Sometimes, great things can grow in surprising places. All it takes is vision and know-how.
The award-winning Harlow Carr Gardens in Harrogate, for example, were created in 1950 when the Northern Horticultural Society chose the most unpromising site it could find – north-facing and soggy – to demonstrate what could be achieved in a northern climate.
Today, in the equally shady lea of Harlow Hill just across the A59, a community of technology-based businesses have taken root and are spreading their influence right across the country, and beyond.
Beckwith Knowle provides bases for cloud services giant Redcentric plc – which hosts programmes of national importance – PayPal competitor Worldpay, US pharmaceutical testing company Covance and Arrow ECS, a subsidiary of $23bn US giant Arrow.
Just down the hill, Cardale Park is home to dynamic businesses such as InTechnology plc, which has several successful arms. San Francisco-based ERP (enterprise resource planning) software company Financial Force has its HQ for the EMEA (Europe, the Middle East and Africa) here, and parent company Unit4, a global ERP business based in the Netherlands, also has a major R&D presence on the park.
Multi-channel retailer High Street TV sells merchandise far and wide from here, and Link runs the UK’s network of 70,000 cash machines from its facility here. At full tilt, Link processes over 1 million transactions an hour, and they all go through Cardale Park.
So what is it that brings all these highly sophisticated businesses to this fringe of Harrogate, giving it the soubriquet ‘Silicon Dale’? Is it the views? The bus connections? The proximity to Bettys at Harlow Carr?
Well, these things probably help, but the real answer lies in the story of how one man saw an opportunity and made an investment.
Beckwith Knowle had been the base for the North Eastern Region of the Central Electricity Generating Board. When the electricity industry was privatised in the 1990s it became part of National Power, and when that moved its operations to Swindon, entrepreneur Peter Wilkinson moved in.
Bryn Sage is CEO of Inhealthcare, which is part of Mr Wilkinson’s InTechnology plc.
He says: “We relocated our distribution service to Beckwith Knowle and that became Arrow ECS, which is now at Nidderdale House. Our data business went to Central House, and that’s now Redcentric.
“So the data centre was already there, but we made a massive investment in infrastructure, putting in two one-gigabit fibre connections which in effect ‘lit up’ the park.
“When we upgraded a few years ago we put in three 10-gigabit links at a cost of about £5m. Altogether we may have invested £10m, and it’s this kind of investment in digital infrastructure that really drives growth and creates jobs.”
The foresight involved was typical; Mr Wilkinson is something of a legend in technology circles. In 1983 he founded Storm, an international data storage company, and in 1999 he founded VDATA, a company that revolutionised IT operations by enabling online data backup. Storm and VDATA merged in 2000 to become InTechnology.
But it was in internet technology that he really made his mark. He created the UK’s first viable business internet service provider (ISP), Planet Online, and the first consumer ISP, Freeserve, as well as the hugely successful football and betting service, Sports Internet – which he then sold to BSkyB for £300m (it is now called Skybet).
The sale of these companies as flourishing businesses was enough to give Mr Wilkinson his own parking space on the Sunday Times Rich List, but he didn’t stop there.
In 2013, he sold the managed services arm of InTechnology to Redcentric for £65m and has since concentrated his efforts on growing its constituent businesses.
Not least of these is intechnologyWiFi, which draws on Mr Wilkinson’s experience with sports clubs. During hi s Planet Online days he founded Planet Football and became the official provider of football club websites to over 25 first- and second-tier clubs.
He has now spotted a gap in the UK market for smart cities, stadiums, arenas and greenfield events which isn’t being filled by any of the other big providers. As a result, he is rolling out free wifi at sports grounds around the country, providing fans with access to free, high-speed internet.
Another subsidiary which promises to change the status quo is Inhealthcare, a digital health specialist making significant steps towards digitising care services across the UK. These include self-testing for warfarin patients, chronic pain management, undernutrition and vital signs monitoring.
The company has been selected to work on NHS England’s “healthy towns” initiative in Darlington, and is providing the digital infrastructure for the Government’s “test bed” project in Sheffield, which aims to help people with multiple conditions including diabetes, respiratory disease, hypertension and mental health conditions.
It’s no coincidence that Redcentric’s datacentre now hosts the NHS’s Spine, which is used for NHS number validation. Mr Wilkinson may no longer own the company, but his passion for digitisation of the health service has left its mark.
Bryn Sage says: “If you can stop people going to hospital by using technology then it can free up a lot of resources.
“In one area we saved 21,000 visits. Across the country, that could mount up to millions over the year. We need to use technology to do mundane stuff and use people to add value.
“The technology that’s been designed and built in Harrogate is delivering services for communities in Northern Ireland, the Isle of Wight and Norfolk; it’s really making a difference,”
The technology companies at Cardale Park and Beckwith Knowle are currently succeeding in their respective marketplaces largely because of the “large pipes” that Peter Wilkinson installed years ago, enabling the rapid flow of vast amounts of digital information.
Even if they have their own digital infrastructure by now, they still benefit from the ecosystem he seeded.
“People think that Harrogate’s full of very high earners, but actually a lot of the high earners work in Leeds,” says Bryn Sage.
“But companies like ours, and Link, Financial Force and Covance, they create high-value jobs. That creates a bit of a marketplace for people – they do move around a bit – and that attracts more investment.”
As they discovered at Harlow Carr, it’s amazing what can be achieved with a little know-how and a big vision.