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Manchester’s start-up scene

Free software and an open community kick-start tech entrepreneurs in Manchester

Look beyond London, and one of the largest concentrations in Europe of all things innovative in IT is Manchester, which – despite having a quarter of London’s population, and little of the media and government attention – has a thriving tech start-up scene supported by a range of groups covering every technology or business methodology; the Lean Agile Manchester meet-up group alone has nearly 400 members.

The history of computing in Manchester University goes back to the Forties, and an Alan Turing memorial statue sits in Sackville Park – every summer a Geek Pride event is held in his memory. But it’s away from the university, in the bohemian Northern Quarter, that techies followed the artists in colonising low rent buildings for shared office space or, for those bootstrapping businesses on a real shoestring, looking around the cafés for the tables where they can plug in their laptop chargers and work all day for the price of a few coffees. An informal community has grown up around these nomadic knowledge workers, with the more formal getting together through co-working events, often at MadLab, the Manchester Digital Laboratory, “bringing together the various communities of doers and thinkers that make this city brilliant and see what comes of it.”

With more capital behind it, TechHub Manchester was “a community and workspace for tech entrepreneurs and startups” holding events like TechHub Startup 101 (“Launching a hardware product”) and, while Barcelona start- ups meet to play volleyball tournaments, even a “Startup Yoga” event. This summer the space declared independence from the global TechHub network and relaunched as the playfully-named SpacePortX.

Meanwhile, Founders’ Assembly gives you a chance to review progress with peers, and get helpful suggestions and connections – while CollaborationBoutique allows budding entrepreneurs to post their interests and skills, or find more experienced collaborators.

None of this would be possible without the benefits of Free and Open Source software. Start with the platform: Ruby-on-Rails is “a good way to get an MVP (minimum viable product) up fairly quickly, and start engaging with the customer,” Ian Moss told LU&D. Moss is founder of travel start-up 196 Destinations and, along with Capital Relations owner Coral Grainger, collates the long- running Manchester StartUpDigest newsletter.

R-o-R is widely used in Manchester: at homecare schedulers (and Northern Tech Awards 2013 winner) Malinko, and recruitment platform Volcanic – as well as being at the heart of operations for Manchester developer outfits like Stardotstar, Hedtek and Linked Data experts Swirrl. The latter recently released Tripod – the RDF and SPARQL ORM it developed for use in Rails apps – under an MIT licence.

You can see Rails in use at companies that started up in Manchester a decade ago, like social ticketing company Fatsoma. Hosting company ByteMark also choose Ruby as their scripting language, but are particularly notable for the use of FOSS throughout their infrastructure, contributing back to projects and sponsoring community events. The NW Ruby Users Group meets regularly in Manchester, offering talks, practical introductions to technology and social events.

Start-ups in the UK and around the world wouldn’t be able to do the amazing things that they do without a world of free and open source software. We’ll be reporting here on start-ups using and producing free software from around the world and we’d love to hear from you about your start-up’s involvement with open source. Next month we’re asking why all this free software use doesn’t necessarily lead to free and open products.