The quest for a UK Silicon Valley must look beyond London

London Silicon Valley UK

As probably the UK’s largest and most successful celebration of the technology and innovation ecosystem, London Tech Week is undoubtedly a good thing — a chance to convene operators, investors, policymakers, and other key stakeholders to celebrate achievements and point the way ahead. But it is also a missed opportunity to engage and represent the entire country.

This isn’t about dragging London down or simply redistributing the fruits of the capital’s innovation. It’s about recognising the achievements and potential of the many high-quality innovation hubs beyond the boundary of the M25 and bringing them ‘inside the tent’ as part of a more cohesive and truly national ecosystem – one that is fit for accomplishing the government’s mission of making the UK a science and technology superpower on the world stage.

Ironically, Silicon Valley — the original tech and innovation ecosystem as we understand the idea today, and the model the government repeatedly says it wants to emulate here in the UK — has long understood that an ecosystem has to be more than just one city, with the tech community there encompassing the entire Bay Area.

Some of the biggest tech giants today originated in — and are still based in — Palo Alto, Cupertino, Mountain View, etc., rather than San Francisco itself.
In the UK on the other hand, it too often feels like London — or at best the ‘Golden Triangle’ of London, Oxford, and Cambridge — is a monolith, disconnected from the rest of the innovation community around the UK.

This is counterproductive when — as it struck me on a visit to the Bay Area with the current Future Worlds cohort last month — places like Southampton, which has a university that is also world-leading in the fields of science, technology, and engineering, are no further away or harder to reach from London than those Bay Area outposts are from San Francisco.

Joining the dots

If they can create a cohesive ecosystem encompassing the whole region there, why have we not yet joined the dots and expanded the core of the innovation community here? In fact, we have an advantage that we are not yet making the most of – as a small island occupying only one timezone and with relatively short travel times between major cities, it should be much easier to work cohesively to build a truly national ecosystem.

With their existing strong links through collaborative research, universities have the potential to be the perfect vector for uniting a truly nationwide tech and innovation ecosystem in the UK that gives equal priority and opportunity to hotspots of high-quality innovation around the whole country.

This has happened in the US, where institutions like Stanford, Berkeley, and MIT regularly lead the world in terms of the number of startups founded by past and present students, researchers, and staff that raise more than $1m. Meanwhile, in the UK we are mired in a debate about the spinout process that has been at best unhelpfully simplistic and at worst actively harmful to progress.

This London Tech Week, we need to see a commitment from the government to adequately support centres of innovation across the whole UK. For the UK to deliver the revolutionary impact on the world stage that it is undoubtedly capable of, we must put an emphasis on helping brilliant people at our universities to become founders in the first place and turn world-changing ideas into globally scalable businesses.

Support needs to come at the earliest stages to support the many, not just further down the line for the few who make it in spite of limitations. This is especially the case in the regions, where the quality is there but support has been lacking.

In much the same way as the Great Exhibition of 1851 represented and drove an unprecedented scale of ambition and impact that established the strength of the UK’s innovation on the world stage, the thing that must underpin all of this is a transformation in mindset, prioritising radical, high-risk, high-speed action over more of the same rhetoric.

Ben Clark is director at Future Worlds