Cambridge is rightly highlighted as one of Europe’s biggest innovation hubs, particularly when it comes to commercialising ideas that began in the research lab. This has spawned a huge biotech sector, and helped create a series of billion dollar tech companies that lead their industries, such as ARM and Cambridge Silicon Radio (CSR).
The Internet of Things (IoT) has been identified by many commentators as a key emerging market – and one where Cambridge has the ecosystem, experience and ideas to play a major role. So the news that IoT pioneer Neul has been sold to Chinese telecoms equipment behemoth Huawei depressed me. Not for nationalistic reasons, but simply due to the low reported purchase price ($25m) and the fact that the company has cashed out so early in the growth process. While there was a fair amount of PR spin around Neul’s progress to date, I genuinely believed it could join the billion dollar Cambridge club by developing its technology and building alliances and routes to market.
At the same time, Cambridge Silicon Radio is mulling a multi-billion pound sale to US firm Microchip Technology, reducing the number of major, independent, quoted Cambridge companies. Obviously investors and founders do look to realise their profits at some point, but it is important to balance this by looking longer term. While those that put money into Neul no doubt got a decent return, think how much more they’d have received if the company had been allowed to grow and exploit its market position.
I’m not alone in taking this stance. Cambridge Innovation Capital (CIC), the University of Cambridge-backed VC fund, recently warned its portfolio companies against selling out too early and promised to provide long term, founder friendly, capital to help grow the next ARMs and CSRs.
So what we need is the support, both financial and in terms of time, that gives companies the ability to achieve their potential. Not all of them will make it, and many will be niche players that logically fit better within bigger companies – but at least they’ll have had the ability to aim for the stars before finding their real place in the world. Otherwise Cambridge (and other parts of the UK tech scene), will simply act as incubators that turn bright ideas into viable businesses that can be snapped up and digested by tech giants looking for the newest innovation. It is much better for both the local and national economy that some of these startups make it the stock market as fully fledged businesses, creating ecosystems that generate new sectors and jobs. This requires longer term thinking from everyone involved – otherwise the number of billion dollar Cambridge companies will shrink even further.
Commentators are full of predictions that software will eat the world, with jobs, industries and traditional means to doing things swept away by the rise of technology. From automated journalism to connected cars, the claim is that we’re undergoing a transformation in how we work, live and play.
Software is revolutionising the world around us, but I’d contend that there’s a much more disruptive factor impacting our lives – the smartphone. It essentially provides an always-on, easy to use, ubiquitous interface with all of the software around us. Without it we wouldn’t be able to access the power of technology. So, rather than software eating the world, I’d pinpoint 9 ways that smartphones are making a meal of it:
Smartphones have the ability to monitor our vital signs and transmit information to doctors and medical staff in real-time. Whether it is using in-built or external, Bluetooth equipped sensors, smartphones will disrupt the health industry. Apple’s new focus on building a health ecosystem is just part of this trend, which can either be seen as a force for good or as allowing intrusive snooping on our most private moments. On the plus side patients can be monitored remotely, allowing them to remain at home rather than going into hospital for certain conditions, but confidentiality of data remains a worry. What if your insurance company could access your health data and amend your premiums accordingly?
2. Taxis and transport
Companies such as Uber and Lyft are radically changing the taxi market by removing the overhead (justified or otherwise) of traditional operators. Anyone can become a taxi driver – all they need is a car and a smartphone (which can also serve as your GPS, so you don’t need the Knowledge to direct you to the right place). This does raise potential issues about safety, vetting and insurance, hence the bitter battles being fought between traditional cab drivers and the new upstarts.
At no point in human history has so much data been available about individuals. The combination of ‘free’ services such as Google and Facebook that hoover up our personal information and preferences, with the geolocation data from a smartphone mean that companies have the ability to understand more about their consumers than ever before. The challenge for marketers is twofold – they need to ensure that they have real, informed consent from consumers when handling their private data, but at the same time have to evolve the skills to sift through this big data to deliver personalised marketing that drives engagement. The traditional model of campaigns that take months to plan and implement is rapidly going out of the window – if marketers can’t adapt they risk being sidelined by ever cleverer algorithms.
There is something impressive about a pile of cash – even if it is just one pence pieces. But carrying it around is another story. Replacing pounds and pence with the ability to tap to pay even the smallest amount with your phone promises to turn us into a cashless society. And it also removes the need for a wallet full of credit, debit or loyalty cards. All you’ll need to do is select how you want to pay on your phone and the software will handle the transfer. Could we see traditional banks and financial services companies replaced by Apple Money – or even currencies swept aside by electronic dosh? It is certainly possible, hence Apple’s move into the sector with the iPhone 6.
It may be difficult to remember, but when they began, mobile phones were for making phone calls or sending text messages (and playing Snake if you had a Nokia). Now the number of calls made and received is a fraction of before, as people move to messaging, email and free voice over IP services such as Skype. Many of us already pay more for our smartphone data plans than for calls and texts – meaning that mobile phone (and landline) operators will need to evolve new services if they are to be part of the smartphone future.
Growing up in an analogue world, toys and games were very straightforward. Now traditional toys are evolving to embrace both full on mobile gaming (think Angry Birds) and half way houses where the physical meets the virtual. Software such as Skylanders combines playing pieces containing electronic chips with fully fledged games to give a radically new experience. And this is just the beginning. As immersive technologies such as Google Glass and Oculus Rift gain traction we’ll find it difficult to tell reality and gaming apart. How long before people embed chips in themselves to become part of the latest smartphone game?
Buying power is a necessary evil – and the battery life of smartphones does mean we’ll always need electricity to recharge them. Mobile devices, combined with sensors and the Internet of Things provide the ability to monitor and adjust how we use power. From turning smart thermostats up or down, to only switching on lights when the smartphone user is in the vicinity, they can change energy use. Taken a step further, consumers could cut out the energy company and use their smartphone to buy power directly from smaller producers, adding flexibility and potentially bringing down prices.
The problem with insurance premiums is that they are based on averages, rather than knowledge of your individual circumstances. The data within a smartphone, either directly monitoring your movements, or linked to a sensor in your car, provides a deeper context around your behaviour and habits. Used properly this can help better judge the risks of insuring individuals – but again used incorrectly it will cause a privacy backlash.
9. Pub quizzes
As a Trivial Pursuit expert (and part of the reigning village quiz team champions) there’s nothing I like better than the chance to show off my knowledge. But how can pub quizzes survive in an era when Wikipedia can be accessed from your smartphone in milliseconds? Short of holding quizzes in exam conditions, with no toilet breaks where people can sneak off to check answers on the internet, cheating is going to become rife, making my carefully assembled general knowledge useless.
Research shows that the majority of us access the internet more through mobile devices than traditional PCs. And 20 per cent of young American adults admit to using their smartphones during sex. We look at our phones constantly, panic if they are out of sight for a minute and feel bereaved if they are lost or stolen. If it is true that software is eating the world, the smartphone is the knife, fork and plate responsible for the repast.
The march of technology has radically changed many jobs. Factory work has become increasingly automated and roles that involved processing documents have been swept away. And as the cost of processing power falls, artificial intelligence improves dramatically and more and more information is available online, machines are becoming cleverer. From delivering online learning to scanning legal documents for relevant information or automated trading of shares, computer-based algorithms are increasingly capable of replacing people in more traditionally white collar roles.
Judging by recent stories, the next profession under attack is professional journalism. Already hit hard by the free model of the internet and the rise of citizen reporting, journalists now have to fight off robots with their eyes on their jobs. AP has just announced that it will use software from Automated Insights to produce 4,440 robot-written corporate earnings reports every quarter. The company argues that by letting the software write basic stories that essentially cover the financial details of the earnings announcement it frees up human reporters to write more detailed analysis pieces – and also ensures it can cover more companies without expanding its staff.
AP is not alone. An increasing number of news outlets are using software to write up reports of matches in minor sports which aren’t popular enough to justify the attention of a ‘real’ reporter. And in California, the LA Times uses a program to analyse data from the US Geological Survey to provide a first report on earthquakes. It is also using separate software to analyse incoming lists of arrests from the police to flag those that look newsworthy to reporters. This essentially works by thinking like a journalist and looking for potential signs of interest, such as particular names or occupations and high bail amounts that can then be followed up.
So, should journalists (and by extension, other writers such as PR people), be worried? There may be a lot of hand wringing about these developments, but I think there are three reasons that the human hack will survive, and even thrive.
1 Robot journalism is all about the facts
At present software is very good at searching for information, collating it and presenting it in a way that can be easily read. If you look at the AP or LA Times pieces they are never going to win any prizes for journalism, as they are basic stories that journalists would knock out because they had to, without really getting out of second gear. Software can do it much faster, freeing up their time for more interesting pieces.
2 Opinion and context is key to retain readers
We are bombarded by facts. What we crave are journalists who can put the facts in context, create a logical narrative, and most importantly add experience and opinion. While, technically, software could try and mimic this by analysing the complete works of Caitlin Moran and regurgitating it, it can’t get across personality in the same way. So real opinion will always beat computer journalism that stitches together opposing quotes when it comes to engaging the eyeballs of readers.
3 Investigative journalism is alive and well
Reporters continue to work tirelessly to expose scandals, often with very little official data to work with. Whether it is uncovering irregularities with the expenses of MPs or child abuse in care homes, a large number of nationally and internationally important stories have only been published because of long term research and work by journalists or newspapers. Computers may well have been used to help in analysis and getting to the truth, but they did not lead the investigation.
So, before reporters worry too much about R2D2 stealing their jobs, it is worth understanding what readers actually value in an article. Yes, they want the facts, but more to the point they want opinions, colour and context, especially if it is personal and random – and at the moment, this is beyond the scope of software.
It seems like 1994 was a busy year – not only did it see the first ecommerce transaction (a foolish purchase of an overpriced and overrated Sting album), but also the launch of the very first smartphone. And interestingly it wasn’t produced by a traditional handset vendor, but created by IBM, thus adding to the long list of inventions, such as the PC, that it pioneered but then failed to commercialise.
The oddly named Simon went on sale to the US public on 16 August 1994, and had a calendar, could take notes and send emails and messages as well as make and receive calls. Aimed at the busy executive it could be linked to a fax machine in order to handle all your communication needs. However it failed to take off, only selling 50,000 units. As curator of the Science Museum’s Information Age gallery, Charlotte Connelly, drily puts its “It only had an hour’s battery, it was $899 and there was no mobile internet at the time. So it wasn’t very successful.” Personally I’m not convinced the name helped either – “Sent from my Simon” doesn’t have the same kudos as “Sent from my iPhone” at the bottom of an email.
We’re now seeing mobile and ecommerce (as opposed to Sting and Simon) converging, and driving innovation in technology. As this nifty but messy Google Public Data graphic shows, the majority of us now use smartphones as our primary method of internet access, and, aside from reading this blog, watching cute kittens and moaning on Facebook, one of our primary occupations is buying stuff. According to Goldman Sachs, global mobile commerce will hit $638 billion by 2018 – the same amount spent via PCs in 2013. While the majority will be on tablets, smartphones are an integral part of the customer journey and will make up a direct $20-30 billion of the total.
The smartphone has changed how we interact, shop and spend our free time. We are no longer ever idle – why gaze into space at the bus stop and notice the world around you when you can play Candy Crush instead? In many ways mobile technology has outstripped our capacity to adapt, leaving humans scrambling to change their behaviour to fit in with their apps, rather than the other way around. 20 per cent of young American adults (and 10 per cent of the total population) use smartphones during sex, though mercifully the research doesn’t go into any more detail than that.
So, what does this mean for startups and marketers? The smartphone is essentially our most relied upon device, and the one we keep closest to us at all times. You can link it to sensors, watches and the world around us, through Bluetooth and technology such as beacons. It really does provide a window into our lives, which has both a positive and negative impact. Speaking personally spam text messages or calls annoy me more on my mobile than their equivalents on landline or email. It is a delicate balancing act, with the consequences for misjudging privacy or security potentially extremely damaging. But get it right with your app and you can generate big profits or deliver your message right to the heart of your target markets.
The last twenty years has seen the smartphone change the world – as well as the wider device market. It has shrunk from the 500g brick sized Simon to thinner, more pocket sized smartphones (though ironically the trend is now for larger and larger devices), with increased usability and a wider range of apps aimed at consumers as well as businesses. One thing hasn’t changed though – the Simon’s battery lasted an hour, and while I get a bit longer from my iPhone, it still can’t survive a busy day without needing a recharge……..
Ofcom’s annual study into the UK’s viewing, listening, internet and communications habits is always worth a read. This year’s tome is no different, with a headline finding that we now spend an average of 20 minutes more every day using technology devices than sleeping. Apparently the average night’s sleep is 8 hours and 21 minutes – which seems an incredibly long time to me, but then I’ve got three kids and a noisy cat.
There is positive news on broadband – there are now 6.1 million superfast connections across the country, making up over a quarter of broadband subscriptions. Given the huge amount of money invested by the taxpayer to push superfast broadband to rural areas, this is promising, but the UK still lags behind other countries on targets and speeds. For example, Finland defines superfast as 100 Mbps, while the UK target is just 24 Mbps. And my new shiny rural fibre broadband doesn’t even achieve that, measuring just 21.6 Mbps according to my ISP (when working).
TV viewing is less than 4 hours a day for the first time since 2010, at 3hr 52 minutes. But before broadcasters start panicking, bear in mind that this is more than the combined time spent on mobiles, landlines and the internet. The vast majority of programmes are still watched live, despite the rise of catch-up services.
As always the Ofcom findings are being used to predict the death of various communication channels by analysing the behaviour of 12-15 year olds and making assumptions for the future. For example, only 8% of this group said they used email and 3% communicated through landline phones, leading to experts to point out the imminent demise of these channels. I can think of three reasons why this is tosh:
People are living longer, so we actually have a growing proportion of silver surfers (complete with landlines), balancing out the younger generation. If they were cutting the cord and just communicating using WhatsApp things would be different, but no sign of that yet.
2. Why would a 12 year old use email?
In many ways email is a horrible communication channel – complex, clunky and not real-time. The reason most people use it is essentially for work or to do with boring stuff like complaining at utilities/banks. So, unsurprisingly, most 12 year olds aren’t spending their time slaving at the corporate coalface or moaning at companies.
One thing teenagers have always valued is privacy. I remember having to shoo away parents and siblings when making landline telephone calls at that age – now lucky kids don’t need to as they can just use their mobiles. So, again, why would they use landlines when they can call from their bedrooms?
So, taken altogether the Ofcom findings show that there isn’t radical change happening in how we communicate – a third of people had sent a personal letter in the last month for example. The only sector to worry should be physical newspapers and magazines, with just 2% saying they’d feel their absence. And even then, this seems a little difficult to believe seeing the number of free papers handed out in London for example.
For entrepreneurs looking to set up a business or marketers aiming to launch a new product, the lesson is don’t neglect the old channels in favour of the shiny new ones. Think laterally and improve the experience and you might well be onto a winner.
The tech market across Europe is on a roll. According to Dow Jones VentureSource European startups raised €2.1 billion (over $2.8 billion) in Q2 2014 from VCs, the highest amount since 2010. The average size of the 365 deals was €2.2 million, up from €1.5 million in Q3 2013. Essentially that means every day of the quarter four startups got funding from VCs.
At the other end of the company journey, Tech.eu counted 92 tech exits in Q2 2014, up 70% from Q1 2014. 10 of these were IPOs, showing a healthy move back to the stock market for tech companies. And while deal size was undisclosed in 72% of cases, 15 were for over €100 million.
So, does this mean that everything is rosy in the tech market and your startup will receive its deserved funding in a heartbeat? Unfortunately not, and there are three worrying points behind the figures:
1 What is a tech company?
I’ve always been suspicious/puritanical on what makes a startup ‘tech’ rather than part of any other sector. Taking a look through both the Tech.eu list of exits and its corresponding index of EU tech funding rounds so far in 2014, I don’t see that many companies I’d class as technology. IPOs and exits included:
- Takeaway platform Just-Eat (food)
- Zoopla (property)
- Markit (financial information)
- Oldford Group (gambling)
- M and M Direct and Game Digital (retail)
- eDreams Odigeo (travel)
- Jobsite (recruitment)
Companies that received the largest amounts of funding mirrored this list – Delivery Hero, which has raised $285 million to date, is an online food ordering platform, while Ozon ($150 million) is an online Russian retailer.
There are what I’d consider genuine tech companies receiving funding (Klarna is a payments provider, Tradeshift is B2B software and Elasticsearch is a search and analytics engine). And looking at the IPOs, Zendesk (customer service software) also fits into my narrow definition of proper tech.
Obviously consumer facing companies need large amounts of funding – they have to market themselves and launch into competitive marketing which takes cash. But my complaint is that technology is part of every business, so just because you sell via the web, that doesn’t make you a tech company. After all, in the early days of the telephone, no-one created a new category for businesses built on the communications power of the phone. By lumping these companies into ‘tech’, investors and commentators overlook the genuine technology companies making software and hardware in favour of more glamourous consumer businesses. It was exactly the same issue in the dotcom boom, with anything that had a website being lauded to the skies as a tech pioneer.
2 Europe lagging the US
The European figures for funding look strong, but in the US private tech companies raised $13.8 billion in the same period. We’re talking about a similar size market in terms of people, yet nearly five times the investment. No wonder that many EU tech firms are crossing the pond to tap into US funding. Zendesk is a good case in point. While founded in Denmark, its successful IPO was on NASDAQ, where it has seen its share price nearly double from $9 to around $17.97 currently.
Clearly, there are structural and funding issues that need to be addressed to convince European companies that this is where they need to build their startups if we are to build a vibrant tech sector across the EU.
3 Selling out too soon?
Some companies are never going to have the scale to survive on their own and fit better as part of a larger entity. So, trade sales are a vital part of the tech ecosystem – investors get their money back (hopefully), enabling them to invest elsewhere, while founders and management teams are able to move on to the next big idea.
But looking through the crop of acquisitions the largest amount (37%) were by US companies. Facebook and TripAdvisor made two European acquisitions, and the likes of Cisco and Intel bought one business each. The risk is that too many smart European tech businesses don’t turn into long term, billion dollar companies with their own ecosystems around them, as they don’t get the chance to grow before being snapped up for their technology or market position. That holds back the wider European tech economy and reinforces US dominance. It would be good to see longer term backing for European tech, with more IPOs and acquisitions by local companies, rather than selling out to US giants.
I don’t want to come across solely as a whingeing naysayer, as it is great news that funding is up for tech businesses across Europe. But I think there needs to be a narrower focus on what tech actually is amongst the media and investors, and a longer term attitude if Europe is ever to come close to building a sustainable tech economy across the continent.