Brighton is a city of independent thinkers, vegan cafes …. and increasingly, tech startups.
It has a share of immersive companies that’s four times bigger than the UK average, according to an Immerse UK report.
This year, Lloyds Bank named it the country’s startup capital, representing the highest proportion of creative SMBs relative to the size of the sector.
But how does it compare to the rest of the UK? And how can it make up ground with the golden triangle’s startups that receive heavy backing from their respective universities — not to mention Silicon Valley?
Computer Business Review spoke to a couple of the city’s digital startups to learn more about what Brighton can offer to prospective startups that places like London and San Fran can’t.
Last month, Brighton was one of six cities in the UK chosen to host 5G testbeds, allowing SMBs in the area to test the next-gen network ahead of its rollout in 2020.
The testbed is being hosted by The FuseBox — an R&D development hub for startups, owned by digital agency Wired Sussex.
One of the startups taking residency at The FuseBox is VR Craftworks, developer of VR software for a range of businesses, including marketing agencies, training simulators, and data visualisation.
The father and son team behind VR Craftworks, Peter and Jack Maddalena, were originally part of the same online VR community as Palmer Luckey. The two built optics for headsets that we were working on for flight and military training simulations.
While Luckey later went on to form a Kickstarter campaign for his Oculus Rift headset and sold his business to Facebook, Peter and Jack went down the software route. Among the apps they developed was Orbulus, which was picked up by Google Cardboard in 2013.
The Maddalenas went on to found VR Craftworks in 2014 and the immersive agency, as it calls itself, now makes VR, AR, MR and 360-degree content for organisations globally, such as training simulators, data visualisation, and marketing.
“We’re actually using devices that people already own in their pockets, devices they don’t have to spend another £300 on, so we can really create some really interesting things for organisations,” Jack told Computer Business Review.
“We understand what the pain points are for the commercial side, so what organisations want and what the actual consumers want. We were in a very unique position to make our own software, to actually solve some of these problems.”
Jack was born and bred in Brighton; his father and managing director of VR Craftworks, moved to the city for university in the early 1980s. Upon finishing his course he moved up to London for work but came back down because he liked Brighton too much.
The younger Maddalena said the town has always been “very accepting”, not just in a social and political sense, but how it fosters and reacts to new ideas.
“London’s only a short trip away and they go up to get investment there, but as a base for being creative and pushing the boundaries as much as possible, Brighton’s a great place to be able to do that.
“Brighton’s very accepting…new ideas, new ways to be…we’ve always had that relaxed feel to it that allows people to explore, allows people to new interesting ways … It’s rooted into the culture and how Brighton operates.
As for the future of Brighton, Jack thinks “we’re seeing the right steps” towards it becoming a major global tech hub.
“It’s a bit of a stretch for sort of the funding and the culture of what you have in Silicon Valley. The thing that’s lacking is a little bit more commercialism to it. Most people like to do the creative side of stuff but don’t have the commercial all round it yet. That’s lacking as well as the funding.
“However, we do have the right people in place here; we do have the right people who are trying to push the boundaries of what’s possible and how to create businesses.”
Digital design agency Clearleft is located about 300 metres from the seafront in the centre of Brighton. Since being established by a three-man team back in 2005, the UK startup has provided its product and service designs to clients including Virgin Holidays, Penguin Books, and The Open University.
Richard Rutter, co-founder and managing director of the company, told Computer Business Review that even though they’ve been going for 13 years, Clearleft still thinks of itself as a startup based on its mentality.
Before the company was formed, Rutter had been commuting to London from Brighton for years and wasn’t getting enough out of living in Brighton. Therefore, “one way to get a job in Brighton was to create one”.
“When we started in 2005 it was just three of us. We didn’t get any investment at all, we didn’t borrow any money, we just completely bootstrapped, we pretty much only needed a computer each anyway to be able to start out, and we literally started out of our bedrooms and going to cafes.
“Now we’re up to nearly 30 people, we have our own building, going from strength to strength really.”
Back in 2005, Brighton had a reputation as an artistic centre, with digital agencies increasingly cropping up on the scene. This was following one of the first big digital agencies in Brighton, Victoria Real, making news when it was bought out by Endemol.
This was an early example of creative work happening in Brighton, particularly in digital, but there’s always been a big artistic sector in the city as well, Rutter said – as well as being named the world’s most hipster hotspot.
“I think it was a couple of years ago that the creative sector finally overtook tourism as the biggest sector within the city, which was quite exciting to hear. It’s just grown since then.
“There was always something [in Brighton] that gave us the confidence to start the company, gave us the confidence that we would be able to find people to work with us as well, which is always a challenge if you’re going to start up somewhere outside of London, whether you can get those people there.
“Fortunately Brighton’s a relatively easy sell.”
“Smaller Companies With Big Ideas”
Even though there are examples of strongly backed companies that started out in Brighton, such as Brandwatch and financial software provider Crunch, Rutter thinks Brighton is generally a good starting point for a UK startup.
“The big stuff you might actually have to move [out of Brighton] to do that. But as a way to get started and get your idea off the ground, you probably have got a good starting point down here.
“It feels much more small scale, start out with the idea, get going, and then whether you can maintain it here is another question.”
Rutter said that due to the physical restrictions of a small city like Brighton – with the sea on one side and the South Downs on the other — startups with big expansion plans might eventually find themselves limited by the space available to them.
Clearleft is still operating on an WiMAX connection, partly due to limitations of conservation areas and assisted buildings, and in Brighton there’s a lot of reliance on shared spaces — examples of which include Spaces, Platf9rm, and The Skiff.
Rutter “wouldn’t be surprised” if Brighton invested in a new designated physical space for startups in the future, possibly in collaboration with the university.
The Clearleft founder thinks that Brighton differs to somewhere like San Francisco or the Shoreditch part of London not just in its access to funds, but the approach and mentality – as he put it, “smaller companies with big ideas”.
Its relaxed lifestyle and coastal setting could also be seen as a differentiator for a UK startup compared to the rest of the country.
“I think in this country we have a slightly different mentality to the very capitalistic Silicon Valley approach to startups. When you think about the San Francisco startups they’re working for shares 60 hours a week and ‘fingers crossed that the whole thing goes to IPO’.
“We’re not that kind of agency; we’re much more actually family focused, family friendly when it comes to the working environment, but also a very creative and flexible working environment, certainly very prevalent in startup land.”