Act Local Think National - Why A Brighton-Based Innovation Hub Is Planning To Expand Across The U.K.
There are worse places to start a business than Brighton and Hove. Named the world’s most hipster city by Movehub in 2018, it boasts a cultural life to rival that of nearby London, two universities, a young population, an iconic beachfront, and (essentially) a wealth of independent coffee shops. An ideal place, you might think, for an ambitious founder to combine quality of life with business ownership. Not surprisingly, the city has emerged as an innovation economy cluster with a higher than average density of digital startups.
And that probably explains, the presence of Plus X, a privately-operated “ innovation hub” aiming to provide new businesses in the city with the resources they need to scale up rapidly. But co-CEOs Paul Rostas and Mat Hunter have a bigger mission. Over the next few years, they aim to roll out the Plus X model across the U.K., taking it to cities and towns that are currently underserved in terms of their business support eco-systems. In the run-up to the Christmas/New Year holidays, I spoke to them about their plans.
A Crowded Market?
On the face of it, Plus X is entering a crowded market. Co-working spaces - a novelty five or six years ago - are now commonplace across the United Kingdom. Brighton is home to several operators.
Hunter is keen to make the distinction between the Plus X offering and co-working. “We’re providing what we believe entrepreneurs want,” he says. “A co-working facility will ask you, how much space do you need?” But entrepreneurs need a great deal of support and that’s what we’re offering.”
Tools And Facilities
So what does that mean in practice?
One of the differentiators - as Rostas and Hunter see it - is a focus on tools and facilities that might otherwise be beyond the reach of small startup businesses. “We have CNC cutters, 3D printers, a podcast studio, a VR filming space, and a wetlab,” says Rostas. In other words, it’s not just a space for coders. It supports the maker economy too.
And like other innovation centers - and indeed some co-working spaces - there is also a focus on connections. Rostas and Hunter say that collaboration within the center is not only encouraged but actively curated. In addition to the possibility of founders working together, universities, business advisers, financiers, and larger companies all feed into the ecosystem. Hunter says connections between corporates and startups, in particular, bring mutual benefits. “Big business knows how to scale but struggles to innovate,” he says. “Smaller companies know how to innovate but they struggle to scale.”
In common with other innovation centers, Plus X also runs accelerator programs and is also a key player in the Brighton Research Innovation Technology Exchange (BRITE) program, created in partnership with the University of Brighton. Aimed at SMEs and part financed by the European Regional Development Fund BRITE offers a £10.5 million support package to businesses in the area, Successful applicants will receive coaching, mentoring, and support in activities such as research and development.
You could argue that Brighton is already doing pretty well in terms of initiatives to drive innovation. For instance, it is also home to Digital Catapult Brighton, a hub focused on building the digital media industry in the region. But Plus X is not solely focused on Brighton. Its plan is to roll out innovation centers across the United Kingdom.
“We have some fairly ambitious plans to expand into a national network of innovation hubs,” says Rostas. “We believe that talent is everywhere but opportunity is not.”
As he sees it, towns that don’t have the right ecosystems in place may produce huge numbers of talented people, but those individuals tend to drift away to better-known and supported entrepreneurial cities. “So we are talking to potential partners in small cities and towns to open Plus X centers.”
The Plus X concept was originally developed in West London when the venerable EMI vinyl record making plant was recast by developers U+I as an incubator for startups. That particular center is being refurbished and will reemerge in a few months as the Plus X Powerhouse. When new hubs are set up, they will conform to broadly the same model as the Hayes and Brighton centers, while being responsive to local economic conditions and the requirements of partners on the ground. “A lot will depend on the leadership of the towns,” says Hunter. Depending on what is needed, you might find Plus X centers in High Streets or - as is the case in Brighton - beside universities, he adds.
But will the concept attract local partnerships? Rostas says yes, citing a number of applications from interested parties, including local authorities. The aim now is for 25 locations in five years.
London continues to dominate the U.K. startup scene, with cities such as Manchester, Oxford, Cambridge and Bristol also established as innovation clusters. Brighton too is up-and-coming, along with smaller cities such as Belfast. But that perhaps disguises the fact that even in small towns, entrepreneurs are launching and growing innovative companies, often without much in the way of local supporting infrastructure. Rostas and Hunter believe there is an opportunity to provide more support for entrepreneurs not just in the better-known cities, but right across Britain.