Top technology entrepreneurs fear UK is being left behind

THE UK must match the investment spirit of California’s Bay Area and invest in its education system for the long term to ensure its technology sector is competitive on the international stage, according to leading Yorkshire technology entrepreneurs.

From left, David Richards of WANdisco, Peter Wilkinson, Lee Straffod and Adam Beaumont.

David Richards, chief executive and co-founder of Aim-listed WANdisco, which is based across Sheffield and Silicon Valley, said the UK does not have the equivalent of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States, or the technology institutes of Israel or India.

He said: “As great as universities like Oxford and Cambridge and redbrick universities are, they are very good at arts and sciences, but when it comes to computer science and technology they are just not there. They are not even close.”

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“I’m a little disappointed in the British education system and our ability to really drive the next generation,” he added.

In the technology sector, it is fair to say that there is not always an understanding between further education and employers, said Adam Beaumont, chief executive and founder of telecoms firm Aql, based in Leeds.

However, he said that this can only be solved though closer working between the private sector and education.

“The initiative here starts with the private sector – who must cooperate to ensure their intake are following the right apprenticeship or further education route.

“Partnering with a college or sponsoring research at a university is not a costly or difficult exercise – it just needs more of us to do it.”

Harrogate-based technology entrepreneur Peter Wilkinson said the best source of technology in this country is the universities, but he said the link between university programmes and commerce is “still a little bit tenuous”.

“Universities tend to partner with large corporate partners such as Microsoft, Cisco and BT who by nature are not innovators, they are all slow bureaucratic machines due to their size.”

Securing finance to commercialise these innovations is also an issue, he added.

“There must be a solution out there and it needs to be found quickly if we are to stop falling further and further behind in the world of technology innovation,” he said.

Finding the right skills must be backed up by a spirit of entrepreneurship, according to Mr Beaumont.

“Business angels and investment consortia... must look to the US and match the investment spirit of the Bay Area, which is positively buzzing with finance for start-ups”, he explain- ed.

The Dotforge investment platform, which fast tracks early stage high growth companies, operates from locations including Sheffield and is now being established in Leeds.

Mr Beaumont said that part of the seed help which start-ups need is a mixture of office space and mentoring and this is an area where the Government can offer its support via investment platforms.

Lee Strafford, co-founder of Plusnet and former chairman of Sheffield Wednesday Football Club, who currently sits on the board of Sheffield City Region Local Enterprise Partnership, spoke of the progress made by the Government-backed Tech City initiative.

Also known as the Silicon Roundabout, the initiative launched in 2010 as a way to help grow London’s emerging technology start-up industry.

There may be support for a Tech City-style development in Yorkshire.

Mr Strafford said: “Our colleagues in Tech City, working with the London stock market and UK Government, have fixed all the structural issues around tax and linking the stock market to early stage investment.”

But he suggested that there is still more work to be done.

“If we now change the flow of billions of pounds of public funds from one which goes through academia and then into the hands of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, to an approach of entrepreneurs and then into academia, we would leverage the full potential of the world-class engineering, entrepreneur and skill base we have in this coun- try.”

But Mr Richards said that Tech City is an “example of a nice, easy sound bite”.

He suggested that a longer-term approach by the Government is needed.

However, a spokesman from Tech City said that in the last three years, a large number of policy changes have been made to ensure that businesses, and high growth tech businesses in particular, can flourish in the UK.

He said: “Our entrepreneurs’ visas, reduced capital gains tax, R&D tax credits and patent box scheme all offer growth businesses unrivalled benefits, while the Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme encourages investors to support high-growth companies like never before.”

The Government’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills did not provide a comment when contacted by the Yorkshire Post.

Israel reaping the rewards

HIGH tech has been one of Israel’s main growth engines and companies such as Intel Inc, IBM and Google Inc have major R&D centres in the country.

David Richards said: “Israel went from an arable farming economy 20 years ago to a high-tech economy.

“They didn’t say I know what we’ll do, we’ll find a roundabout, talk about tech clusters, and we’ll hope it’s going to happen.

“What they actually did is they put the technology institutes in Israel and they are now reaping the rewards of it.”