Stuart Brocklehurst is chief executive of Applegate Marketplace, a Barnstaple-based artificial intelligence-powered procurement platform that connects commercial buyers with providers of goods and services. He sits on the board of the Heart of the South West Local Enterprise Partnership, where he also chairs the Innovation Board.
Stuart spoke to SWTD about running a tech business during the pandemic, the opportunities for the South West as lockdown is lifted and how the tech ecosystem can make the most of them.
How has the pandemic changed attitudes to technology?
Like many tech businesses, what we’ve found is that people not being able to do things physically promotes a need for virtual alternatives. Where buyers might have previously found suppliers at trade shows or by meeting a traveling salesman, they have now had to find alternatives. It’s nudged people out of ingrained habits and encouraged them to try forms of technology that they had been wary of previously.
Is this a permanent shift?
I think it will be to a degree. If you look at shopping online over the last year, you see the numbers go through the roof during a lockdown and drop back when a lockdown ends, but not to anywhere near to the previous level. Will physical meetings still take place? Of course they will. Will a great many meetings that used to take place in person now be virtual? Yes, definitely. Habits are changing. It’s difficult to talk about any positives out of the pandemic, but one might be it has accelerated adoption of new technology.
How have you found running Applegate during the pandemic?
For any tech business, you are your people. Sometimes people get overly excited by the efficiency of remote working and it can be forgotten that the experience varies. Like many businesses across the South West, we’ve had a strong focus on wellbeing, which has been very effective and worthwhile.
What are the South West's tech strengths?
The Heart of the South West LEP has just taken part in the Regional Entrepreneurship Acceleration Programme (REAP), developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), so I’ve looked at this in some detail. There is certainly a job to be done to correct perceptions of the South West, the cream tea image that nudges out the reality. But look closer and the results are remarkable.
We are one of two leading areas worldwide for marine and environmental intelligence. The Wide Area Network reporting of the Met Office [in Exeter] for aviation is one of only two authorities doing that globally. The UK Hydrographic Office [in Taunton] provides data carried on 90% of shipping worldwide. The Plymouth Marine Laboratory is one of the leading global institutions in its field. We have in the South West an area in which we are genuinely world-leading and it’s an area of increasing importance. It’s criminal really how that has been overlooked to date.
What will the South West look like as lockdown is lifted?
Most businesses are not intending to return to fully physical working. Offices are not going to disappear, but nor are people going to be chained to their desks five days a week anymore. The argument for having people into a wildly expensive location in somewhere like London are that you need to meet up in person. Now you can have a Zoom meeting. That raises the question: Why are you wasting money you could be spending on developing products and supporting your business on a fancy office in the middle of London that could sit empty half the time? There is a huge opportunity for the South West.
How do we seize the opportunity?
It’s about getting the stories out about our success, about what we can and do achieve down here. We need to share with people what is possible: You can move to the South West, enjoy all the benefits and have a successful business. It’s awareness and providing stronger and better support. If we get those two things running, then we are potentially off to the races.
How do you asses the tech ecosystem in the South West?
The pandemic has helped the brilliant businesses that are spread around the South West discover each other. All the gatherings have gone virtual and it means people from across the region who had previously not met, and probably would never have met, has allowed tech entrepreneurs to connect and learn from each other. We connect, we share ideas and support each other. That is here to stay. It’s an aspect of the pandemic that has propelled us forward.