Tech startups should start exploiting the government spotlight
Has anyone else noticed that the government has a lot of time for technology these days? Not only has it gone all out promoting its “Tech City” initiative, talking about how the IT sector can drive innovation, attract foreign...
This makes good political sense, of course. Financial institutions are in everybody's bad books at the moment, and manufacturing is in the doldrums, whereas the cluster of technology companies in East London is a competitive and collaborative, self-sustaining ecosystem. With a modest amount of investment (£400 million) and a new marketing campaign, the government has been able to claim at least some of the credit for a revolution that was under way years ago.
Mind you, I don't see anyone in Tech City complaining. At the end of last year, Eric Van Der Kleij, chief executive of the UK government's Tech City Investment Organisation (UKTI), said that the most important thing central government could do was “stay out of the way and not mess it up”. He described the role of government as “throwing a spotlight” on what was happening - and that is exactly what it has done.
To some extent, this has paid off. The cluster has grown rapidly, with latest estimates putting the number of startups in Tech City at over 600, although only about a third of these are technology-oriented, according to Duedil. The hype around Tech City has also attracted the attention of some Austin-based tech companies, which recently sent a delegation to London with the aim of identifying potential partnerships and growth opportunities.
Moreover, a handful of larger tech companies, such as Cisco, Intel and Google have set up offices in the area, giving Tech City some credibility as a “technology hub”, with talk of expanding into the Olympic Park after the Games are over.
But there is so much more that the Tech City community can do to exploit the government's newfound interest in technology. In particular, the decision to rewrite the IT syllabus is a golden opportunity for startups to foster ties with schools and offer apprenticeships, subsidised by the government, to help young people carry their new programming skills into the world of work.
It is surprising how few companies in Tech City have succeeded in creating links with local schools on the back of Education Minister Michael Gove's announcement last month. Ben Rometsch, managing director of Solid State Group and one of the directors of the Hoxton Mix said that the idea has never been mentioned in his recent conversations with Tech City London & Partners and the UKTI.
“We were approached a long time ago (maybe 5 years or so) with regards to getting involved with schools in London, mentoring them with an entrepreneur-type course, but it didn't go anywhere,” he said. “We have offered to help but have not been taken up on our offer. A shame! We're only a small company of 17 people but I still feel we have something to add.”
If the government is serious about its intention for the IT sector to drive economic recovery, then the education system will inevitably become a feeder for the industry. Charles Armstrong, CEO of Trampoline Systems and founder of The Trampery, said that Gove's announcement will open up the field for experimentation and diversity in computer-related teaching.
“There's no central recipe starting from September. You're going to see some technology-focused academies really running with that and piloting approaches that may be adopted elsewhere,” he said. “I really hope that imaginative ways are found to start linking entrepreneurs and technology startups in with what schools are doing.”
A few organisations have started to foster their own links with young people. For example, Apps For Good goes into schools and teaches students to building their own applications for Android. And London Hackspace holds evenings for children, where they can go along and experiment with the equipment there.
One educational institution that really has managed to get the ball rolling is Hackney Community College, which is launching an apprenticeship scheme to help more local children benefit from the borough's thriving business ecosystem. The college is rewiring its syllabus to mirror the work that local businesses are doing, giving students the best possible chance of gaining work experience.
“East London is a petri dish for these new approaches, so the ones that are successful here can be adapted and scaled up throughout the rest of the UK,” said Armstrong.
This is an opportunity that must not be missed. With the government gaining so much from the success of the UK's technology sector, it's time the technology sector started demanding something in return.