In this series we ask key figures in the region and from our core sectors to share their insights.
We spoke to Julian Wells, strategy consultant with Whitecap and a member of the Nexus External Advisory Board, about what he sees as the major opportunities and challenges for our region.
How would you describe the current economic outlook for Leeds and the wider city region?
I’m very much a glass half full person, but there’s no hiding that it’s a challenging time at the moment, with many businesses telling us that things are moving much more slowly than they would like. They’re facing cutbacks, postponements of new initiatives and a slowdown in the labour market. We’re always at a point in a cycle though, and the outlook appears to be becoming more positive based on some recent economic indicators.
The current situation is not unique to this region, of course – Leeds is our head office, but we also have offices in five other regional cities across the country and the story is similar across these locations. What we do see in Leeds however, is an underlying positive narrative: a real focus on innovation and support for growth of the economy across multiple sectors.
Leeds City Centre is also expanding, with exciting developments such as the extensive redevelopment of the southern half of the city, the creation of the Innovation Arc, and numerous initiatives to support the digital sector and entrepreneurs, including the highly successful Innovation@Leeds programme led by Leeds City Council. All of this will have a positive impact on the local economy for many years to come.
How important is the financial technology sector to that growth?
FinTech is a sector where Leeds can be rightly proud of its reputation for leading innovation and playing a major part in the national surge in tech-enabled growth. It’s also a major area of focus for us at Whitecap, and a sector that we have analysed extensively in Leeds and across many other regions of the UK.
We have a really strong heritage in financial services here, as well as an exceptional digital sector, so the region is a natural fit for the creation of new companies and the development of new initiatives from larger organisations. The fact that organisations such as the FCA, Bank of England and UK Infrastructure Bank have chosen Leeds as a regional base is a great endorsement.
The region’s universities play a fundamental role: bringing more people with FinTech-related skills into the workforce and engaging with businesses to support their development. We are also boosted by a disproportionately high number of successful tech consultancies, many of which have grown on the back of the health and financial services sectors in the region.
Tell us about your work with FinTech North and LegalTech in Leeds, and the ambitions for our region?
In addition to my role at Whitecap, I am a director of FinTech North, which is a separate entity that we helped create in 2016. FinTech North convenes the northern FinTech community, primarily via events, and particularly aims to support start-ups and scale-ups, helping them to showcase their innovations and gain market traction. These firms are critical to the development of the sector, and they need funding, talent and access to market in order to succeed.
We encourage FinTech entrepreneurs to tell their story at the events, which is a skill that is critically important when they are pitching to investors. Telling a consistent and compelling story is important, but the problem with innovators is that they keep on innovating! They are full of brilliant ideas and new solutions and want to talk about them. Investors need to know what the business plan is for a specific investment and when they will see a return, which is why entrepreneurs need support and mentors.
Since January 2022 we have also been building a LegalTech community in the region, linked to some exciting national developments such as the development of LawtechUK. With our region’s heritage and strength in legal services and the thriving digital sector, there is a great opportunity to replicate the success the region has enjoyed in FinTech. We’re delighted that law firms, tech firms and universities are prominently demonstrating their support and participating in an ongoing programme of seminars, workshops and events, including a major conference and a hackathon.
There is untapped potential across the established financial and legal sectors, with both facing digital transformation challenges and looking for new solutions. FinTech and LegalTech specialists can combine with academics and be ideally placed to provide exactly that, working together to help drive research and innovation that can address key industry and societal challenges. Joined up they can create meaningful momentum to drive digital adoption, grow these sectors, and boost the regional economy.
What value do communities such as Nexus add?
I’m a big believer that bringing people together creates relationships, and relationships create opportunities, which can subsequently create value. If you put innovative and ambitious people with common interests in the same room, there is a high chance you will create something valuable. Nexus creates that environment in the innovation space, enabling businesses, entrepreneurs, academics and research specialists to meet, get to know each other and work together – generating more innovation and a disproportionate amount of value.
I’m currently studying for a DBA (essentially a business focused PhD), and one area of interest in my research is innovation clusters. There is a considerable amount of data around the value of clusters in catalysing better and higher impact innovation, with cities such as Leeds acting as a magnet for talented people, forward-thinking businesses and discerning investors. Nexus is a fundamental part of that cluster in this region and benefits from being a focal point as part of a wider concentration of skills and expertise here.
How do we ensure that tech-enabled growth in financial and legal services is inclusive?
This was the reason FinTech North launched ‘FinTech Challenge Leeds’ this year, an initiative which was created with support from Innovation@Leeds and has seen incredible support from both established and start-up businesses. Designed to address key sector and societal issues, it invited Leeds-based financial institutions to “own” a specific challenge and FinTech start-ups and scale-ups to offer solutions, with the aim of connecting these organisations in an immersive and collaborative way that goes deeper than is possible at events and seminars.
The challenges are based around issues including: home ownership; financial inclusion; equality, diversity and bias; and green finance (a challenge category led by Nexus). There are some truly brilliant ideas and innovative solutions to those challenges, all aimed at moving the FinTech sector forward, while also being specifically focused on increasing the opportunities available to under-represented founders and FinTech leaders. It’s a great initiative and hopefully something that will evolve and grow in the future.
Explore more insights from our ‘the view from here’ series: