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Tech Leader Talks with Andy Barrow, general partner at Praetura Ventures

Justin Cohen (Left) and Andy Barrow (Right).

March’s Tech Leader Talks saw Justin Cohen, senior director of venture at Slalom host a Q&A session with Andy Barrow, who was CTO at ANS Group for 20 years and is now general partner at Praetura Ventures.

Andy has worked in the tech sector in Manchester for many years, and having been part of the founders buyout at ANS Group, he decided to use his experience to help other founders and startups with his new role at Praetura Ventures.

Andy talked about his early experiences, which involved growing a cyber tech company from a barn in Preston, which was subsequently sold to ANS. This saw him become CTO while it was still a small company. He talked about the journey into developing a new department for cloud computing as he could see how the new technology would disrupt the status quo. He described how this led to many mistakes being made, but ultimately it turned out he was correct about cloud computing disrupting the sector.

With the shareholders selling ANS Group to private equity in 2021, Andy wondered what to do next. He said: “The North West of England has been good to me. I woke up every morning with the dream that Manchester could become the Silicon Valley of the UK. What we have collectively built here is unbelievable. Manchester is a phenomenal tech powerhouse with an amazing community and all I ever wanted to do was work in it.

“I met up with Guy Weaver and Dave Foreman at Praetura as I knew they helped startups and scale ups and provided good quality capital. Although Manchester has a thriving tech scene a lot of the money comes from London, but Praetura wants the capital to come from this region.

“Before I knew it I was a partner on the fund and it’s an incredibly rewarding and exciting position to be in – and ANS was phenomenal.”

Justin, who now specialises in helping start-ups succeed, posed a question around the current macroeconomic state and how it has affected the tech sector, startups and investors. Andy said, “It depends which stage of funding you’re at as to how affected you’ve been by the recent turbulence of the tech sector, funding and banking. Specifically, Series B and later funding stages have been hit the hardest, while seed stage impacts were not affected as much.

“However, I would say it has reset the sector to what a business should be – it shouldn’t be growth at all costs with disgusting amounts of capital. Tech businesses should be building good, sustainable businesses, which shouldn’t be affected by the daily ups and downs of the stock market.”

Andy talked about the weekend, just a few weeks ago, when Silicon Valley Bank in the US and its UK arm saw a run, which left it collapsing. “Remember in 2008 when Northern Rock was falling, and we saw in the news there were queues of people down the road trying to get their money out? This time with SVB, this was a bank run in a digital world. By the time the UK woke up on the Friday, the US tech companies had withdrawn all the money, if they could.”

“It was herd mentality and if everyone had left their money in, it would have been fine, but in reality you are forced to join the herd. Now there are more questions about how well protected banks are.”

Justin asked about the biggest tech topic at the moment - AI - and its effect on the world. Andy said, “It’s not perfect but GPT-4 is one of the biggest engineering masterpieces I’ve seen in my life. Overall, the Government is not putting enough money into the AI and tech space. Tech fuels productivity and is a far better mechanism than debt for a country's GDP, they need to put it into tech as it’s transformative. The recent developments in AI are incredibly exciting but we also need to be asking, how do we regulate this thing?”

When asked from the audience, ‘How big a tech sector is Manchester?’, Andy talked about the city’s potential but how the lack of talent is consistently holding back growth. He said that it’s brilliant to see large corporations opening offices or moving their HQ to Manchester, but often it meant that they were attracting the talent away from existing tech companies.

To tackle the lack of specific tech talent, Andy said: “At ANS Group we set up our own apprenticeship academy and I always tell people that it’s the only way to get employees with the skills that you need. It can be slow, but two years will just fly by. Talent is one of the barriers to growth in the north but the only way businesses can fix it is to use their Apprenticeship Levy and ensure the apprentices are trained with the skills the business needs.”

We’d like to offer a huge thanks to Slalom for sponsoring and hosting our March Tech Leader Talks event.

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