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  • Steve Dougan

Middlesbrough - Born from entrepreneurial endeavour.

Whenever I host visitors here at Launchpad, Teesside University's on campus incubator, they are often surprised to find such a diverse, driven and tenacious community of founders, housed inside an old Victorian school. Perhaps expectations would be higher if they knew something of Middlesbrough's past...


It's 1828 and the area we now know and love as Middlesbrough is just 500 acres of salt marsh and farm land, a scattering of dwellings and around 40 people scrapping a living off the land. Not much to write home about, unless you are a young daring entrepreneur with an uncanny knack for spotting opportunity where others see nothing. Joseph Pease had enterprise running in his blood, his father Edward founded the Stockton to Darlington railway, and in his imagination he could see that coal, iron and steel would be the raw ingredients for an explosion of innovation, industrial development and wealth. What was needed was easier access to global markets, he could see rising out of the mist in front of him a port. The port of Darlington to be precise.


Pease assembles a startup team of eager, connected and energetic founders. Thomas Richardson, Henry Birbeck, Simon Martin and Francis Gibson and raises some seed money (£30k) to set about building the port and a town, complete with good quality housing, and driven by Quaker values (and the practical need for educated and content workers) philanthropic projects such as schools, libraries and cultural buildings. In 1850 iron ore is dug out of the hills surrounding the town. Iron and steel were to the industrial revolution what silicon, cobalt and gold are to the tech revolution we are riding now, fuelling the expansion of the railways and furnaces that powered Great Britain's meteoric rise to become the factory of the world.


Joining the growing cluster of innovators and risk takers are John Vaughan and his co-founder Henry Bolckow bringing expertise and capital to open the first blast furnace in 1851 exploiting this new resource, setting the town on a course towards wealth and growth. By 1901 the population had exploded to 90,000, with migrants pouring in to fill the new well paid jobs being created by this technology revolution.


Over the coming decades Middlesbrough and the young group of entrepreneurs who founded and built the town experience huge success and failure as they ride the storms of change that ravage Europe. Global wars, catastrophic banking crisis and stock market crashes, huge political, economic and technological challenges and even deadly pandemics carried to our shores from overseas. Sound familiar.


Perhaps then when we look at Middlesbrough today we see some of that pioneering spirit driving our growing businesses, and perhaps once again our access to the world both digitally and in our deep port and airport will be levers we can pull to create opportunity and prosperity. Pease and Bolckow would I am sure be at home here in Launchpad or the Boho zone working up ideas and building teams.


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