Talent key to helping AI sector unlock ‘huge opportunity’

Kane Fulton, June 9, 2021 3 min read

What’s next for the UK’s AI sector? That was the question asked at Tech Nation’s recent virtual event held to explore how the UK is scaling and levelling up its AI ecosystem.

The event was run in partnership with the UK Government’s Office for AI & the UK AI Council to support the development of the new National AI Strategy set to be published later this year.

The National AI Strategy will unleash the transformational power of AI, making the UK a global centre for the development, commercialisation and adoption of responsible AI. It will focus on growing the economy while promoting ethical practice and strengthening resilience in the face of change by emphasising skills, talent and R&D.

New data released by Tech Nation shows the UK now has more than 1,300 AI companies with a collective turnover of almost $2B – a 600% increase in the number of firms over the last decade. In the same period, venture capital investment rocketed from $120m to more than $3.4B in 2020.

The UK’s AI sector now employs more than 30,000 people, and more than half of the top 10 scaling AI companies are based outside of London. Highlighting the breadth of AI tech talent across the UK, Tech Nation CEO Gerard Grech encouraged companies to apply for Tech Nation’s AI 3.0 growth programme before June 30.

“The subsector really is flourishing right across the UK and 2021 looks set to be another record year,” he said. “These figures matter a great deal because a resilient AI ecosystem means a resilient future of the UK.”

Huge opportunity

The event was opened by Tabitha Goldstaub, cofounder of CogX and Chair of the UK AI Council, who was encouraged by the stats despite them showing that the number of AI companies founded between 2019 and 2020 decreased by 50%.

“I was concerned to see the decrease, but I wasn’t disheartened,” she said. “To me, this shows just how huge the opportunity is and warns of the potential to squander it.”

Tabitha called for startup founders and leaders to help shape the National AI Strategy by completing an online survey before June 20.

The panel discussion that followed saw Tech Nation alumni companies Darktrace, Gapsquare and Greyparrot discuss topics such as diversity and talent, which emerged as the number one scaling challenge.

Harry Rhys Davies, Chief of Staff at Greyparrot and former Tech Nation Applied AI lead, said that talent is the “driving force” of UK AI companies and that data science and engineering roles are in the highest demand.

He added that finding commercial leads with experience in selling and marketing products is especially tricky for the UK’s deep tech companies, which saw a record year for investment in 2020 according to Tech Nation Report 2021.

Zara Nanu, CEO at Applied AI 1.0 alumnus Gapsquare, said that businesses must “think outside of the box” post-Covid-19 to attract diverse talent, going beyond using gender decoders when writing job descriptions to restructuring roles and their required skills.

She said that women will miss out on top jobs in data science and machine learning in the next five years if action is not taken due to just 10% of women working in that talent pool (and 24% of women working in STEM in total).

Darktrace has released 10 major products in the last seven years. Cofounder and CPO Dave Palmer said that this was made possible by hiring people with diverse backgrounds and interests and helping them to develop skills in areas such as cybersecurity and machine learning.

“In our last reporting period we had a positive gender pay balance on the side of women, which is incredibly unusual in a tech company anywhere in the world and is something we’re really proud of,” he said.

World-class destination

Closing the event with a fireside chat, Sana Khareghani, Head of the Office for AI, said that the new AI strategy will build on work carried out to grow AI technologies and attract skilled people to the UK.

The Office for AI has increased the number of PhDs in the subsector in recent years through 16 new centres for doctoral training in the UK. In addition to attracting talent, it has retained people through fellowships having announced 2,500 AI conversion courses at Masters level for students from non-STEM academic backgrounds.

Sarah Drinkwater, Director of Beneficial Tech at Omidyar Network, said that the UK is well-positioned to continue attracting talent on the strength of its investment landscape, “world-class” universities and culture.

“I think there is a massive opportunity around incredible talent here and the conversations I have with founders makes me so optimistic,” she said.

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