buildings, new clusters, new locations for those companies to come together and opportunities for us to start to fuse with the wider industries around us.”