Long known as the ‘financial capital of the North’, Leeds is the UK’s third largest and economically one of its fastest growing cities.
Even in the face of economic crisis, by early autumn 2022, venture capitalist investments into Leeds tech start-up and scale-up businesses had already increased by 88 per cent on 2021 figures.
As well as having industrial strengths in engineering, financial and legal services, Leeds is a global centre of expertise for data analytics and digital health technologies. As such, it is one of the UK’s leading innovation hubs.
With 35 per cent of the city’s working population educated to degree level, six universities and one of Europe’s largest further education colleges, its talent pool is rich and its academic strengths are world-leading.
Add to all of that it being ranked best UK city for quality of life and one of Europe’s top travel destinations. Then it’s easy to see why Leeds is increasingly a first choice destination for businesses – from individual entrepreneurs to large corporates.
But how is Leeds building on all of this to stay at the forefront of innovation and economic growth?
Innovation which solves societal challenges
Since being part of a select Leeds City Region team on a prestigious, two-year Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) programme in 2018, city leaders have galvanised their plans on how to really accelerate entrepreneurship.
“We want innovators and entrepreneurs here who will help solve the biggest challenges of our time,” explains Eve Roodhouse, Chief Officer, Culture and Economy at Leeds City Council.
“Leeds can weather the storm of recession because it has a broad based economy, as it did in 2008,” says Eve. “But we can’t be complacent.
“Leeds is amazing. Its leaders work in close partnership, its business sector is very strong and we have a shared strategic focus in our city ambition. That shared ambition is what really makes Leeds stand out and what investors say they find most appealing.
“Leaders on the MIT programme hadn’t before worked with a city which had an obsession on innovation with a societal purpose. And although the pandemic brought that into sharp focus for many cities around the world, in Leeds’, we’d already shaped our approach in that respect.”
“On healthtech, for example, we have a collective vision to work with businesses that – through their products and services – will help change people’s lives for the better in Leeds and beyond.”
Welcome to the arc
Innovation is at the heart of Leeds’ ambition for inclusive growth. And the emerging innovation arc is the locus and engine driving it.
Set across 150 hectares of the city centre, it will stitch together some of the most significant innovation assets in the North of England to become a driving force for innovation and emerging digital technologies.
The Leeds Innovation Partnership, comprising anchor institutions including the University of Leeds, Leeds Beckett University, Leeds City Council and Leeds Teaching Hospitals Trust – one of the largest in Europe, is driving the innovation arc development.
It includes building more than 3,000 new homes in and around the arc, developing a huge area to create new urban, public spaces as well as two new city parks providing four hectares of new, green space.
World-leading innovation village
At the centre of the innovation arc, Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, plans to build two new hospitals in Leeds, in what would be one of the most important developments in the city for a generation. It will transform healthcare in the region as well as be the catalyst for a new innovation village, creating a world-class hub for research, innovation and technology in health and life sciences.
“This is a massive part of our story, which is entering a very exciting new chapter,” explains Eve.
The innovation village already includes:
the hospital’s award-winning Innovation Pop-Up, a dynamic new approach with industry to accelerate the innovation, adoption and spread of health technologies within the hospital setting the University of Leeds’ innovation hub Nexus – a vibrant, collaborative community for innovators and entrepreneurs, connecting academia with industry, and the new Centre for Healthtech Innovation – a joint research initiative between the University of Leeds and Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust to accelerate the development and adoption of new health technologies.
Build it and they will come
The City Council’s role in all of this is what Eve describes as place-making.
By demonstrating that the City’s public sector organisations are working together to support and prioritise innovation, it helps bring together knowledge and expertise in one space.
“We leverage public and private sector investment into that space, which then attracts innovators and entrepreneurs to join us on our journey. Businesses respond and get involved if they know and understand what the City needs, and that’s what’s happening with the innovation arc. In turn, private sector investors can have confidence that people will use their buildings.
“Our demographic and our economy both mirror those of the UK. So we are an ideal place for innovation, to start small, trial things and then scale fast. And, being the third largest city, we are big enough to get scale yet small enough to get things done.
“We want our entrepreneurial community to be the most diverse in the world,” says Eve. “To include people of all ethnicities, from across our communities and from all kinds of backgrounds. That’s when we’ll really see the kind of innovation that will fulfil our inclusive growth ambition.
“Many Leeds businesses grow from start-up to scale-up and become so successful that they have an impact nationally and internationally. I’d love to see this trend explode.”