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Strength and depth in our digital sector

An interview with Giselle Stewart, Ubisoft

It’s no secret that NewcastleGateshead has enormous potential for tech. Between 2013 and 2017, Newcastle’s software and IT industry grew by 30.7 per cent, second only to London.

Increasingly, tech companies are choosing to base themselves here and digital entrepreneurs are scaling their businesses. This thriving industry now employs more than 30,000 people, generating £1.26bn for the local economy.

Back in January 2020, the BBC announced plans to open a technology hub in Newcastle, building on the city’s growing digital capacity.

What makes NewcastleGateshead and North East England so attractive for the tech sector, and the skilled people who work in it, is the same as for the wider business community – a high standard of living, some of Europe’s lowest property prices, access to world-class universities and a lifestyle rivalling any other major city.

But there are some tech-specific North East England selling points. We have some of the fastest broadband connections in the UK and operating costs are typically much lower than elsewhere, meaning start-ups can experiment, innovate and develop with less risk.

There are also tonnes of digital and technology businesses which have had tremendous success here, from homegrown firms like Sage Group to inward investors like Accenture and smaller players such as ZeroLight, Waterstons, Atlas Cloud and Hedgehog Lab.

A company that really embodies the growth of NewcastleGateshead’s tech sector is global gaming firm Ubisoft. Instantly recognisable, big on collaboration and an ambassador for the region, Ubisoft’s relationship with the area started when they bought games development studio Reflections in 2006.

About six years ago, the company also opened a consumer relationship centre in Newcastle, which has grown from a pilot team of 15 to more than 200 people.

The third largest games publisher and developer worldwide, Ubisoft has 18,000 staff across the world and 650 in the UK. Giselle Stewart, director of UK corporate affairs at Ubisoft, explains that 450 of the UK staff are based in Newcastle.

Giselle has been working in the games industry since 1996 and actually started at the Reflections studio. She was instrumental in getting the French company to base their consumer relationship centre here back in 2014.

She said: “We thought,’ where could we put it in Europe?’

“But we knew the UK was a hub for games development – it’s the fifth largest market worldwide.

“It came down to several sites in the UK and Newcastle won the bid. Part of that was due to confidence from already having a flourishing business here and knowing that there must be talent to recruit and good things going on in the city.”

Sarah Hinchcliffe-Smith, HR director at Ubisoft, added: “They looked at Manchester, Cardiff and Newcastle, but by far the abiding sense of Newcastle was that everyone was so warm and friendly – the stereotypical Geordie welcome.”

One of the things that put NewcastleGateshead on the map for gaming was the Sony PlayStation launch in 1995. Reflections actually developed one of the launch titles for the console – Destruction Derby.

“I remember going into the Sony store in Eldon Garden and they were all playing our game,” Giselle reflected.

“Newcastle has always been a hub – I think there were about 14 companies when I first got into gaming. What I see now is a really healthy ecosystem where we’ve got a nice balance of companies like ourselves, and smaller companies like Coatsink and Hammerhead VR.”

Another facet of the region’s digital growth is the universities, which Ubisoft has very strong relationships with. Newcastle, Teesside, Northumbria, Sunderland and Durham universities all have games-specific computer science degrees. This means there’s a strong research output to help the industry move forward and a talent pool full of the expertise that companies like Ubisoft need.

The consumer relationship centre also has a huge demand for native language skills, which the universities can help with. Responsible for Europe, Africa and the Middle East, the centre now delivers player support in 17 languages.

As an ambassador for North East England’s thriving tech sector, Ubisoft ticks a lot of boxes.

The company recruits locally, collaborates with universities and businesses to drive innovation, and opens its doors to prospective inward investors.

Ubisoft has also had senior managers relocate to NewcastleGateshead in what represents a glowing indictment of the city’s quality of living.

Sarah explains: “Our general manager relocated from Paris with his family last summer and he absolutely loves it.”

With a growing number of accelerators, university spin outs, scale-ups, investment funds and industry clusters, it’s fair to say that NewcastleGateshead and North East England’s tech journey is just beginning.

The content and photography in this editorial section were produced by North East Times.

"It came down to several sites in the UK and Newcastle won the bid. Part of that was due to confidence from already having a flourishing business here and knowing that there must be talent to recruit and good things going on in the city."
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