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Update 6/10/2021: The latest figures show that the UK now has 112 tech unicorns.
Original article follows…
The UK recently joined the US and China as the one of only three nations in the world to have created 100 tech unicorns – private companies valued at $1bn+.
It is easy to gloss over this milestone in a climate of rapid tech growth and to take the UK’s position within the global tech economy for granted. Reaching a century of unicorns is a fantastic milestone, but to coin a phrase – it is only the end of the beginning.
Unlike the tech unicorns we see today – whose value has come from mobile, social, and location – the next 100 tech unicorns will hail from the deeptech sector; comprising a new generation of companies that use cutting-edge technologies to solve complex problems (that includes artificial intelligence, robotics, blockchain, and quantum computing) and will importantly derive their value from data, quantum, and artificial intelligence.
The fact that Tractable – the 100th Unicorn – is an AI business, and not, say, an ecommerce business, says a lot about how much has changed. This means the process that got us to our first 100 unicorns isn’t repeatable. We need to actively shape the road to 200 – and be looking ahead to 300.
The UK needs to see more breakthrough companies where two sectors or specialisms meet – think AI and healthcare, for example. This will unleash new products, technologies and even sectors – which are unique and transformative – not just making the same stuff better. It is something the UK is well placed to do.
There is a clear three-point plan to building new infrastructure to scale the next 100 unicorns.
First, given that more and more unicorns will be research based, universities must step up and act as hubs for technological innovation, working with industry and scaling tech innovations; entrepreneurship and academia are not mutually exclusive.
Second, we need to move much faster on this. While there are many good examples already of industry and academia working together in the UK (think Oxford University Innovation), we are nowhere near the likes of the US and China at the scale of implementation.
We need more agile and responsive regulatory techniques, such as testing grounds, to back innovation while providing protection for all of us as citizens and consumers.
“We have to keep up the effort and pace as the next 100 unicorns won’t appear by magic.”
And third, we must harness the possibilities of remote working practices and networks to provide access to the best international talent.
Google UK’s decision to close Google Campus and make it virtual is a move that reflects these changes. Opened in 2012, the coworking space proved game-changing for startups, including many of the UK’s first unicorns.
While every milestone deserves recognition, this one comes at a critical moment. It would be easy for the UK tech sector (and those who support it) to rest on our laurels; to say that things are going great. But there are many countries who are working to take third place from us.
Unicorns mean jobs, national modernisation and money in the UK economy. We have to keep up the effort and pace as the next 100 unicorns won’t appear by magic.
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