Jeremy Hunt’s pledge in last week’s Autumn Statement to make the UK the “world’s next Silicon Valley” was music to the ears of those involved in Britain’s thriving technology community. It is a laudable ambition, but as everyone working in UK tech knows, the foundations that can turn it into a reality were laid many years ago.
Everywhere I turn, it seems that organisations in the UK tech and venture capital ecosystem are turning 10. We at FieldHouse Associates celebrated our first decade in April, but there are so many others marking the same anniversary. Surely, I can’t be the only one who has noticed?
There’s Tech City (now Tech Nation), Wayra, Level 39, ACF Investors (formerly the Angel CoFund), the British Business Bank – even SEIS, the tax break that has encouraged so many investors to take their first steps into the wonderful world of backing early-stage tech businesses. All have recently celebrated – or will soon celebrate – a decade of existence. This is no coincidence.
With plans emerging for a new industrial strategy with a focus on digital innovation and green technology, the economic recovery – when it comes – will be led by UK tech companies. We can absolutely build the new Silicon Valley here, but it is important to do it our own way. We have so much to work with.
As those 10-year milestones come and go, we should take time to look forward as well as back. London is no longer the emerging tech ecosystem it was in 2012, but one with an established global reputation. A tumultuous few months in politics and economics has not changed that underlying truth, although it does highlight the danger of failing to adapt to changing circumstances.
If the first 10 years were about building a community and creating mutual support networks, the next decade has to be about building on that success and making it count for the UK. To truly rival or exceed Silicon Valley requires retooling the economy to plug innovation into every sector. We know we can do it if we work together.
Now, surely, is the time to use our world-class early-stage technology sector as a platform to power the UK economy forwards during a period of real uncertainty. To put it in startup terms, we have spent a decade or more building our product; we now need to come out of beta mode and go for growth.
The FieldHouse story is an example of what is possible in a well-functioning ecosystem. I had been working in fast-growth tech and venture capital for several years before launching FieldHouse. It was exciting, but I don’t think I really understood that we were just at the incubation stage back in 2007/2008. It all felt so new – and it was the same everywhere you looked.
It was an exhilarating time. After the global financial crisis of 2007-2008, things were really beginning to happen in London: VCs were no longer just an “American thing”, but were starting to take shape here and build portfolios of promising homegrown companies; Library House (which, for those not around at the time, was a forerunner to Crunchbase) was distributing data on funding rounds and investments; even “The Apprentice” had started offering what was in effect a VC investment for a startup idea, rather than a job working for Lord Sugar.
In the public consciousness, “tech” was morphing from being a pure hardware play – Blackberry, Nokia and the rest – to being about innovation and problem solving. This, of course, had always been the case for those working in the industry, but it was an important moment as the true power of the underlying technology (code, in other words) tipped into the mainstream.
Across London and beyond, a new wave of fabulous companies were starting out, backed, for the first time, by investors based in the same city as them. This is the true roots of the chancellor’s Silicon Valley vision. And yet, as the 2010s began, neither the general public nor the Government viewed our ecosystem as a real thing… yet.
That started to change with the Coalition Government. Ministers travelled to Silicon Valley and returned with a determination to create a world-beating ecosystem in London. While that direction from the top helped, it was the entrepreneurs and the risk takers – not the politicians – who really made it happen. Over the next five years we had Silicon Roundabout, Tech City (later Tech Nation), Here East, Level 39 and any number of incubators and co-working spaces. Companies to emerge from that explosion of creativity include Revolut, which came through Level 39, along with many of the unicorns the UK has produced and of which we are rightly incredibly proud.
FieldHouse was part of that new wave and I am proud that we still sit in the middle of the ecosystem, building new relationships all the time and staying in touch with old friends. Today, we have an expanding team of 25 people from a diverse range of backgrounds. Our client base is growing all the time, reflecting the UK’s ever-evolving tech ecosystem.
Looking back to that formative period a decade ago, it shows what is possible with clarity of thought and a common purpose. With an eye on the turbulent economy and difficult political situation we face today – and with our shared goal of replicating, or even surpassing, Silicon Valley – there has to be a lesson in that.