Oldham ideally placed to become Shoreditch of the North
A key figure in UK tech is hoping to create a Shoreditch-style community in the Greater Manchester town of Oldham.
Gary Stewart is director of Wayra UK, which runs several innovation incubators around Europe and is part of the Telefónica Open Future_ network. It will run Wayra Fair By Design, an accelerator based on Oldham’s high street which opened recently.
The programme will support up to seven start-ups a year which aim to tackle the ‘poverty premium’ – where poor people pay more for many everyday goods and services such as energy, insurance, borrowing, transport and food than those who can more easily afford them.
“I only found out about the effect austerity was having on some of these communities by doing initiatives such as this,” he told BusinessCloud in an interview before the opening.
“I came up to Oldham and met with [Labour MP for Oldham West and Royton] Jim McMahon, when we was still head of the council, and explained our vision to them – that was how Open Future_North started.
“Jim’s message was: we can’t provide social services, education is going down and we need to create something that is going to inspire people in Oldham.
“We’ve said from the beginning that this could be a hub for Greater Manchester, not just Oldham. But almost in a Shoreditch kind of way – meaning there’s a neighbourhood that close by that could use some regeneration.”
American Stewart is a former lawyer who has been based in Europe since 2000. He co-founded property search engine Nuroa.es, a Barcelona start-up that raised over €4 million in funding before being sold to an Australian competitor, and is also an associate professor and the entrepreneur-in-residence at IE Business School in Madrid.
After leading Wayra’s Spanish operation for telecommunications firm Telefónica, he set up similar accelerators in London, Cheltenham and Birmingham – currently supporting more than 25 companies – before turning his attention to Oldham.
“Not being from the UK was good in some ways because I didn’t come over with any biases,” he said.
“In Oldham the entrepreneurs can be better in many ways: more innate, more talented than some of the ones you’ve seen in London.
“But it’s about being fluent in the language that everyone else in the ecosystem speaks. They just don’t know how the game is played – they’ve never been taught the rules.
“When the Duke of York was here he told us that Oldham is the poorest town in the UK. That’s not the reason we came here initially, but it’s about giving people the opportunity to tackle the issues in an area where it’s relevant – and at the same time leveraging national partners. We have a lot of relations with other corporates and they’re interested in Manchester because they have a presence there. That’s the formula we’ll be looking for.
“When we won this bid, we realised Oldham would be the ideal place to do it.”
Stewart is aware that the regeneration of areas such as Shoreditch does not suit everyone and will bear that in mind for the new Greater Manchester initiative.
“It depends on the local council: do they prefer to have people come in from outside and regenerate?” he explained. “Look at Shoreditch: it has its pros and its cons. All of a sudden rents go up, it becomes cool, coffee costs £4.
“If I were from Shoreditch, would I be comfortable that the costs had become equivalent to South Kensington? If I sold a flat and leveraged it that way, that would be cool; but otherwise I might feel like I’ve become an alien in my own community.
“So one of the questions we have for councils is: what do you actually want? Do you just want the money and talent to come in, or do you want the talent to be homegrown and develop that way?
“Those are two different models. You probably want a little bit of both – the local community might not see benefits in the short term and so you need certain catalysts that are coming in from outside.”
Wayra Fair by Design start-ups will receive approximately £70,000 in cash and services, including support from investors, mentors and coaches, plus opportunities to work with Telefónica and its partners.
They will be funded and supported by the Fair By Design Fund, a partnership between Big Society Capital, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Finance Birmingham and Ascension Ventures.