Revolutionary Measures

Silicon Valley, Europe

San Jose Skyline Silicon Valley

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.

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May 21, 2014 Posted by | Cambridge, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Hubs, bridges and the discovery of America

English: Columbus_1892_Issue-$5.jpg Christophe...

There can be a tendency in Cambridge to think that innovation ends at the city limits, and particularly that we’ve got the monopoly on tech startups in East Anglia.

Proof positive that this isn’t the case was on show last week at SyncNorwich, where more than 300 entrepreneurs, developers and members of the Norwich tech cluster talked about their diverse successes. This included market leaders such as FXhome, which produces special effects software for both Hollywood blockbusters and amateur filmmakers, Liftshare.com, the world’s most popular car sharing site and mobile interaction/payment firm Proxama. A whole host of newer startups, such as targeted mobile advertising company Kuoob, music community site SupaPass and educational software provider Wordwides (set up by a 16 year old) also talked about what they could offer.

There’s obviously been lots of activity in Norwich for quite a while (FXhome has been going for 10 years and Liftshare.com for 15), but what the evening did was give outside endorsement to the cluster. Mike Butcher from Tech Crunch came along and it gave everyone present belief that they were on the right road and that they should be shouting about it. In the days since, I’ve seen emails offering co-working spaces and there’s even a cluster name (Silicon Broads) being bandied about, along with a startup map.

Norwich isn’t the only cluster rising to prominence across Europe – the growth of cloud-based technologies, new agile development methodologies and a focus on entrepreneurship mean they are springing up everywhere. Some people see this as a bad thing – they point to the size of Silicon Valley and wonder how hundreds of disparate European cities can compete or scale. But as Butcher pointed out, the Valley has a 60 year head start and what is needed is to build bridges between the different hubs – after all takes 2 hours to drive from London to Norwich (or Cambridge), the same time to get from one end of Silicon Valley to the other.

What Europe needs to do is to use the nimbleness of having multiple centres to its advantage and turn disparateness into diversity. I’m reminded of the story of the ‘discovery’ of America. At the same time as Christopher Columbus was touting his plans around the courts of Europe, the Chinese Emperor was assembling a great fleet to explore the same area. Given the scale and backing put into the expedition it would have been likely that the first non-native settlers in the present day United States would have been Chinese, not European. However the Emperor died and his plans died with him – there was no alternative power that could take them on. In contrast Columbus, originally Genoese, travelled round Europe for years until he found a backer in the Spanish monarchy. The result? The world we know today.

So it is time that European startups (and political leaders) stopped dreaming of a single super hub that on its own can rival Silicon Valley. It’ll never happen and what we need to do is build bridges between the enormous variety of hubs across Europe. Making everyone aware of what is going on up the road (or further afield) is crucial to driving collaboration, unlocking opportunities and building a successful pan-European tech ecosystem that can break down barriers and silo working and deliver jobs and growth.

December 4, 2013 Posted by | Cambridge, Creative, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Cambridge Clever and Shoreditch Smarts

Last week Mike Lynch, founder of Autonomy, announced the first investment by his latest venture, Invoke Capital. It has put money into Darktrace, a security company founded by Cambridge mathematicians. Darktrace uses Bayesian logic to spot cyber security issues by learning what is normal inside a company network and then flagging behaviour that differs from this.mike-lynch

Lynch is a divisive figure, but whatever your views on him, he built Autonomy into a multi-billion pound business, achieving the biggest ever sale price for a UK tech company when he sold it to HP for £6.2 billion. Of course, since then HP has sacked Lynch, written down Autonomy’s value substantially and asked authorities on both sides of the Atlantic to investigate possible accounting irregularities at the firm.

But two things that Lynch said stood out for me. Firstly, he believes too many European tech companies are sold too early in their development (normally to US rivals) – raising tens of millions rather than billions. Invoke plans to change that by investing for the longer term and providing experienced managers to take businesses to the next level.

The second thing he really encapsulated was the difference between Cambridge and Tech City businesses. Speaking in The Economist, he said “What you will find in Cambridge is something which is fundamentally clever, while what you are going to find in Tech City is something where the raw science isn’t fundamentally clever, but its more attuned to the market and the consumer.”

So the difference is between Cambridge clever and Shoreditch smart – but (as Lynch also says) we need both if we are going to build strong, vibrant tech sector in the UK. After all there’s no point in clever technology if it doesn’t have a market, while there is a limited opportunity for low IP businesses – we already have enough social networks.

What we need is to bring the two clusters together and develop a mutual understanding so that both can learn from each other, cross-fertilise ideas and even work in partnership. Let’s face it – they are only 60 miles away from each other, just a bit more than the distance from San Francisco and Silicon Valley. Some people in Cambridge have a tendency to look down on any ideas that haven’t originated here (or spent years in development in the lab). In contrast denizens of Silicon Roundabout often view Cambridge companies as too technical, too geeky and taking too long to build in comparison with their agile media startups.

Two immediate things would help this necessary cross-fertilisation. Firstly, a forum to bring the two groups together to share ideas and network, and secondly, a realisation by the government that you’ve got to look at the tech sector as a whole. At the moment a lot of effort goes into TechCity but that needs to be widened to encompass tech companies across the UK (not just in Cambridge, but in other clusters too) with a cohesive set of policies that encourage innovation and longer term investing. Otherwise Lynch’s vision of building billion dollar businesses in the UK simply won’t be realised, and that will hurt everybody.

September 25, 2013 Posted by | Cambridge, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Bringing Silicon Valley to the UK

Silicon Valley comes to the UK

Silicon Valley comes to the UK (Photo credit: Cabinet Office)

Looking out at an another chill autumnal morning, the lure of Silicon Valley’s sunshine is increasingly powerful. But there’s a lot more to the success of tech companies in the US than simply climate. The question is what is it and can we in the UK learn how to replicate that success here?

That’s one of the key missions of Silicon Valley Comes to the UK (SVC2UK), a programme of events across the UK that brings across leaders from US companies such as Google, LinkedIn and Facebook to help, nurture and assist local entrepreneurs and their companies. Originally a Cambridge event it has now spread across the UK, covering London and Oxford as well. The theme of this year’s programme is scale – addressing the fact that while the UK and US are pretty evenly matched when it comes to starting up businesses on a per capita basis, the UK’s scale up rate is less than half that of the US.

Another strand of the programme is looking to uncover the next generation of startups through intense bootcamp events. The most interesting one of these is the Future Business weekend being held in Oxford and running in collaboration with SVC2UK.

It is looking to build on the research strength of the UK by providing access to existing patented technologies and essentially allowing teams to generate new ideas and innovative businesses around them. It’s often said that not enough research makes it out of the lab, and the event aims to change this by taking scientific intellectual property and making it available, along with support and mentoring.

Held between 9-11 November the weekend will be run by the Oxford Centre for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (OxCEI) together with the Future Business Pre-Incubator (FBPI) and Silicon Valley Comes to UK (SVCUK). The aim is bring together entrepreneurs, scientists, technologists and mentors to generate ideas and new companies to take existing patented technology to market.

The event uses the proven Idea Transform methodology, which underpinned the extremely successful Idea Transform weekend in Cambridge back in April 2012, providing structure and support to teams through mentoring, team creation, inspiring speakers and networking. And the good news is that selected projects from the event will then be supported through the Future Business Pre-Incubator with access to facilities, resources and ongoing mentoring.

Silicon Valley Comes to the UK starts on 15th November with an event at the Houses of Parliament – to find out more visit the website at http://www.svc2uk.com/

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November 7, 2012 Posted by | Cambridge, Startup | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

California Dreaming

Silicon Valley

Silicon Valley (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There have been innumerable attempts to understand and replicate how Silicon Valley has become the centre of the tech industry – with Tech City being the latest one in the UK. What is the secret sauce that makes California in particular and the US in general such a fertile breeding ground for innovation? 

It’s something I’ve often wondered about, so it was great to hear a first hand account of a learning journey to Silicon Valley. Speaking last week at CamCreative, Liz Weston of Weston Marketing talked about what she’d learnt on an organised trip that saw her visit the likes of Google, LinkedIn, Salesforce.com and Stanford University. She shared four big lessons from the tour:

1              The difference between an opportunity and an idea
Everyone has a different take on what makes an idea viable, from an addressable market to a strong founding team, but the big difference between the UK and US is the willingness to have a go, fail and come back stronger. If we can change attitudes in the UK to say it is better to try and then fail rather than fail to try at all, it will radically shift how companies operate for the better. 

2              Four key opportunities for business development
Execs in Silicon Valley outlined the environment, security, human health and digital/infrastructure as key markets for growth. Anything that reduces complexity in these areas and makes people’s lives easier has potential. Probably not a surprise to most people but worth bearing in mind when pitching any business ideas to investors. 

3              Look at the relationship between the customer and your product/services
It isn’t about the technology per se, but finding an emotional trigger with your customers. Serve a purpose and do it in a way that delights your customers and turns them into your advocates. So, in the same way that when Orange launched in the UK it positioned itself as the cool brand you wanted to be part of, LinkedIn offers the chance to be part of a cloud of intelligence, rather than simply positioning itself as a jobs site. 

4              The importance of innovation
Next year’s revenue won’t come from this year’s cash cow. So everyone in the business needs to be innovating – which can involve changing people’s mindsets. Encourage ideas and capture them – while they may not be immediately useful, they could be in the future. 

I’m sure most people have either heard or tried to put into action some of the lessons above. For me, the main takeaway (and potentially the big difference between the US and UK) is always be open, always be learning and don’t be afraid to take risks. This may not be Silicon Valley’s secret sauce but it is a better way to run a business.

 

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April 2, 2012 Posted by | Cambridge, Creative, Startup | , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

There is no private life anymore

Image representing Ted Shelton as depicted in ...

Image by Judge Business School / judgebusinessschool via CrunchBase

I’ve previously blogged about how social media is leading people to give away a lot more of their personal details than in the past, often unknowingly. This then triggers a backlash (such as with Facebook’s recent face recognition update), but the general trend is towards openness/lack of privacy (delete depending on your viewpoint).

Discussions at last week’s CUTEC Technology Ventures Conference brought this topic to the fore. Serial Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ted Shelton shared his views on innovation, pointing out that the three driving forces of social, mobile and cloud are driving true market disruption. But what caught my attention was his later, bold statement – There is no gap between public and private life anymore. Ted sees this as a force for good – making people more reflective about their private actions as they directly impinge on their public persona. And the more you share, the more people will share back and the faster you will learn.

I agree with the positives, but there are a number of issues that trouble me. First off, I think people are becoming less, rather than more reflective – happily sharing private information that either directly, negatively impacts their lives or alternatively bores people to death. And current technology doesn’t give you the ability or time to build and demonstrate your complete persona online. You have to show just parts of it – your Twitter profile is a few lines, not the length of War and Peace, meaning that by default you need to focus different social networks on particular traits or areas of your life. So, for now at least I’ll stick to partitioning my public and private life – to avoid embarrassment if nothing else.

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June 13, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Where’s the best place for Innovation?

The west end of King's College Chapel seen fro...

Image via Wikipedia

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.

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June 10, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

   

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