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On the 17th January, Prime Minister Theresa May outlined 12 objectives sought from a proposed “hard” Brexit. The point that really caught my attention, and that of Britain’s science and tech community was point 10 - keep the UK the best place for science and innovation.
Mrs May rightly stated that as a nation we have a proud history of leading and supporting cutting edge innovation, however, conversations in the UK tech scene show that we are in desperate need of more support. Criticism of the UK government really took hold when CES organiser, Gary Shapiro, said that the UK government’s lack of support for start-ups attending the CES tech show was a “source of embarrassment”.
I don't believe that the statements from the government have yet been sufficient for firms to confidently invest in UK tech. With May and Trump’s post-Brexit trade deal discussions underway, and EU funding for U.K.-based funds likely to be withheld in the upcoming negotiations, the Prime Minister must now look to provide clarity in the coming weeks on how this objective, along with the other eleven, will be achieved.
Aside from supporting companies to promote themselves abroad, there are three core things the UK government must do better to ensure continued growth and innovation within our tech sector.
The first: make it easier to attract, recruit and retain top talent. That means significantly expanding the fast track skilled visa programmes and giving academic talent the possibility and comfort to choose Britain’s universities as their home for research.
Less than point one (0.1) per cent of the 335,000 immigrants who came to the UK within the last year were accepted on the basis of being highly skilled tech talent. A larger portion need to be well-skilled and positioned to help grow the UK’s tech economy.
The government must make it a priority to nurture students of STEM subjects into world-class digital talent and complement this with oustanding digital talent from abroad both as university students and employees. Companies will thrive from a UK base if we make it simple to attract, recruit and retain top talent - whether that talent is homegrown, from neighbouring EU countries or further afield. The net benefit in terms of new jobs, consumer spending power in the domestic economy and ultimately local management capability and angel investors for the next generation of startups is overwhelming.
The second: be our own sophisticated customers to UK-based tech companies and encourage businesses large and small to do likewise.
Small companies depend on larger organisations in the UK - for example, many startups will be building B2B products and services to sell to these larger businesses. The government must prioritise or set in place a commitment that where possible, tech systems, software and services will be assessed, purchased and integrated from home champions. In London and across the UK, they have easy access to these sophisticated customers in financial services and advertising in particular - for now.
Be a great home for capital
Thirdly, continue incentivising seed investment with tax breaks and multiply the funds allocated to invest alongside the existing home venture industry and catalyse new home venture firms.
Conditions need to be right within the UK so that investors continue to stay here. Instead of barely plugging the potential gap left by pulled EIF funding, the government must address how British companies can hope to compete with their US and Chinese counterparts, who benefit from billions, not millions, of funding.
The UK’s tech scene can continue to thrive by focusing on its strengths - for instance fintech, fashion-tech and e-commerce - and making sure it continues to lead the way in these areas. This could manifest itself in the form of additional government support for these particular sectors, or new schemes and incubator programmes like that at Level39 in Canary Wharf designed to help startups operating in these areas.
We must unite to reassure startups and large firms alike that we will work with, and rally against, where necessary, the Government to defend the UK’s tech hub crown and the city's strength in tech ventures: access to talent; access to capital; access to local, sophisticated customers and partners who are confident enough to innovate with the best of Europe's burgeoning tech ecosystem - whatever shape Brexit finally takes.
All comment to be attributed to Richard Muirhead, General Partner at OpenOcean - a European early-stage software company venture firm. Follow him at @richardmuirhead
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