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Ecosystem Update Autumn 2020: Focus on – Sheffield’s Start-Up Ecosystem

The focus of this edition of the Ecosystem Update is on the support available to people who want to start their own business in the Sheffield City Region.

In 2017 there was one accelerator programme in the city region and Sheffield was lagging behind other major cities in its specialist support offering to tech and media companies. Now, we have many more incubators, co-working spaces, accelerators and tech business support services, and we’re delighted to share them with you in this section of the Ecosytem Update. We hear from those managing the spaces and programmes about how COVID-19 has impacted them and the businesses they support, and the role they see start-ups having in the city’s recovery.

Without a doubt, none of us could have imagined how different the world would be in 2020. When we published our first “Quarterly Briefing” in October 2019, we fully expected to be producing regular updates on the state of Sheffield’s digital industries. Instead, we find ourselves 12 months on, grappling with the long term impacts of a global pandemic and facing further economic uncertainty as the UK exits the European Union.

In keeping with the national picture, Sheffield’s digital industries have been less badly affected than other sectors. In fact, with the necessity to move activities online, many companies have found that demand for their services has increased. In addition, digital companies have either pivoted existing products and services or created new ones in response to the changed circumstances. We saw this adjustment mirrored in postings to the Sheffield Digital jobs board – after an initial drop as businesses took stock and adjusted, vacancies have rebounded and are now back at the levels we were seeing at the start of the year. However, anecdotal evidence from our community tells us that freelancing has become more precarious and it’s becoming harder for new entrants to the industry to find suitable entry level opportunities. The question of how our industry responds to the urgent economic need to help people, especially young people, into sustainable employment is one that we must all address.

One of the ways that the city can respond is through the support that is offered to people who want to start up their own businesses. Looking back to 2017, there was only one accelerator programme in the city region and incubation support was limited to some very generic start-up training with very little specialist help relevant to fledgling tech and media companies. As a result, Sheffield’s start-up activity lagged behind other core cities, meaning that there was no scale-up pipeline and little to attract start-ups or funders to the region.

Happily, the picture looks very different today. Since late 2018/early 2019, the region has seen a significant increase in the number of incubators, co-working spaces, accelerators and tech business support services – they are profiled in the following pages. However, while much of this activity has successfully moved online during the pandemic, programmes that depend on income from managed workspace or co-working face uncertain times. And, just as significantly, opportunities for serendipitous meeting and knowledge exchange that are so crucial to the health of start-up ecosystems the world over, have fallen off a cliff.

Sheffield Digital believes that start-ups will have a vital role to play in the recovery and future resilience of our regional economy. As this report goes to press, the TEAM SY programme has just been approved, which will further help to expand and improve the existing business support and investment ecosystem. TEAM SY stands for “Tech Ecosystem Acceleration and Market-making in South Yorkshire.” It will run for 3 years and is being funded by £3.5m from the European Regional Development Fund, £2m from Capital Enterprise and £250k from BMBC. The aim is to help digital and tech companies to explore new ideas and markets, set-up or scale-up their tech companies and create up to 200 high-value jobs in the process. The operation will be based at Sheffield Technology Parks and the DMC 01 Hub in Barnsley.

AWRC Wellbeing Accelerator

The AWRC Wellbeing Accelerator is a rolling programme running from April 2020–March 2021. It helps startups to bring health and wellbeing innovations to market via a bespoke programme of support, including research expertise, mentoring, sector expertise and specialist facilities.

Based in Sheffield Hallam University’s new Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre (AWRC), participants will have access to world-class R&D capabilities for rapid prototyping through to precision engineering. This includes laboratories for validation, product testing, support networks and a clinical research centre.

Due to COVID-19 the programme is virtual. Startups join as small monthly cohorts and dial in via Zoom for mentoring and consulting support. A total of 24 places are available for startups to join the programme. As of 15 September, 17 places had been allocated, leaving seven places available.

The AWRC, Sheffield – © Sheffield Hallam University, 2020

“The AWRC Wellbeing Accelerator programme fits really well into the Sheffield startup, incubator and accelerator scene. We provide expertise in health and wellbeing that was previously lacking in the region. The programme has already helped position Sheffield, and the city region in general, in the global marketplace for health and wellbeing innovation, investment, and startup support, despite launching during lockdown and the pandemic.

“The pandemic has encouraged us to pivot from a physically located programme to an almost wholly virtual one. This has been truly transformative and we have become the first accelerator programme to do this, pioneering best practice for the accelerator community. It has had such a dramatic effect that we intend to continue running most of the accelerator virtually once we are able to work more normally.”

Simon Butler, Head of the AWRC Wellbeing Accelerator

Barnsley Digital Media Centre (DMC) and IoT Tribe North

The Digital Media Centre (DMC) in Barnsley has hosted two IoT Tribe North accelerator programmes, with the third due to start soon. IoT Tribe North is a non-equity accelerator focused on supporting IoT startups to get to market, look at scaling and connect with corporate partners.

IoT Tribe works internationally, delivering accelerators in Singapore, Madrid and Barnsley, building connections with the global IoT ecosystem. Over the two programmes, IoT Tribe North has helped 20 startups with a programme of extensive support, expert mentoring, access to knowledge networks, missions to Singapore, and demo and pitch days in London and Barnsley.

The programme has introduced UK and international startups to the DMC and to the wider regional tech ecosystem. It has helped to drive collaboration with Rolls-Royce, University of Sheffield, University of Huddersfield, AMRC and a host of other organisations and people.

The DMC has focussed on IoT due to the significant opportunities for adopting and applying these technologies into regional industries and the public sector. The new DMC 02 building will showcase IoT technologies and the next programme will focus on ‘smart place’ IoT, hopefully encouraging a range of exciting start-ups to bring their products into the region.

“The SCR start-up ecosystem has a huge wealth of knowledge, expertise and general chutzpah. There’s great ideas emerging, excellent businesses already scaling and a strong spirit of collaboration. If we want a thriving ecosystem we need to be prepared to say that this stuff matters; entrepreneurs and their ideas matter, and we need to lead from the front, foster collaboration and invest at scale.

“The DMC and Barnsley has a role to play in this – we are a yappy Yorkshire terrier keen to help make good things happen! We want to be part of an exciting regional ecosystem and the stronger all of Sheffield City Region is, the stronger we can be. Everything we do is to get us closer to a goal of more and better jobs for all, and to give everyone access to the opportunities that tech affords.

“Covid has thrown us a curveball of unexpected proportions, not least trying to expand into a second DMC building during lockdown, but we’re seeing positive signs that innovative, knowledge led companies are bucking the trend and are creating jobs.” Tracey Johnson, Business Incubation Centres Manager, Barnsley Council

Business Sheffield Tech Scale Up Advisors

Business Sheffield’s Tech Scale-Up Advisors provide tailored support to tech businesses in Sheffield. Based on their own experience of setting up successful tech companies, the Advisors build relationships with founders of promising start-ups as well as more established tech businesses looking to scale.

Business Sheffield Tech Advisors (l-r) Glyn Heath, Morgan Killick and Chris Wheater.

They offer one-to-one support and mentoring across a full range of business challenges from validation through to investment (and beyond) and make a real-world, practical impact on businesses that are looking to grow rapidly, attract investment or create jobs in the city.

Since its inception in August 2018, 109 businesses have been supported and £4,145,000 of pre-seed stage investment has been obtained by supported companies. The total seed stage investment secured is £6,690,000 and the total Series A Stage investment that has been acquired by supported companies is £4,300,000.

Business Sheffield is also a key partner of Launchpad – an ERDF funded business support programme delivered across the Sheffield City Region. Launchpad offers a range of start-up services to ambitious entrepreneurs, including workshops, events and one to one support from business advisors and coaches. Since Launchpad began in April 2016, it has helped over 6,000 people to realise their dream of running their own successful business.

“Sheffield’s tech ecosystem has changed significantly over the last two years, testament to this are the partners sat around the (virtual) table on the Sheffield Incubation and Acceleration Group, which just didn’t exist two years ago or were in their infancy; Kollider, The Cooper Project and Twinkl Hive, to name just a few.

“We also look forward to continuing Sheffield’s relationship with Investor Ladder, a network of the most active investors in the Science and Technology Sector from across the globe, who are actively involved in building scale and investing in businesses.

“There’s lots of good “stuff” going on in Sheffield, we just need to be better at shouting about it!” Yvonne Asquith, Business Growth Manager, Business Sheffield


Launchpad is a fully funded business support programme delivered across the Sheffield City Region, that brings together a wide range of start-up services including workshops, events and one to one support from business advisors and coaches. It is a fully inclusive programme designed to help ambitious entrepreneurs set up and run successful businesses and support SME’s under three years old to take the next step and grow their business.

Since Launchpad began in April 2016 it has helped over 6,000 people to realise their dream of running their own successful business. Launchpad is fully funded by the European Regional Development Fund, local authority partners and the Prince’s Trust. Launchpad is receiving up to £2,934,330, of European Structural and Investment Funds Growth Programme 2019-2023.

Chinese-UK Business Incubator (CUBI)

The China UK Business Incubator (CUBI) is a not-for-profit social enterprise, delivered by New Era Development, Sheffield Hallam University, Sheffield City Council and Sheffield Chamber of Commerce. CUBI aims to assist local businesses to trade with China and Chinese investors. It also helps Chinese students in the UK to set up businesses in Sheffield City Region (SCR), providing incubation space to help businesses grow.

The CUBI development – © CUBI 2020

At the time of going to print, CUBI was in the process of applying for ERDF funding for a new start-up and early stage business support programme, a sector-focused SCR-China export programme, and a sector-focused China inward investment programme.

The China UK Business Support programme (CUBS) will support and enhance development of SCR SMEs through assisting the creation of new firms, developing a culture of entrepreneurship and marrying together collaborative partners from the public, private and education sectors within the region. Resource, knowledge, and network synergies will be brought together in a modern managed business facility within the Chinese investment project ‘New Era Square’ in Sheffield.

“CUBI is here to create a physical focal point for businesses and entrepreneurs who need to access specialist support and intelligence for doing business with China, and for Chinese nationals who would benefit from support from their native culture to help start-up and/or successfully integrate their business in the UK. The vision is to build a strong community in a physical space, where all the knowledge, experience and inspiration converge to become a strong force linking SCR and China.

“Facing the prospects of the biggest recession in UK history caused by Covid-19, on top of the hard Brexit that is getting closer and closer to become a reality, CUBI can present an opportunity to help SCR to connect with not only the biggest supplier, but also the biggest spender of the world – China.” Jerry Cheung, Managing Director of New Era Development.

Kollider Eagle Lab

Kollider Eagle Lab is for innovative founders with the vision and drive to transform a good idea into a great business. It supports all tech and digital businesses to innovate, scale and grow. Members have access to co-working space or a private office, in a state-of-the-art workspace which has been designed to aid productivity and encourage social collaboration between entrepreneurs.

Kollider Eagle Lab offers start-ups and scaleups a package of tailored incubation support, including one-to-one mentoring, workshops and seminars, along with funding readiness programmes. Kollider Eagle Lab has put additional resources and services into supporting businesses in both Games Development and Law Tech after seeing recent growth in these particular sectors.

“Since opening in 2019, we’ve seen momentum building within the digital and tech sectors, with cohorts of ambitious businesses starting up and basing themselves at Kollider.

“Naturally, the last six months have been difficult for many early stage and small businesses, but what we’ve actually seen is how resilient and innovative the entrepreneurs within our ecosystem are. It’s been clearly demonstrated by founders who have pivoted their businesses or started entirely new operations – allowing them to not only overcome financial challenges, but more impressively stepping up to develop new solutions to tackle the challenges COVID-19 has presented.

“We’re aware that people are seeking human connection, which is why we’re back open and providing a space where people can safely connect with their community. We’ve worked extremely hard to manage our physical office space – monitoring occupancy levels, implementing safety processes and putting social distancing measures in place.

“Ramping up our online support services has also been a key decision to keep our community engaged, allowing people to connect virtually if they’re more comfortable doing so.” Katie Taylor, General Manager

ScaleUp 360

ScaleUp 360 is an exciting programme providing tailored support to entrepreneurs, start-ups and investment ready businesses based in the Sheffield City Region (SCR), with the ambition and potential to scale up their business.

Delivering remote training for the ScaleUp 360 programme – © ScaleUp 360 2020

All support is fully funded and includes one-to-one specialist business advice, mentor support, workshops and access to investment opportunities. Clients are also offered work space within the dedicated business incubation space (The Hallam i-Lab).

The programme is delivered by an expert partnership led by Sheffield Hallam University, with The Business Village @BarnsleyBIC, Doncaster Chamber of Commerce and East Midlands Chamber of Commerce.

ScaleUp 360 also works with colleges across the region to inspire young people to develop their enterprising skills and nurture their entrepreneurial aspirations.

ScaleUp 360 is part-financed by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) as part of the European Structural and Investment Funds Growth Programme 2014-2020.

“There is a wealth of business advice and support to help both potential entrepreneurs and established businesses in the region. Scale Up 360 is here supporting the Sheffield City Region SMEs to manage the challenges of COVID-19 and emerge stronger together. We can support companies that are looking to regroup, rebuild and recover from the impact of the Coronavirus lockdown and its longer-term effect and provide the guidance needed to new entrepreneurs with scalable business ideas.

“We saw the challenge that the hospitality industry was facing and, working with experienced industry academics and experts, rapidly delivered a tailored series of online workshops to support this important area of the SCR economy. We have also provided scale up support to those businesses that have been able to capitalise on opportunities such as the growth in online sales.” Andrew Finney, Project Manager ScaleUp 360.

The Hallam i-Lab

The Hallam i-Lab is a dynamic co-working business incubation space located on the top floor of Aspect Court (on Pond Hill). It offers panoramic views of the Sheffield City skyline and is a great space for networking and collaboration opportunities. All students and graduates who engage with the Enterprise Team’s programme of business support and/or enterprise related activities will have access to the Hallam i-Lab’s facilities.

“Sheffield has a really vibrant start-up scene and we are proud to support over 200 users here at The Hallam i-Lab.

“The pandemic has created challenges in the way we work and our Enterprise Team has had to adapt to provide a relevant and specific package of support that can help our tenants manage the challenges inflicted on the entrepreneurial community by COVID-19. This includes the weekly “Virtually Together” digital meet-ups and moving our one-to-one business support and workshops online.

“The pandemic continues to present new challenges which we will respond to as and when they arise. The Hallam i-Lab is not just a physical space, but home to a community of entrepreneurs that we will continue to support as our working environments change.” Darren Chouings, Business Incubation Manager

Sheffield Technology Parks – Cooper Project

Sheffield Technology Park’s (STP) incubation programme, Cooper Project, is a six-month free residency in the Cooper Lounge open to pre-start, pre-revenue, pre-investment start-ups operating in tech and digital sectors. During the six months, participants have access to Startup Business Advisors, Growth Advisors, and Entrepreneurs-in-Residence who can offer business advice on a range of specialist subjects to help progress ideas.

The Cooper Lounge co-working space – © Sheffield Tech Parks 2020

It is a great opportunity to test an idea and develop it into a viable business or develop an early-stage business in readiness for expansion. Participants are also part of the tech startup community with like-minded people on a similar business journey.

STP is a registered non-profit organisation, enabling it to reinvest profits into entrepreneurship programmes. Key measures of success are business creation, job creation and graduation from the Technology Park Incubation Campus.

“We aim to provide our members with all necessary start-up knowledge and tools to get their idea off the ground.

“We know how hard it is to start up and run a business during the COVID-19 situation. We are working closely with existing start-ups to help them mobilise, stabilise, pivot, and continue to grow. Also, we are always here to welcome and help anyone who has a new tech business idea and wants to develop it into a viable business.” Rose Tran, Project Coordinator, Sheffield Technology Parks


Startupscale is a two-year business experiment, based in Sheffield, designed to help accelerate the development of new technology companies.

Twelve innovative startups from across the North of England joined the project in January this year, gaining access to training and mentoring from experienced technology entrepreneurs and industry experts. Their stories are being documented through an online TV and podcast series.

Startup Scale participants in the board room at Kollider – © Roaring Mouse PR 2020

Startupscale was created by Roaring Mouse Public Relations, a specialist public relations and marketing services agency serving early-stage businesses and challenger brands in the digital, technology and telecommunications sectors.

Roaring Mouse has extensive experience working with B2B-focused technology companies at every stage in the business journey, from seed-stage through to acquisition, IPO, and beyond.

“We work with startups from around the world, and some of the most interesting and exciting can be found right here on our doorstep.

“Sheffield is a hotbed of digital ideas and technology talent with global potential, particularly in areas such as fintech, cleantech and AI. We are here to help the leaders of those companies build strong, sustainable businesses and get the recognition they deserve.” James Taylor, managing director of Roaring Mouse Public Relations.

The Startup Summer

The Startup Summer, a Higher Education event for students and graduates, ran online in 2020 over 11 days, from Wednesday 24 June to Wednesday 8 July.

Through workshops and activities, more than 30 students from across the University of Sheffield, and around the world, discovered their ‘Startup Why’, identified a problem to solve, explored design thinking with IBM, identified Artificial Intelligence opportunities for startups, met with mentors, built non technical MVPs, pitched their startup ideas, chose to ‘pivot or persevere’, produced technical prototypes, accessed industry expertise from Barclay Eagle Labs, Kollider (and more), created a technical MVP and finally, pitched to a Funders Panel.

There have been excellent innovation proposals within Climate Change, Covid 19, student mental well being, education and job seeking.

MVPs were produced that gained real response from potential users within the 11 days of the event, also building on IBM Watson AI, chat bots, browser plugins, mobile apps, nodeRED, web scraping and more.

This was a really useful experience for all involved and the programme is looking forward to next year when it will continue online and also hopefully have physical teams as well.

“Sheffield Startup Summer, supported by the Institute of Coding, Barclays Eagle labs and Kollider, offers students and recent graduates the opportunity to experience the early stages of creating a start-up while learning and applying Lean Start-up techniques. Some of the participants were also successful in being funded over the summer to further develop their start-up through a University of Sheffield Enterprise Summer Grant. Twinkl Hive is also offering opportunities for students, and others, to further develop their Startups.

“In 2019, the Sheffield Startup Summer ran successfully in the Kollider incubator space, so when lockdown started, we decided to pivot and run the event online. The loss of physical interaction was unfortunate; however, being online, many attendees have been able to engage without needing to be in Sheffield, or even in the UK.” Andrew Stratton, Senior University Teacher, University of Sheffield


TwinklHive is an accelerator based in the offices of Sheffield-based global EdTech company Twinkl, an educational publisher with over 8 million customers and 700 team members. Established in 2019 as an extension of Twinkl’s mission to help those who teach, the accelerator invests in and supports the growth of innovative and disruptive start-ups which help people to teach or to learn.

The programme also supports entrepreneurs outside of the EdTech sector by helping missional start-ups from other sectors to make a difference. To do this, TwinklHive provides seed funding, residency, mentorship and access to services from Twinkl’s internal departments. The team is passionate about building a community of sustainable start-ups and motivated entrepreneurs who want to create positive change.

Inside the Twinkl Hive accelerator – © Twinkl 2020

“There’s loads of opportunity within the region’s start-up ecosystem, with support available for all entrepreneurs regardless of how far along they are in their journey. Support in Sheffield seems only to have increased during the coronavirus period, although we recognise that there are still ongoing issues for entrepreneurs in the region as fewer investors are willing to take the leap. We have combatted this by continuing to have our accelerator’s applications open and making active investments during this period.” Amber Jardine, Hive Manager, Twinkl.

This article was published as part of the 2020 Ecosystem Update. For the rest of this publication, and others in the series please visit the Sheffield Digital Ecosystem Update page.