Tech North’s outgoing director Richard Gregory has “no regrets” following 18 months at the helm as he takes on role as executive chair of Tech North Advisory Board.

Gregory, who took over from Claire Braithwaite in 2016, said he’ll still be working with the organisation five days a month instead of five days a week so he’ll be able to spend more time in the private sector.

He spoke to BusinessCloud editor Chris Maguire.

Q1: Why the new role?

A: It was born initially out of the fact that I came on board to Tech North 18 months ago and we’ve made a massive step-change in the programmes we’ve delivered.

The impact we’ve had has been absolutely wonderful, to the point now that the government is extending our funding and taken the programmes national over the next four years.

The challenge for me over those years is that it’s left me meeting lots of start-ups all the time and getting quite jealous of that private sector world and I’ve been very keen to get back into it.

Q2: You’ll be returning back into the private sector. What will you be doing?

A: I was the MD of Latitude (Digital Marketing) for a number of years and then prior to joining Tech North I did a number of non-exec roles.

I’ve had to give up all of those bar one because of obvious time constraints whereas now I’ve moved into this advisory role so, as you say, five days a month cramming it in. It means I’ve been able to take up more time with the team over at Ruler (Analytics) where I’m the chairman.

I have started with another business which we’ll be announcing shortly and an eCommerce business as well so I’ve got three chairman/non-exec roles outside the Tech North chair so that keeps me busy. It also keeps my foot really firmly back in the private sector.

The interesting thing about the extra funding is that some people have been concerned that they see it as the demise of Tech North, it’s actually the opposite!

Certainly from April next year it will be changing names as will Tech City, those two organisations are merging into one Tech Nation and that’s more because, quite frankly, we’ve got the Brexit headwinds on the horizon and now is the time for the country to be united and tech is one of those things that really can help the economy.

The great programmes we’ve run at Tech North like Founders Network, Northern Stars and Northern Voices have the potential to go national now so we can run them into the Midlands, Scotland, Wales so the whole country can benefit from that.

Q3: What’s been your biggest achievement?

A: I think focus has been the big thing we’ve tried to do. Because when you come in at Tech North everyone wants you to do everything but the reality is you’ve got finite resources, so many hours in the day and so many people so we really knuckled down and agreed by talking to founders that we have five things to focus on, and I think just getting that focus has enabled us to really knuckle down on impact.

Rather than shouting and saying we’ll do lots of great things we just got our head down and done them.

We’ve got more women on the speaking circuit for tech for the Northern Voices programme. I think there’s no one individual thing it’s more the focus on impact we’ve had and just getting stuff done.

There’s a lot of cynicism often of government-funded organisations that they’re come and go or an inefficient use of money and from my own experience I’ve now seen first-hand that we’ve made that money go really, really far.

Q4: You cover seven cities in the North, so obviously Manchester gets a lot of the attention. How would you describe the health of the tech sector across the North?

A: It gets a lot of the coverage, actually we spend a disproportionate amount of time outside Manchester so my team are literally spread across the whole of the North.

There’s 17 of us full time at Tech North and we have some shared resources with Tech City round finance and HR. So it is a small team in the big scheme of things spread across 14,000 square miles, so yes they’re all at different stages.

We’ve had to spend more time out of Manchester because the issues are different in different locations. The great thing about Manchester is that it’s got a real spread of everything from early-stage to late stage tech businesses whereas if you go to other locations, Leeds has a lot of big businesses, Sheffield has got a lot of start-ups, and you need to do different things in different areas.

Q5: Have you got any regrets Richard?

A: I’ll be honest, no! We’ve done a lot of stuff and probably more than I thought we’d achieve in 18 months. I think when I came onto this role I said to Herb Kim who was the chair at the time, let’s be clear this is a two to three-year gig.

I think by that point we’ll have made a difference and I’ll be moving on because, maybe I’ve got ADD I don’t know, I’ve got some kind of desire to do something different.

And the fact within 18 months we’ve got to the point where you know we’ve steered the ship in a certain direction and had lot of impact, I can’t really feel any regrets about that.

Q6: You have a private sector mentality. Was the calling just too much?

A: It was yeah, I missed the standard things that you start to hate for a while when you’re in the private sector. You start to miss the P&L pressure, the sales pipeline all those things.

It’s just that reward of being involved in businesses and helping them grow. We’ve certainly done that en masse with the Tech North initiatives but I wanted to kind of literally roll my sleeves up with some of the businesses in a few different ways, which I am doing now.

But it’s still tech, it’s still in the North and then you’ve got Tech North on the side of that.

The main thing now is that my role with the advisory board and the team at Tech North is to make sure we get it to this Tech Nation, so all the great work we’ve done in the North can scale and we take those programmes as a show that they worked amazingly well in the north, they can work for different parts of the UK so it’s a real success story.

The reality is that between Tech City and Tech North, we’ve got about 41 or 42 staff, that’s going to be in the 70s by the end of the funding cycle so this is a growth story.

This isn’t someone shutting down or contracting, actually we’re adding to the mix and hopefully benefiting the country as a result of that.