A note from Nick Sturge, Engine Shed Director: 1st mile. 2nd mile. 3rd mile.

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I have talked a lot over the last few months, in this column and to friends, colleagues, and collaborators, about what we have achieved collectively over the first five years of Engine Shed. A project, place, and movement that is built on the experience achieved in the previous eight years I’ve been involved with the SETsquared Bristol incubator, and the global recognition that both SETsquared and Engine Shed have achieved. Why? Because it has been impactful. Can you remember the time before Engine Shed existed? A bit like the Internet, we never knew how much we needed it until it was here.

The Bristol and Bath economy has changed significantly over that time, with a plethora fantastic, world-class, and globally relevant businesses on exciting growth paths, such as Graphcore, Xmos, Ziylo, Ultrahaptics, Reach Robotics, and OpenBionics, and a vibrant business ecosystem which, I believe, is in a better position now to support inclusive growth – by this I mean an economy that both benefits and involves everyone in the city region.

There is still, however, so much more to do as our economy is not yet inclusive. It’s better, but the gap is not yet closing. We have put many things in place – through our work with young people, the investment community, the property sector, the economic ‘actors’ in the region, the policy makers and educators – which will help move our economy forward, inclusively.

It has taken a lot of hard work, passion, and emotion to get to where we are with Engine Shed, and that would not have been at all possible without the dedication, commitment, and insights of firstly my colleagues, but also of our partners, supporters, and stakeholders. Together, we have delivered positive change in enhancing our city economy.

In many respects, the Engine Shed project has been a startup itself. Created out of both need and opportunity, then finding its role as a commercially viable business with a purpose. I am very proud of that.

As I come up for air, after six years of frantic paddling launching Engine Shed, I see a very different place. A city region more confident about itself, with more and deeper strengths but also with significant growing pains.

So, what does the next six years hold? We have our work cut out, collectively. They will require us to understand what the region needs and for Engine Shed to work out what role we should play, and then delivering on that. We’ve moved from startup phase to scaleup.

One of the things I have learned in working, to a greater or lesser degree, with what must be about 600 technology entrepreneurs since 2014, and in my own startup prior to that, was that you need different skills for different phases, or chapters, of an organisation’s life. We encourage startup entrepreneurs to believe that it’s a not a failure to hand over the reins of their business when it needs the next set of skills – for the 2nd mile. And then, as likely, the 3rd mile will need a new set of skills.

Some people can develop the necessary skills needed for scaleup, but it doesn’t have to be the case. In fact, it is likely that a startup founder will extract more value and enjoyment, handing over their “baby” at the right time, and to the right custodian for the next phase.

I think I am more of a startup person than a scaleup person and that time has come with Engine Shed for me to hand over the reins to someone better able than I to lead the business through its next chapter. To deliver the second mile.

There’s no getting away from the fact that this is a difficult thing to do but I am absolutely clear that this is a hugely positive step for Engine Shed, SETsquared, and SRF: an opportunity to bring fresh energy, vision, and skills into the business.

I will therefore relinquish my roles of CEO of SRF and Director of Engine Shed, at the end of December this year.

For clarity, SRF is the subsidiary of The University of Bristol that runs both Engine Shed (in collaboration with Bristol City Council) and the SETsquared Bristol Centre. The SETsquared business incubator is unaffected by this change.

I am lucky to be working with an exceptionally talented and committed team running the SETsquared Centre and the operations and projects of Engine Shed, and have every confidence that they will be able to continue the great work that they have been doing to date.
We are also very fortunate to be hosted by a University that genuinely understands the role it plays in the local economy, enabling the work that we have done, and that knows for a city to thrive it needs to experiment continually.

There will be a gap, of course, that will need to be filled, and the next task for me is to work with the University of Bristol to design the best structure for the business going forward. We will be updating on what that looks like very soon, with a view that recruitment and seamless handover can be achieved before the year’s out.

At the Engine Shed Governing Board meeting in October 2018, the members from the University of Bristol, Bristol City Council, and the LEP, asserted their support that Engine Shed was doing the right things, with the right approach, and filling an economic development gap that none of them could achieve themselves. They also asserted that the ‘freedom to operate’ that we have was key to achieving that. I believe that our continued operation as an autonomous business, that is perceived and behaves independently, is essential.

If I may indulge myself just for a moment, the thing I am most proud of, is demonstrating that it’s possible to operate a vehicle such as SRF (and Engine Shed and SETsquared within it) that has independence of thought and autonomy to make the best decisions, quickly and entrepreneurially with such large institutional stakeholders. A vehicle that delicately operates within, across, and between the university, public, business, and third sectors, that has been so widely recognised and appreciated, and neutral spaces and brands that have allowed it to engage with such a broad diversity of communities.

2019 is going to be a significant year of change for the team so that Engine Shed will be ready to serve the city-region in the best way it possibly can for the future. Plans for Engine Shed 2 and beyond are moving forward solidly and I hope that at least one shovel will be in the ground before I leave in December.

We envisage no business interruption – simply steadying the ship ready for some rapid acceleration and scaling up.

I offer thanks in advance, from the bottom of my heart, for all the support that our partners, sponsors, collaborators, and supporters will continue to provide for the next phase of the Engine Shed project.

As a final note, to pre-empt a whole load of questions, my passion and commitment to making the Bristol city region a better and more inclusive place will continue as I move into the next phase of my career – a portfolio of paid and voluntary roles. I intend to remain as active in this space as I have been – it’ll just be via a different route.

The job is not finished. By a mile.