Tech Nation Talks East of England: ‘Futurecorns’ developing tomorrow’s tools

Kane Fulton, July 8, 2020 5 min read

Following a break in the touring schedule, we returned with our seventh Tech Nation Talks event, held (virtually) in the East of England. It was opened by our Head of Entrepreneur Engagement Liz Scott, who welcomed founders, stakeholders and attendees from across the region.

A panel session followed moderated by Thea Goodluck, our Entrepreneur Engagement Manager for the East of England who supports digital tech founders in Cambridge; Norfolk; Suffolk; Essex and Hertfordshire.

Before we reveal what was discussed, we would like to thank our partners Openreach and Barclays for supporting our Tech Nation Talks events. Both are pivotal in supporting digital businesses through the provision of valuable infrastructure, and in championing the UK tech sector.

Performing in Europe

Founders based in the region, as they are across the UK, are having to adapt to Covid-19. The good news is that there is capital available to those who rise to the challenge.

Last year’s Tech Nation Report found that companies based in Cambridge raised the highest amount of tech investment in the UK between 2015 and 2018. This year, Tech Nation Report 2020 revealed that the university city attracted the ninth highest amount of tech investment in Europe in 2019; £500m was invested in Cambridge-based companies – more than half of the £800m total invested in digital tech in the entire region.

Large raises in Cambridge have included robotics scaleup CMR Surgical, which raised £195m in a Series C round in September. More recently, analytics software developer Featurespace raised £30m in June to fight financial crime. Outside of Cambridge, Norwich-based Tropic Biosciences raised £22.5m in the same month to supercharge bananas and tropical crops to save them from disease.

In looking to the future, almost £1bn (£998m) was invested in emerging tech companies in the East of England between 2015 and 2019. Tech Nation Report 2020 identified 12 high-value scaleups (or ‘Futurecorns’) in the region that are valued between $250m and $800m and on their way to achieving ‘Unicorn’ status with a $1bn valuation.

Results of a poll we ran with our event’s attendees

Covid-19 in the East of England

The panel session began by asking if Covid-19 had changed the long-term narrative for the region in terms of investment and emerging tech talent. Tim Robinson, Chief Operating Officer at Tech East, was upbeat. “I think the narrative is a really positive one,” he said. “I don’t think it’ll change at all in the long term.”

Referencing the region’s aforementioned investment wins, Tim said that companies developing AI, robotics and cybersecurity tools would be required by businesses, society, and government more than ever post-crisis. At the same time, he encouraged the digital tech sector to set priorities and collaborate to improve upon what existed before.

Sarah Mintey, CEO of Tech Nation Rising Stars 1.0 winner Developing Experts, said that it had been a “challenging, but exciting” year and that Covid-19 allowed her edtech company to be “discovered”. The company waived its license fee payment during the outbreak.

At the end of last year, Developing Experts secured an order with the Chinese Government’s NEIS Future School Lab division to supply 1500 schools with its Science curriculum software. It was scheduled to roll out in February before the pandemic delayed plans until September.

Power of the mission

Healx, which develops AI-powered biotech to discover new treatments for rare diseases, secured $56m (around £49m) in a Series B round in October last year. The Cambridge-based company has doubled its headcount every year since launching in 2014. Slowed by Covid-19, it is adapting its plans as it aims to repeat the feat in 2020.

Healx cofounder and CEO Tim Guilliams shared two learnings related to hiring and investment that have helped keep the company focused during the pandemic.

“I don’t think I really appreciated the power that ‘mission’ can have for companies,” he said. “Cofounders and startups should stick to theirs and not compromise.”

He continued: “Ours has been to find treatments for rare diseases at scale. Having that North Star really helped us to attract the right people – such as our new CTO Meri Williams who has the rare disease EDS. Meri is aligned with our mission and in my biased opinion is the coolest woman in UK tech.”

When it comes to investment, Tim said that events like the pandemic, “let you see how good your investors really are.” Likening investors to strategic partners, or “late cofounders”, he praised Atomico and Balderton, who supported the company’s Series B and Series A raises respectively.

In offering an investor’s viewpoint, Carol Cheung, Principal at Cambridge Innovation Capital, said that her priority during the pandemic had been to protect her existing portfolio companies and help them survive. At the same time, she has been on the lookout for “new and exciting” business opportunities.

“The entire investment community, not just the VC side of things, has been negatively affected by Covid-19,” she said. “Every VC reacts differently in light of the pandemic depending on their own funding position as they have very different risk appetites.”

Beyond the pandemic

As the panel progressed, we heard about the emergence of trends around Covid-19. One panellist predicted a rise in global collaborations where people “forget about their own personal interest and focus on doing the right thing.”

In the healthtech space, that could involve working on innovative projects remotely to coincide with a push towards virtual and decentralised clinical trials.

With the Black Lives Matter movement placing diversity under a magnifying scope, it was noted how certain VC firms are creating dedicated funds exclusively focused on supporting diverse teams.

Their portfolio companies, it was suggested, could move to double down on HR training to shape and enforce diversity policies, encouraged at board level and measured using benchmarks and KPIs.

In sounding out the next generation of tech talent, Developing Experts’ Sarah called for companies to better promote their opportunities and roles in a way that brings them to life. This could include installing 360-degree cameras in work environments, which happens in the oil sector, to provide insight into different tech roles including how their teams operate.

Expanding on the education piece, Tech East’s Tim envisioned a future where traditional education providers collaborate with non-traditional ones (such as Developing Experts) in addition to coding camps, MOOCs (massive open online courses) and training organisations like Cambridge Spark.

While the East of England isn’t immune to the harmful effects of Covid-19, by the time the panel drew to an end it felt like the region was in a better position to cope than many areas of the UK.

The majority of issues discussed were reflective of the long-term picture: from education and building a talent pipeline to fostering community, promoting diversity and encouraging cross-sector collaboration.

It should make for encouraging reading for the many ambitious digital tech founders who call the East of England home.

Community, East of England