If there’s one sector well-placed to rise to the challenges posed by a global pandemic, it’s tech.
In an industry where innovation is second nature, firms are already proving their ability to adapt and develop solutions to solve problems we don’t even know we face yet.
But with many relying on access to finance and support networks, the ecosystem that consists largely of startups, scale-ups and SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) is not immune to the impact of the economic downturn.
Bristol’s reputation as a leading tech hub is already well established. Investment rocketed over the last year with the city’s tech firms raising $305m – more than £254m – in the first seven months of 2019 alone.
The sector achieved a combined turnover of £7.9bn in 2018 and employed almost 25,000 people, according to recent figures from Tech Nation & Dealroom.co, which also reveal record foreign investment in the country’s tech sector.
It is a field that is fast infiltrating almost every other industry and wider society, with many homegrown firms leading the way on ground-breaking projects.
One such project is using the power of artificial intelligence (AI) to improve access to employment. ACH, a refugee integration services provider with offices on Ashley Road in St Paul’s and Eastgate Road in Eastville, partnered with tech company Bayes Impact to develop an AI-driven careers advice platform designed to provide skills training and remove barriers to the job market for marginalised groups.
Commenting on how the sector has fared over the last few months, Steve Edwards, SETsquared Bristol centre manager says the impact of lockdown hit hard, with incubator services having to switch to online overnight.
“Responding, adapting and innovation are all part of the tech sector’s DNA, and Covid-19 has seen plenty of examples of the sector rising to this challenge,” says Steve.
“Overall, it’s been a tough time for the sector, with most seeing a significant disruption to business continuity, a loss of income, a pause in investment raising, and, for some, business closure.
“We are seeing companies continue to work remotely or move to co-working to keep their overheads down, non-essential projects being put on hold and budgets cut. The crisis has underscored the need for flexible, resilient business models, including an increased focus on cash-flow forecasting.
“The tech sector is definitely better placed than other sectors to recover quicker with the increasing demand for fast connectivity, AI, cyber security, data, and remote learning and training. Businesses must use the crisis to learn from their experiences and to rebuild better businesses driving inclusion and diversity at their core.”
These are some of the themes running through the annual Bristol Anthropology and Technology Conference, which moved online for 2020. Reaching a global audience, the two-day event taking place on October 9 and 12 explores the social and economic impact of AI-technology across fintech, health tech and Smart Cities, examining the opportunities as well as the risks and challenges.
It has also highlighted the need for a more inclusive and diverse tech scene, something SETsquared Bristol is seeking to help address with its Breakthrough Bursary scheme, which has recently closed its second round of applications.
Aimed at startup founders and entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds, the programme provides participants with access to strategic advice, coaching, including investment readiness training, mentoring, events and advice clinics.
Mentor Sandeep Roychowdhury says: “In the future, these entrepreneurs will not only drive inclusive growth in the region but also acquire the potential to advise and mentor upcoming BAME generations that, in turn, build new inclusive networks and foster more diversity in the future of tech.”
Dr Zara Nanu, the founder of Gapsquare, has long championed work around equality. “Gapsquare uses tech to intelligently build a world where work is inclusive, where employee pay meets value, and where diverse talent thrives,” explains Zara.
“As we all know, the pandemic has exposed inequalities in work, health and other areas of our lives – we’ve seen this as an opportunity to help companies emerge from the crisis stronger and with a focus on their people.”
The company, based in the Engine Shed, has adapted its offering in direct response to the Covid-19 crisis. A new interactive, free workforce management dashboard has been developed to collate data and show companies how to best mitigate reaction, risk and response to the pandemic. It gives them best practice actions to emerge from the crisis stronger, and with a focus on diversity and inclusion.
Gapsquare is also offering a ‘pay what you can afford’ consultancy service with a similar aim, prioritising the sustainable and fair recovery of companies, and is investing in research about the changes to business function.
Zara adds: “We’ve had to adapt by really listening to our clients and partners, coming together as a team and reminding companies that their people and equity have to come first.”
NORTHSTAR founder Glyn Blaize and project director Charlie Voller Barnes have put together a webinar sharing their knowledge on how recruitment businesses can use data insights to drive performance and revenue at this time, while Virti is using specialist augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) to rapidly retrain healthcare workers around the globe.
Dr Stephanie Campbell, the CEO of OKKO Health, believes the pandemic has been a pivotal time for the health tech sector and is quick to point out the wait to overcome the full effects of Covid-19 will be a long one.
A digital health-tech startup based in Berkeley Square, OKKO specialises in smartphone software that allows people to monitor their vision from home in between visits to clinics.
The company was awarded a Covid-19 grant by Innovate UK to respond to the increased demand during the pandemic, which enabled it to expand its workforce by three.
Commenting on the industry, Stephanie said: “The tech sector now has a great opportunity to play a central role in supporting better and more personalised healthcare. However, it is vital that we do not take our foot off the accelerator.”
She believes the switch to ophthalmology being delivered, at least in part, remotely will be a permanent one and say it is vital that we collectively adopt a needs-led approach to eye care that caters to all patients.
Ultraleap is a world leader in mid-air haptics and hand tracking based in Glass Wharf.
Commenting on how the firm is responding to current challenges, CEO Steve Cliffe says: “As retailers, restaurants and offices try to draw people back, they are looking to minimise the number of surfaces the public touches. Using our hand tracking and mid-air haptics technologies, users can control and manipulate digital content by moving their hands in mid-air without the need to touch a surface or screen. We’re effectively replacing public touchscreens.”
For Will Britton, the CEO AutonoMe, the crisis has provided an opportunity to demonstrate the important role tech can play in health care and improving independence.
His Weston-super-Mare-based business uses technology to provide support for vulnerable people, including those who are disabled or have learning difficulties, who want to become more independent.
Will says: “During the pandemic, we have continued to support our clients as normal, through the app, and the usual phone support for them and their care providers. But we also made the basic version of our app free for local authorities to use, which was quickly taken up across the country.
“Using our tech, social care systems were able to offer better remote support to their most vulnerable people, especially when personal care became more limited as lockdown, then social distancing kicked in.
“I’m hopeful for our market sector, particularly as the pandemic has absolutely proven what me and my colleagues passionately believe – that people with disabilities and learning disabilities use and need tech with the same enthusiasm and necessity as everybody else.
“We’re looking forward to using our services to help develop Covid-specific materials where necessary, for example, videos on mask-wearing and social distancing, and, we’re also working on content to help people be ready for employment for a sector of society that is drastically underrepresented in the job market.”
Main photo courtesy of Ultraleap