After working at driving innovation and smart cities, Paul Connell set up the ODI Leeds Node and has helped turn it into one of the most successful in the country. Here he explains why Leeds is such a great place to have something like the ODI and what he expects to see happen in the future.
Tell us about your business.
ODI Leeds is a node of ODI HQ. We were established in 2013, and we’re in effect a franchise of the ODI. We’ve been really successful and because of that we’re a pioneer node, so we get to do what they do and collaborate on work in Leeds. We have four or five innovations that we work on, including designing our own workspace here.
We also try and drive innovation as much as possible by working with small companies and start ups to come up with new products and services for challenges that they are facing. Another part of what we do is to try and help businesses understand and use their data better. At the moment we’re working with DFT and the Highways Agency to help them be more open and share their data in new and interesting ways.
We innovate with data, and a big part of that is being open with it. So that’s what we try to do.
What inspired you to start it up?
It didn’t exist. We knew we needed something to help people get a cityscale with data and we needed a physical space to do that. That didn’t exist in Leeds so we had to build it. We didn’t receive any direct funding so we had to find our partners and demonstrate our value to them for them to stay with us. We do projects, host events, and share our workspace. And we need to do a good job to keep running.
We are trying to change the world in Leeds. People visit us and they say it’s like Berlin or Shoreditch and we say ‘No, it’s Leeds’. There’s no reason why Leeds can’t be forward-thinking or as cool and innovative as those places. It’s also part of the ‘forget London’ approach. We’re the ODI’s most successful node and we’ve done more things with all of the metrics than all of the other 35 nodes in the world.
ODI want to do more things with us next year and that’s down to the ecosystem that exists here. Not just us. It’s the sponsors, the partners who get involved, the city itself that has made us so successful.
Why does tech interest you / How did you get into tech in general?
My background is in innovation and smart cities and I then got involved in a few projects in Leeds. I was a director for an environmental consultancy, and I left that to work with some friends who had a cool innovation business. We started doing some smart cities projects and innovation and I got involved in some bids in Leeds. Then the opportunity to create an ODI node in Leeds came up and I knew about this space. So that’s how I got involved in tech.
What does Leeds have to offer, as a city, to tech businesses?
Leeds is a sophisticated, grown-up, cosmopolitan Northern European city. It’s not some grim Northern wasteland that sometimes is projected on us by others. So we have everything that anyone working in data and tech would look for. It’s also got other businesses aside from tech, it’s got the skills you need and the outward connections. Transport within the city is rubbish, but getting in and out of Leeds is simple.
What are you excited about for the tech and digital scene in Leeds?
Leeds is catching up really fast. We’ve got loads of tech accelerators and workspace in Leeds, we’ve got businesses moving here, and the Digital Festival, which has been a great advert for the city. Next year the Leeds Digital and International festivals are linking up so that’s going to be brilliant. Although 2016 has been as bonkers as it is, it’s been a really positive year for us and has put us in a great position for the future.
What advice would you give for people looking to start up a business in this sector?
Just do it. Start a business, make some mistakes and learn from them quickly.
Favourite Yorkshire eatery/bar?
Further North in Chapel Allerton for drinks, and either Zaap or Manjit’s Kitchen for food.
What tech do you use?
All the tech. For work we have a native website, we’re not Apple fanboys, we find tech to do the job. Whatever we need to do the job, we get it.
Top 3 films?
Hombre, The Princess Bride, and Pulp Fiction
What do you drive?
Perfect Sunday Breakfast?
Breakfast is my favourite meal of the day so it could be anything. But no eggs. I don’t do eggs.