Over the years there have been several discussions about how hard it is to be an entrepreneur in the UK – pointing at the absence of an appropriate infrastructure to support entrepreneurial clustering and the lack of a risk-taking culture, which can embrace failure as a lesson learned.
Taking a step towards change, last year the British government joined forces with entrepreneurs, students and major corporations, aiming to transform East London into an uprising technology cluster. Following the unveiling of the TechCity map by the Prime Minister in November 2011, the “Digital Capital of Europe” (as it was proclaimed) was now in the spotlight. Would the “Silicon Roundabout” be Europe’s equivalent to Silicon Valley in California, or the new Silicon Alley in New York?
By definition a technology cluster is a place where intelligence is connected and the “knowledge spillovers”, as the Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman describes them, become prominent as a result of the free knowledge exchange by the various local actors (firms, entrepreneurs, supporting institutions, etc.). According to Bresnahan, Gambardella and Saxenian (2001), the development of a cluster divides into the stages of formation and growth. The formation starts with the first investments towards new innovations and the bundling of talent (which is exactly what the government is now trying to achieve), while the growth phase begins when the cluster actually captures its target market and begins to attract more talent and supporting institutions (e.g. VCs, consultants, legal firms) to join it. As a result, the benefits to a single firm are also of benefit to the entire region, hence a greater accumulation of talent and expertise at a local level is creating an unparalleled competitive advantage that “distant rivals cannot match”, Porter (1988) explains.
Despite the general enthusiasm around the Techcity, there have been various concerns regarding its future and long term development in terms of: a) the funding available to the region’s new businesses, b) its geographical location against the organic development and structure of the Silicon Fen (in Cambridge) and the Silicon Glen (in Scotland) (Source: The Guardian, Nov. 2011) and c) the fact that the current development programme, created around the Techcity and provided by Entrepreneur First, is only offered to University graduates. Hence Zuckerberg, Gates, or Jobs would not qualify as a Wall Street Journal article describes – nonetheless there’s a misconception here. Let’s be honest 1) if you launch the next Facebook, Microsoft or Apple, I highly doubt that you will ever need to join any enterprise development programme and 2) for that reason Entrepreneur First is focused on graduates, which don’t see themselves in a corporate environment, yet are looking for an alternative route to help them develop as leaders and put their creativity and skills into practice; to become entrepreneurs. As Matt Clifford (CEO, Entrepreneur First) states: “these are the people most likely to postpone the entrepreneurial dream in favour of something else – only to find that they never find time to make the dream a reality”. Therefore, Entrepreneur First gives you the chance to break away from the conventional career path and work on your ‘thing’. If you ask me, this is awesome to say the least.
Whatever the case, one should not forget that Techcity is currently at “version 1.0” and many upgrades as well as “bug fixes” are expected in the future. We should not fail to acknowledge the bigger picture and connect the dots. In my opinion, here are three (of many) reasons explaining why Techcity matters:
It constitutes the next link to an entrepreneurial chain: As previously mentioned along with Techcity, comes Entrepreneur First – backed by the UK government and launched by McKinsey & Co, Entrepreneur First aims to support talented students, who wish to build and grow their businesses, for a period of up to two years. This could be a significant extension to the tremendous work of NACUE (National Association of College and University Entrepreneurs), which launched in 2009 by students and is now supporting more than 40,000 members in 100 colleges and universities. The two organizations could complement each other at a great extent. Considering NACUE is providing leadership training and student enterprise society support at University level, while Entrepreneur First’s curriculum picks up after graduation by helping students to launch their business and put their ideas to market, the two entities automatically create a continuation in the entrepreneurial path of a student, ultimately contributing to the creation of a new generation of entrepreneurs.
It is a new hub in an entrepreneurial ecosystem: The initiative came to fit in nicely with grand enterprise events, such as ‘Silicon Valley comes to the UK’ (SVc2UK) event series, which was hosted at multiple universities in the UK, as well as Techcity itself (at the SVc2Techcity). Moreover, the Techcity initiative also came to feature the activities of rising British startups, such as Enternships, which connects student and graduate talent to startups and small businesses with more than 3000 companies (including Groupon, Paypal, Huddle and others since 2009), and that now supports the operation of Entrepreneur First’s website. As the region develops, further entrepreneurial collaborations will undoubtedly become prominent.
It bridges two contrasting worlds: To some extent the development of Techcity managed to bridge the two contrasting worlds of entrepreneurs and corporates, via the investments and mentorship of major corporations such as Google, Vodafone, Intel, Cisco and other non-tech related companies, towards the development of the region and its startups. During the creation of Entrepreneur First for instance, it was remarkable to see how the McKinsey associates, engagement managers and even senior partners sat down with other corporate executives (even with competitors), university professors, student leaders and young entrepreneurs, to create a joint plan of action on how the programme’s curriculum should be designed and implemented. Everyone had a say and everyone’s opinion mattered.
In this regard, Techcity as an initiative is not an island, but a powerful addition to an enterprise revolution, which began a few years ago by many contributors – NACUE, Sandbox, Enternships and many other enterprise activity-based hubs (including the website you are currently reading!) As Abraham Lincoln once said “I will prepare and some day my chance will come”. Without a doubt, a new wave of entrepreneurship is now underway in the UK, ready to make its landmark in an ever-dominating global digital economy. The nodes are being connected, the synergies and relations around Techcity are becoming denser, and for the ones prepared to jump in the loop, it looks like the day has come – your chance is now.