UK’s fintech sector hots up – and not just in London

Brid-Aine Parnell

Monday 7 March 2016

Beyond the capital, northern tech clusters are starting to make their own mark on the fintech startup scene.

London has long been one of the financial centres of the world, so it comes as no surprise that fintech has a strong presence in the city. But the capital isn’t the only place where the UK’s burgeoning fintech ecosystem is taking root.

While well-known startups like TransferWise and Funding Circle are hitting, or surpassing, the magical $1 billion valuation mark, in other parts of the country, new ideas are also scoring important funding.

Northern lights

Crowdcube, an equity crowdfunding platform that lets businesses sell shares online, was founded at the University of Exeter in 2011. Leeds is home to internet bank First Direct. Manchester, meanwhile, has data analytics firm Hello Soda, which works for the lending and insurance sectors. And, of course, Edinburgh ­– another traditional financial hub – plays host to FreeAgent, the accounting software firm.

There are some simple reasons why London holds onto its seat as a centre of finance, but a number of them apply to the rest of the country as well. The time zone, which allows folks to reach business hours in both the Americas and Asia on the same working day, is the same across the country; as is the regulatory environment.

Similarly, the top requirement for a thriving startup scene is readily available talent – preferably supplied by top universities – and that’s something the UK has in spades. What with its four universities, Manchester has the largest student population in Europe. The University of Edinburgh, meanwhile, is consistently ranked high in league tables. At the same time, Oxford and Cambridge have spawned their own technology innovation hubs – albeit ones more focused on education, healthcare and biotech than financial services.

Pockets of excellence in tech

London is still streets ahead in fintech right now, whether you’re counting the number of startups, size, global ambitions or funding. But the government is keen to divvy out the spoils of the knowledge economy up north too.

The new agency Tech North was set up by the government in 2014 to “bring the pockets of excellence in tech industries from across the North together to form an internationally renowned virtual hub”. While we’re perhaps still a long way from that goal, moves have been made to further encourage innovation in the northern cities, including in fintech.

Late last year, fintech not-for-profit organisation Innovate Finance hosted an event in Manchester supported by Tech UK and special envoy for fintech, Eileen Burbidge. The organisation hopes to link Manchester, Leeds and Edinburgh to the fintech scene in London, building on each technology cluster.

London may be stealing the headlines right now, but with the right encouragement, fintech could become a strong sector across the whole country.

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