I’ve always tried to keep my blog apolitical, criticising politicians from all parties equally. But, given the seriousness of the rise of UKIP, I’m suspending my impartiality for a week. Why? Put simply, I believe that Nigel Farage’s party is the biggest threat to face the UK (and in particular Cambridge) tech sector for many years.
First off, I don’t seriously believe that UKIP will garner enough MPs in the 2015 election to be part of a coalition. But what it has done is to shift the debate sharply to the right in two key areas (immigration and the EU), causing the Tories to talk about curbs on the free movement of workers and set a date for an in/out EU referendum. And given that the Tories are likely to be a central part of a future coalition that is potentially very damaging.
Aside from the general business problems that limiting immigration and leaving the EU would bring, it would hit Cambridge and the startup tech scene in four distinct ways:
Many of the highly skilled individuals currently working at or building tech companies originally came from overseas to study in Cambridge. It is already more difficult to get a student visa, and making it harder will simply put off the brightest and the best, who will head elsewhere. And every clever student who goes elsewhere diminishes the wider Cambridge academic population and impacts its reputation and attractiveness to new students.
Pretty much every Cambridge startup I’ve worked with has an incredibly diverse workforce, with employees from every corner of the world. They’ve chosen to come here, or have remained after study, and helped build amazing success stories with their skills. These are incredibly sought after and mobile people – limiting entry for them to the UK will mean they simply go elsewhere.
Charles Wang, the founder of US software company Computer Associates once had a policy of only employing first or second generation immigrants in management roles. Wang himself was born in Shanghai and moved to New York when he was 8 years old. His reasoning was that immigrants had drive, entrepreneurialism and a desire to make something of themselves. Given they often arrived with nothing, they had no safety net, unlike established citizens who had never faced the dangers of real failure. Wang’s view is limited – I know plenty of driven, successful entrepreneurs from stable British families, but he has a point. Limiting immigration removes these potential entrepreneurs and the benefits they bring to their adopted country when it comes to jobs, taxes and the wider economy.
A tech cluster like Cambridge isn’t about individuals, no matter how skilled they are. It is about how they interact together and share and develop ideas, based on their own knowledge and experience. Diversity is key – if you bring together a group of people with similar backgrounds and experience you’re unlikely to get the range of ideas that comes from a wider group. Ideas play off each other and grow – take away diversity and you severely weaken the idea gene pool.
In answering my points, critics may well make one of two arguments. Firstly, that we’ll still let in the best, most skilled people – it is the jobless benefit seekers that we want to turn away. That may be true but will they want to come to a country that appears so unfriendly to outsiders? And, how do you spot the entrepreneur or Nobel Prize winning physicist to be? They could be the yet-to-be-born child of immigrants that initially came over here to work in agriculture or to escape persecution in their home country.
Secondly, people will point to the US, which has restrictive immigration policies, yet the biggest tech/entrepreneur sector in the world. The difference is that the US is a country built on immigration, with a culture that rewards risk-taking and encourages people to try again after failure. We still don’t have that attitude in the UK, and we need free radicals to act as a catalyst to help change things.
The last 20 years have seen a huge expansion in the Cambridge tech scene, driven by the combination of ideas, skills and experience of people from many different backgrounds. Cutting off or limiting the flow of entrepreneurs, workers, students and researchers from outside the UK would completely change this energy and dynamism. It would still survive, but would be weaker, more insular and less exciting. That’s why it is important to tell politicians of all parties that we want to encourage responsible immigration and EU membership to build a successful Cambridge tech sector that benefits us all.
Governments across Europe are always obsessing about creating their own Silicon Valleys, rivals to California that will catapult their country/city to international tech prominence, create jobs and make them cool by association. As I’ve said before, this is partly because such talk is cheap – bung a few million pounds/euros into some accelerators, set up a co-working space near a university and you can make some tub-thumping speeches about investing in innovation.
Obviously there’s a lot more to creating a new Silicon Valley than that. So I was interested to read a recent EU survey of European ICT Hubs, which ranks activity across the region. It doesn’t just analyse start-up activity, but also factors such as university strength, external links and business growth. While Munich, East London and Paris top the table, (with Cambridge at the top of tier 2), what is interesting is the sheer number of hubs and their relative strengths, despite many being quite close to each other.
There is a European obsession with a single hub to take on Silicon Valley, but as Paul Stasse points out in this piece on Tech.EU, if you zoom out and centre your ‘hub’ on Brussels, a 400km radius will bring in the majority of the EU’s ICT hubs. So consequently you need to go beyond individual cities or regions to move to a larger scale view. After all, Silicon Valley itself is not a single place, but a collection of cities and towns, that spreads from San Francisco through the Santa Clara Valley. So, while the Santa Clara Valley is geographically 30 miles long and 15 miles wide, the actual area of ‘Silicon Valley’ itself is much bigger.
In that case, why can’t Europe create its own Silicon Valley encompassing multiple hubs? Or even Valleys within countries – it is around 60 miles from London to Cambridge, so it wouldn’t be a stretch to build the M11 Valley (though with a catchier name).
The trouble is, California has some pretty big advantages that have helped Silicon Valley grow. While entrepreneurs and programmers flock there from all around the world there’s one business language (English), one legal system and one predominant culture. Being part of the US gives immediate access to over 300 million people in a single market. Europe’s diversity is both a strength and a weakness – you can’t simply up sticks and move your company from, say, France to Belgium, with the same ease as from San Jose to Palo Alto.
In my opinion what is needed are three things:
1 Be more open
I’m as guilty as the next person, but individual hubs need to look outward more, rather than believing that success ends at the ring road. Only by encouraging conversation between hubs and idea sharing will innovation flourish.
2 Make movement easier
You are never going to change cultures, but the EU has a role to play in standardising the playing field when it comes to creating companies, harmonising legal systems and generally helping create a single market. That way entrepreneurs and companies can move more easily and collaborate, without having to duplicate bureaucracy or red tape.
3 Celebrate what we have
It is time to end the obsession with creating the new Silicon Valley. It isn’t going to happen. Instead, celebrate the ability Europe has to build multiple, interlinked hubs that play to our strengths, rather than bemoan our inability to spawn the next Facebook.
Silicon Valley, Europe may not happen but by supporting existing, successful clusters and hubs we can build a technology industry that can drive innovation, growth and jobs.
As I’ve said before, startup clusters are springing up all over the place and that’s great. There’s even one in my village (population 3,000) – well, two startups and a group of support services, including myself.
Clusters encourage innovation, particularly through external economies of scale – i.e. by providing access to the people, resources and infrastructure that startups need but don’t have themselves. And the more startups there are in an area, the lower the price of these services as they are shared across a greater number of companies.
A lot of these clusters seem to be driven from outside, particularly as both central and local governments realise that startup clusters are (a) sexy and (b) cheap. Why not give them a small pot of money/some space/a patronising visit to show you’re supporting innovation?
So, putting cynicism aside, what does a startup cluster require – and how does Cambridge measure up? I’ve been looking at Brad Feld’s work on building a startup ecosystem, based on 20 years experience in Boulder, Colorado. The aptly named Boulder Thesis highlights four things that these communities must have:
- They should involve entrepreneurs and feeders (people/institutions like universities, government, venture capitalists, lawyers, PR people). BUT they have to be led by entrepreneurs if they are to truly take off.
- Long term. It can take 20 years to build a community, so entrepreneurs need to stick around, even if they’ve built and sold their company long ago. And the same goes for those that fail – encourage them to stick around.
- They need to be inclusive, welcoming anyone, no matter what their skills or ideas.
- They need to be active, with a range of events and accelerator programmes to help encourage and nurture startups.
That’s Boulder. Let’s compare it to Cambridge.
Firstly there’s a large community of entrepreneurs and feeders in the city (so a tick there) and entrepreneurs are taking a leading role. And given the longevity of the Silicon Fen success story there are plenty of long term entrepreneurs who have stuck around, from Hermann Hauser to Mike Lynch.
It’s the third and fourth points where I believe Cambridge has issues. Don’t get me wrong, there are some incredibly welcoming people in the Cambridge community and some great events/accelerators that nurture startups. But, perhaps because of the size and depth of the community, spanning everything from medtech to green IT, groups can appear disconnected, with everyone focused on their niche. Some of this may come from the research-led nature of many Cambridge innovations, but, even in academia, cross-discipline working is becoming more normal after centuries of specialism. Compare this to places such as Norwich, which has a smaller (but still substantial) startup community that seems more cohesive, with greater communication between disparate companies with radically different ideas.
What Cambridge does have, and that I think is missing from Feld’s thesis, is the combination of new and old blood. The universities, and increasingly tech businesses, attract talent, much of which stays on and contributes to the ecosystem. But enough leaves to make space for new ideas so that things don’t go stale.
So, in true end of term report style, Cambridge needs to try harder when it comes to building a cohesive, overarching supercluster. It has the constituent parts, but what is needed is stronger glue to stick it together and help connect the bigger picture. Let’s see if 2014 brings a solution to this long term problem.
Last weekend saw the first Idea Transform event, which aimed to uncover new ideas and projects that have the potential to change society for the better. As one of the founders of Idea Transform I’m obviously biased, but all the feedback I had was that everyone that came along learnt lots, worked hard in their teams and had fun at the same time.
Over 100 people attended the weekend in Cambridge, which saw ideas pitched on Friday evening and then teams formed to develop them before judging on Sunday evening. While four teams were selected as winners in the different categories of education, health, community and environment everyone deserves congratulations for the hard work and their achievements.
Rather than bang on about the success of the event, I’d like to share three things that stood out for me:
1 Amazing range of ideas
Over 25 ideas were pitched on Friday night, from mobile learning through technology to calibrate medical devices and an avatar for online clothes shopping. The nine teams that made it to the end of the weekend included charging electric vehicles through the road, experimental maths teaching and mobile phone based biometics. Not just apps and websites!
2 Commitment and support
For all these projects, the idea itself was just a start point. Thanks to their own hard work and the support of the team of experienced mentors, who gave up their weekends to help, projects had really progressed by Sunday evening and the final presentations were incredibly professional and well constructed.
3 Ideas with legs
The aim of Idea Transform is to support projects to help them grow after the weekend, with mentoring, support and advice for all the winners. Sim-Prints, the overall winners, were awarded three months membership of the ideaSpace Enterprise Accelerator and two teams now have the chance to pitch for funding from the Cambridge Angels. Outside of this I saw lots of connections being made that will help projects meet the right people to progress and real enthusiasm amongst everyone to move things forward. I’m confident that at least one of the teams will grow into a fully fledged business in the future.
So it was an exhilarating, exhausting and packed weekend – finally I’d like to thank all the other organisers, our sponsors, particularly ARM, Red Gate Software and BlackBerry, supporters including the Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning (CfEL), mentors, judges, volunteers and speakers for making the first weekend to change the world a weekend to remember.
An unashamed plug this week for Idea Transform, an event I’m helping organise between 20-22 April 2012 (so just a week’s time, depending on when you read this).
Essentially Idea Transform aims to support people with bright ideas that use technology to benefit society in general – whether in the fields of healthcare, education, environment or the community.
While technology has lowered the barriers to turning ideas into reality, the majority of potential projects still come unstuck along the way – either because they are missing a crucial skillset or lack the mentoring support to help overcome inevitable hurdles.
Idea Transform will help these ideas through a combination of events and ongoing mentoring. The first weekend bootcamp event (20-22 April, Cambridge Judge Business School, tickets at www.ideatransform.org) will bring together those with ideas and people with business, development, marketing and creative skills to help them. People pitch their ideas on Friday evening, teams form and then work on ideas over the course of the weekend, before a high profile judging session on Sunday evening. Winners get the opportunity to develop their ideas through mentoring, support and the chance to potentially pitch for funding from the Cambridge Angels.
And for anyone worried that it will just be a weekend of hard work, there will be the chance to network, have fun, listen to high profile speakers and get advice from a team of experienced mentors. We’ve already heard about a whole range of ideas, from mobile health tracking using biometric technology to mobile and experimental maths learning to mapping the disused rail network so we can put it to better use, and there are bound to be many more pitched on the evening itself.
It promises to be an exhilarating, exciting and enjoyable experience – take a look at www.ideatransform.org and I hope to see you there.
- Owlstone, Raspberry Pi and Pneumacare join keynote speaker line-up! (ideatransform.org)
There’s a continual complaint that the UK simply doesn’t produce the numbers of heavyweight tech companies that the US spawns. And looking around, the pattern seems to be true – for every ARM, Sage or CSR in the UK, you could name a dozen similar size companies in the US.
While some of this is gap is obviously down to relative population sizes are there any other factors holding back UK entrepreneurs? This was one of the issues discussed at last week’s Enterprise Tuesday event in Cambridge by an entertaining group of speakers, including company founders and Cambridge Angels, Sherry Coutu, Andy Richards, Robert Sansom and David Gill, managing director of the St John’s Innovation Centre.
The key factor is the ability to scale – the UK creates exactly the same number of startups, per capita, as the US – but only half of them successfully scale up compared to their US rivals. There are plenty of reasons for this – from an inbuilt British fear of change to an inability to cross the chasm
and appeal to the mass market. It seems that for too many UK companies the choice between scaling themselves or selling out is weighted towards the exit option. While this releases investment capital back into the system and gives entrepreneurs the chance to begin again, it has created (in the words of a US VC quoted by Andy Richards) an industrial veal farm in Cambridge, with prized startups nurtured and pampered ready for the inevitable early death/exit.
The UK in general, and Cambridge in particular, has shown that it can grow dominant tech companies, so now is the time for the government and tech ecosystem to encourage entrepreneurs to take a step back, aim higher than an early exit and build businesses that can scale. Given the UK has the ideas we need to move from farming veal calves to growing some bulls……….
For too many people a ‘creative business’ is a contradiction in terms – with lots of creative types unable (or even unwilling) to balance being artistic and actually making some money. Whether a designer, illustrator, artist or PR person there are many ways that the artistic temperament can get in the way of running a successful, money-making enterprise.
At this week’s CamCreative, James Cotton of onespacemedia entertainingly outlined some of the pitfalls that creative people plunge into when running a business. You can download the whole presentation here.
I’d split the eight areas he talks about into two big themes – not being confident in your own abilities and not thinking as a business. The first point is probably part and parcel of being creative, but if you spend your time comparing your £500 website design to the works of Leonardo da Vinci you’re not going to be satisfied. More and more time gets spent chasing perfection, destroying any chance of making money on a job.
Saying that creatives need to think in business terms isn’t about wearing a suit or spending your days ploughing through spreadsheets. Issues like not getting a decent brief, doing speculative work, saying yes when you should say no and poor administration aren’t making you into a slave of the machine – they are making sure you deliver creatively, avoid disputes and essentially get paid.
There’s something in James’ presentation for everyone in the industry. Most of all it should be a wake-up call for all creative businesses – time to realise you need to marry both sets of skills together if you are going to both wow your clients with brilliant work and pay the rent.
- 123 Tips: Developing Creative Business (abundanceadmin.com)
Yesterday’s CUTEC Technology Venture Conference (TVC) in Cambridge provided a lot of interesting talking points. One of the world’s largest student organised business events, it brought together over 400 entrepreneurs, businesspeople, investors, students and start-ups to discuss The Ideas Economy and how it could develop.
Doing justice to all the speakers and activities on the packed programme would require much more space than in my blog, so I’m going to pick a couple of key topics and focus individual posts on them.
The first is the long running debate on the differences in entrepreneurial culture between the UK/Europe and the US. BBC technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones pointed out that there had been a sea change in UK attitudes over the last 30 years – when he left Cambridge in 1981 neither he nor his contemporaries would have dreamed of setting up their own business. But the first dotcom bubble showed people what could be achieved on their own and made entrepreneurship a viable alternative to corporate life. And this has continued with the current bubble enabling braver, disruptive ideas to be tried.
However a panel of US entrepreneur Ted Shelton and adviser/investor/entrepreneur Sherry Couto, chaired by David Rowan of Wired pointed out there are still areas for the UK to work on. Failure is still seen as unremittingly bad, rather than a learning experience, short-term thinking means that entrepreneurs are likely to sell early rather than chase the investment needed to build the next tech giant and there are a lack of public role models to show people what can be achieved with an idea and hard work. Given that the highest profile business leader in the UK is probably Alan Sugar, this final point is definitely one I agree with.
Talking to start-ups and students at the event backed up these points – rather than rushing off to become accountants or consultants many were seriously looking at either starting up their own companies or working for smaller, fast growth businesses. Now we just need to extend that attitude to drive longer-term thinking, unlock investment and maybe, just possibly, the UK can create the next generation of tech businesses to sit alongside Facebook and Google as global household names.
- CUTEC Technology Ventures Conference 2011 (fakeiitian.com)
I had the privilege of being involved with helping to organise last weekend’s Cambridge Startup Weekend. Essentially a Startup Weekend brings together people with ideas and skills to create a new application in just 54 hours. People first pitch ideas and teams then form to work on the most popular ones. The idea is that some of these teams and applications then go onto become real, viable businesses.
Sound exhausting? It was. But what amazed me was the energy and enthusiasm amongst the 90+ delegates. Everyone was incredibly committed to the projects they worked on, despite the fact that they had only just met their team mates or come across the ideas. People were happy to work non-stop through Friday and Saturday night to achieve some pretty incredible things, learn loads and make lasting friendships.
This all made me think – just imagine if you could replicate this energy and teamwork within larger organisations. Innovation would skyrocket, as would morale as everyone worked towards the same goal, rather than in individual silos. Rather than going away on team building retreats/jollies, I believe innovation weekends are something every company should look at – or risk people with ideas just walking out the door.
- Cambridge Startup Weekend unearths new generation of talent (cambridge.startupweekend.org)
- Cambridge Startup Weekend set to find next generation of tech success stories (cambridge.startupweekend.org)