As it happened: Tech Nation on Tour – London

Data & research, Tech Nation news

Kane FultonKane Fulton, May 17, 2018

Welcome to the live blog. Latest updates will appear at the top.

Tech Nation CEO Gerard Grech opens proceedings by introducing the fourth Tech Nation report – Tech Nation Report 2018 – which he says is the “best, most ambitious and open yet”. For the first time all the data from the report is open and available online – read it to discover the latest insights into the UK’s tech sector.

Putting the UK on the global map

Grech says that 2018 is time for the UK to shift up a gear if it’s to continue building great companies with a global impact. The vision for the UK as a whole is to make it the best place to start and grow a digital business. There’s a new generation of globally ambitious tech companies creating highly paid jobs and putting the UK on the global map.

Competition for talented entrepreneurs and people is global and fierce, Grech says, warning about France and Germany’s efforts to attract the “best and brightest talent” to their cities. Tech Nation welcomes that competition, which has been a long time coming, he adds. “When our continental partners raise their game, we are forced to raise ours too.”

Building a national network

The Tech Nation team’s mission has four parts: the first is to build a national network of ambitious entrepreneurs and grow its capabilities through lifecycle programmes. Some of these, such as Founders’ Network, have been piloted in the North. The second part is to continue teaching people how to build and businesses by expanding the content and reach of Digital Business Academy. Third, it will work hard to attract talented tech entrepreneurs from around the world via the Tech Nation Visa scheme. All of this will be underpinned, like all of Tech Nation’s initiatives, by data, stories, events, research and media campaigns. Finally, Tech Nation will focus special efforts on three tech sectors to build the UK’s competitive advantage; they are FinTech, which is being announcing next month; Artificial Intelligence, and a third to be announced soon.

How UK tech can thrive

Hon Matt Hancock MP, Secretary of State, Digital, Culture, Media and Sports, says that the tech sector’s impact over the last decade has been huge. It has grown over 2.5 times faster than the broader economy and is booming, with “real opportunities for investment”. However, Hancock believes there is more to do if the UK is to fulfill its potential – and fibre-optic networks, along with 5G connectivity, present real opportunities but require people with necessary digital skills. Coding should be compulsory, he says, and digital training should be expanded to adults. “The answer lies in working together to create conditions for success,” he says. “That’s why Tech Nation is so valuable.”

Digital jobs are on the rise

Tech Nation’s Insight lead George Windsor says that the tech sector is expanding rapidly across the entire region and is found in digital suburbs as well as digital cities – there are 2.1 million jobs in the UK digital tech economy, and it continues to grow. Jobs and skills are an important parts of the mix, Windsor says, and the Tech Nation 2018 report shows that jobs in digital and tech are on the rise. Between 2014 and 2017, digital tech employment rose by 13.2 per cent. Digital tech jobs are better paid that non-digital tech and more productive. However, diversity remains a key challenge for UK tech, Windsor concludes, saying that there’s much more to do.

‘Digital suburbs’ are driving the economy

Global connectivity drives success, says Windsor, and as a tech ecosystem the UK is punching above its weight. The report looks at how its clusters (or “digital suburbs”) can become better connectivity to increase their market research. Tech Nation Report 2018 makes a series of active recommendations for ambitious entrepreneurs, one of which is for the whole of the UK to make the most of its global connections, as London does.

Bristol came top for productivity for the local tech ecosystem, with three times higher than national average. The report recommends finding new ways to engage with corporates, as collaboration can benefit big corporates and smaller tech companies alike. Eighty-three per cent of clusters cited access to talent as their biggest challenge, and more information on challenges and strengths across the UK can be found in an interactive map that features in this year’s report.

Specialisms elevate the UK’s position

Harry de Quatteville from Telegraph Media, who is fielding questions to a panel, asks BGF Ventures advisor and ex-Moonfruit CEO Wendy Tan how the UK sustains its position as the third best tech hub. She points to sector strengths that are attracting investment such AI and Blockchain.

LoveCrafts co-founder and CEO Cherry Freeman, who conducts four or five interviews a week to hire new recruits, agrees with Tan White, highlighting the UK’s expertise in machine learning. Experts in deep tech are scarce across the UK but can be found in Cambridge (a “world-leading hub for AI, machine learning, mathematics and science), she says, making it the ideal location for her company.

Emily Orton, CMO of Darktrace, says that her company benefits from tech specialists, but the length of time to find such recruits slows the company down. “We have to find people who are experienced, as we’re not big enough to train people up,” she says.

The sector can adapt to Brexit

Tan-White believes that the UK will adapt to Brexit’s challenges and needs to be part of the single market in Europe to compete with China and the US. Orton agrees about the UK and its need to adapt, highlighting sector strengths around AI. A question is posed around how the UK is made a more attractive place for people to do business in multiple regions post-Brexit. Sandy McKinnon, General Partner at Pentech Ventures, highlights how Barclays has set up Eagle Labs and Rise accelerator spaces up and down the country as an example of providing distributed support services.

The ‘selling out’ epidemic is real

The panel is now pondering whether or not we need more listings of tech businesses.  Tan White thinks that the UK has a tendency to sell out early because of funding. The whole funding ecosystem, she says, needs to grow its ambition. LoveCrafts’ Freeman says that she wouldn’t sell out so long as she could see tangible profits. Starting a business as a quick way to earn money would be “daft”, she says, adding that there are much quicker and easier ways to do so.

Diversity remains a key challenge

A member of the audience has asked how the tech sector fixes its problem with diversity – particularly when it comes to encouraging more women to work tech. Tan White argues for better communication of available roles, looking beyond coding and into areas such has product management, UX, interface, marketing and media. She points out that only three per cent of VC partners are women, and that it’s, “necessary to change the capital situation if the UK wants to build more companies ran by women.”

McKinnon, from Pentech Ventures, says that two of the companies in his fund are ran by women, adding that he hires people who he believes can deliver a return irrespective of their gender. “I’m seeing more business plans from women – I see the waves changing, “he says. “However, there’s more we can do.”

Retaining talent is critical

The diversity problem isn’t only about attracting women, according to various people on the panel, it’s retaining them too. Orton from Darktrace believes that retaining talent is critical, which is why her company trains recruits on the job – something that she says is not done by choice – particularly in certain sectors of tech. “In cyber security the talent just doesn’t exist,” she says. “We can’t recruit enough so we take bright people and train them on the job.”

When it comes to attracting talent from abroad, Tan White says that more companies need to be made aware of Tech Nation’s Tier 1 Exceptional Talent Visa Scheme. “As a UX expert, are you likely to get a Visa? Maybe not, but as a machine learning specialist you are,” she says. “I’m hugely optimistic and all the trends are going up in terms of funding and employment – I don’t see why it won’t continue that way.”

That’s the end of our London Tech Nation tour live blog. Check out what happened at our Cambridge event here.