Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

Innovation And Culture - Reflections On My UK Trip

Posted by Tom Foremski - July 20, 2009

I just got back from the UK spending much of my time with the Traveling Geeks, a group of leading Silicon Valley bloggers and journalists meeting with UK government agencies, UK tech companies, and startups.

It was a very good trip. Here are some notes:

- There are some well established UK startups with good business models and they are profitable. One example is Seatwave.com, which trades show tickets between fans. Spotify and Spinvox are also doing very well. Are they still startups if they have a business model and are profitable?

- Startups face the same problems as those here - funding. There are very UK VC firms and few angels. One estimate I was given was that in the Cambridge area there was just 5 million pounds ($8.26m) available for VC investments. A puny amount. Some startups are seriously considering relocating to the US for better access to investment capital.

- Successful European entrepreneurs have a tendency to go sailing and not come back. But that's not always true. I met some serial entrepreneurs in Cambridge: Stuart Evans, chairman of Novacem, a developer of a unique type of "green" concrete;RichardGreen.jpg Richard Green (photo), CEO of Ubisense; sherrycoutu.jpgthe very impressive Sherry Coutu, (photo)a rare woman serial entrepreneur and one of the hosts of our Cambridge tour; also Steve Kennedy from Nettek.

- Cambridge Innovation. The area around Cambridge University is known as Silicon Fen and represents the European innovation capital. There is more money invested in innovation in this region than anywhere else in Europe. A key part of this infrastructure is the organization Cambridge Angels. I met a couple of the Cambridge Angels (Stuart Evans and Richard Green.) It's an impressive organization with an interesting portfolio.

- Lots of government agencies and organizations to encourage innovation. At times it seemed as if we were meeting with larger numbers of representatives of groups encouraging startups than with innovators.

DavidRiches.jpgIt was good to meet again with David Riches, chief executive of East of England International, which helps companies get established in Silicon Fen. I had met him three years ago when he was running Think London. Also represented was NESTA, the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts - "A unique and independent body with a mission to make the UK more innovative."

- UK is not great for startups. The UK government wants to encourage more startups but it's a tough place to start companies. Taxes are high and stock options are taxed unfavorably. There is a shortage of talent and salaries are high. But there has been a slight shift in the culture, there is more tolerance of failure these days. But a good job and salary is still more highly valued than a job at a startup.

- Watching the news n the UK is interesting. Much of it is taken up with stories about the government; the government said this today; the government issued a report today; the government is looking at this; the government needs to do this... In the US there is a healthy distrust of the government and far fewer government stories or an expectation that the government needs to do "something."

- Gadgets and dongles. We were giving some gadgets to try out:

-- Nokia allowed us to use their Nokia N79 phone with the Symbian interface. The phone was a solid piece of hardware, excellent photos and good video. The Symbian interface however, was horrible. I couldn't believe how bad it was, we were all complaining about it. It was far from intuitive and it took far too many steps for the simplest of operations - including something simple as answering the phone. The BT sim card worked reasonably well (it uses the Vodaphone network) but data services didn't work at all on my phone.

-- We were given BT dongles, wireless USB modems that we used with our laptops. These worked well in most places around London. However, because of all the video we were shooting and processing, we quickly ran through our bandwidth allocations without knowing it and spent several days trying to troubleshoot the dongles. BT increased our bandwidth caps and they worked fine but it would have been good to know that this was the problem.

-- Intel let us use some MIDS (Mobile Internet Devices.) I played with an Mbook from Uvid. It's got a cool touchscreen display, nice size but everything was tiny - it tries to display Windows XP on a very small screen. I'm not a fan of MIDs or of Netbooks. I generally find the form factor too small to be useful and their performance subpar. They seem to combine the worst aspects of a cell phone and a notebook. In terms of a light and small form factor, the Macbook Air is still the best, imho.

We also had the new Flip Ultra. Although many digital cameras have great video for the same price, it was handy to have this easy to use "one-click" device. The quality of the video is excellent but I wish I could plug in an external microphone. It also does well as a regular camera, I was pulling some great single shots from its MP4 video.

Here is a list of my posts about my UK trip in chronological order:

- Sunday - Arrival and Tweetup in Chelsea

- UK Startups Look For Funding And Escape From Echo Chamber

- Digital Inclusion And The Moral Obligations Towards Tech Education

- Monday - Reboot Britain - The Traveling Geeks Help Out

- Monday - The Geeks Eat Dinner At The Top Of The World

- Tuesday - Seed Camp's High-flyers

- Tuesday - It Never Rains But It Pours . . . More BT Innovation

- Tuesday - Guardian Newspaper Media Panel . . .

- A Guardian Newspaper Media Panel, Twitter, From Back to Front And Beyond...

- Tuesday - Back To Soho and Dinner With Agency.com

- Wednesday - Humpday - Lunch With Skype

- Wednesday - Time-Off For Good/Bad Behavior

- Thursday - A Visit To Accel Partners - UK Is Tough On Startups

- Thursday - Ecoconsultancy At Shakespeare's Globe - Why Innovate?

- Thursday - SVW Goes To The Europas . . .

- Friday - Cambridge Startups

- Friday - Cambridge Consultants, Nokia And Microsoft Research Labs

- Friday - Looking For Ghosts In Peterhouse College Founded 1284

Also, lots of excellent coverage from my fellow Traveling Geeks here.

- In addition to the people I mentioned in my articles above, it was great to meet and talk with: Karyn Barnes from East of England International (excellent host); Jon Garside, sales director of Syphan Technologies; Michael Litman; Kai Turner, head of information architecture at Agency.com; Mike Ferg (@MikeyFerg); Wendy Tan-White. founder of Moonfruit; Vincent Camara, founder, Intruders.tv; Nancy Vega, Said Business school Oxford; Alistair Morely technology director at Cambridge Consultants; Oo Nwoye co-founder of Onepage; Professor Ian Leslie, Cambridge University; Amanda Horton-Mastin, Innovation Director at Comic Relief; Rudolph Rosini, Ecec VP at Cellcrypt; Nitin Dahad at Techspark; William Tunstall-Pedoe, CEO of Trueknowledge; Luke Brynley-Jones, Managing Director at School For Startups; Matt Rogers, co-founder of Aroxo.

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