Since the announcement that Sheffield would receive £3.5m for a “Tech Hub” in the Spring 2015 budget, it’s been quite hard to find out exactly what’s been happening and what the plans are. However, I’m happy to report that Sheffield Digital was recently invited to get involved in the project and this post is to try and bring the story up to date with what we’ve learned.
“Tech Hub” or “MakerHub” – what’s it for?
We know that Sheffield lags behind other cities in our ability to create and nurture new businesses. We don’t have enough people starting up new businesses and, of the ones that are set up, too few of them go on to grow into substantial, successful companies.
However, we have masses of talent and a reputation as a place where people create, make, design, develop, and generally solve problems as well as (if not better than) anywhere else in the world. The raw materials are definitely here.
We have thriving grassroots communities of makers; makers of software and hardware, of art, design and crafts, of products and materials. We have two leading Universities, soon to be two University Technical Colleges, an Advanced Manufacturing Park and other existing or planned centres of excellence in health, sports, food technology, materials, games, robotics and more.
What’s missing is places where people can meet, work and collaborate and also participate in challenging programmes that help them test and grow their ideas quickly. This is what the Hub aims to be.
Sheffield’s project is being described as a “MakerHub” to emphasise the importance of our making heritage and the potential for new businesses that can spring from collisions between different disciplines and practises. The infrastructure and support that it provides will be available for the whole spectrum of maker / creative entrepreneurs who are using tech to scale and who might benefit from equity investment.
What will it be like?
The recent press release from Sheffield City Council described it as a facility “for entrepreneurs and small and medium sized businesses (SMEs) who rely on digital technologies and their applications”. However, the original vision is broader, describing it as a place that will provide a combination of software tech focused co-working, accelerator and incubator space plus some larger SMEs; maker and light manufacturing co-working, accelerator and incubator space; and creative led activity, events, incubation and popup delivery.
This broader vision is the one that makes the Sheffield Hub distinctive and makes this more than just another tech co-working and incubator space. It is a vision that Sheffield Digital whole-heartedly endorses.
Who will run it?
The governance is still being defined, but the likelihood is that Sheffield MakerHub will be set up as a Company Limited by Guarantee, which means that (like Sheffield Digital) it is a form of community interest company and any income it makes will go back into running the organisation. Its board is led by Deborah Egan and includes representatives of the LEP, both Universities and Sheffield City Council. The board is working with two sub-committees made up of a wider group of people. One sub-committee is concerned with property (the physical building bit), the other with ecosystem (ie what will happen in the Hub). Sheffield Digital has been invited onto the ecosystem committee.
Where will it be located?
Current plans still favour Castle House as the eventual home of the MakerHub. The original proposal to government names the building and also describes bringing it back into use as a catalyst for the regeneration of the wider Castlegate area, following the demolition of the old Markets. However, this renovation is going to take a long time.
In the meantime, the organisation is looking at opening an interim location, so that programmes and activity can get started quickly. Leeds has already done this – their interim building opens this week and they expect to be there for the next two years until their main space is ready. Currently, the preferred location for Sheffield’s interim space is the former NHS offices at 38 Carver Street.
How will the money be spent?
It’s important to note that the £3.5m from government is capital funding – it’s for renovations and fit out of the building and cannot be used to provide services. So, the board and committees are currently working on bids for operational funding and a business model that combines public sector funding with funds from other sources.
Is it just for Sheffield?
While the physical location of the MakerHub will be in Sheffield, part of the intention behind it is that it should act as a focal point for a network of activity across the city region. For example, activities and support programmes would be linked with other hubs such as the Digital Media Centre in Barnsley.
We at Sheffield Digital believe that the MakerHub and the activity it generates could be a game changer for the city and the wider region, and we are keen and happy to support it. Our aims are to try to ensure that it is as much a bottom-up initiative as a top-down one and that it enhances the communities and projects that are already active. Allied with this, we feel that it should create an identity that is true to the history, capabilities and innovative spirit of our city – one that sets it apart from other digital technology hubs around the world.
I hope that the next blog post I write about this will be to confirm an interim location for the MakerHub and that I will be able to go into more detail about how it will work, what will happen there and how it is being funded. Watch this space. . .