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Sooraj Shah

Contributing Editor

Sooraj Shah is Contributing Editor of New Statesman Tech with a focus on C-level IT leader interviews. He is also a freelance technology journalist.

IT Leaders: Tech City UK CEO Gerard Grech on tech talent, sceptics and ambitions

Tech City UK receives roughly £4m-a-year from the government, in a bid to support and encourage investment in high-growth tech start-ups. It was established back in 2010, by the then Prime Minister David Cameron as a way to focus on East London’s burgeoning Tech City or Silicon Roundabout – a hub likened to an earlier version of California’s Silicon Valley. It has since expanded its focus on other major cities in the UK.

The man at the helm for the past three years has been CEO Gerard Grech. He has been at the forefront of Tech City UK’s three main areas of focus. The first is in raising awareness of what UK tech is – through thought leadership and reports. The second is on nurturing talent through a number of programmes such as the Digital Business Academy which Grech says has put 15,000 people through training. He adds that Tech City UK has been “democratising access to entrepreneurship” for anyone that wants to start a business.

Finally, he claims that Tech City UK has been helping businesses to grow through lifecycle programmes.

“We have a funnel and at the top end we make it as wide as possible so anyone with an idea or who has an ambition to be an entrepreneur can start by going online, going to the academy, and there are no qualifications – you can learn for free from great founders and entrepreneurs in Britain,” he says.

There’s also a mentoring programme for mid-stage and late-stage companies, and Tech City UK is looking at providing targeted programmes for the fastest growing tech businesses.

“In the last 10 years, it hasn’t been uncommon to go from two founders to 200 employees in three years or sometimes less…. and these types of companies have specific needs in how they grow,” he states.

Scepticism surrounding Tech City UK

For all of the initiatives that the organisation has been working on, it is under the spotlight because it is government-backed. Sceptics ask why taxpayers’ money should be used to fund Tech City UK.

In response, Grech initially responds which a question of his own: “What, not to build a strong ecosystem for tech companies all over the UK?”

But that’s not likely to turn sceptics into believers – Grech then offers a more suitable response.

“As companies grow, as you’ve seen in the tech sector, it creates jobs, and high-paying jobs too,” he states.

And, the organisation is becoming less reliant on government funds every year. Grech explained that Tech City UK had gone from being 100 per cent funded by the government to 80 per cent – with private sector sponsors making up the shortfall. The government is reducing its funding in the organisation by five per cent every year – but rather than seeing this as a negative, Grech says it validates what the organisation is aiming to do.

“It shows there is genuine interest from companies that want to help… companies like Barclays Bank, FTI Consulting and JLL, in ensuring that the ecosystem is as robust as possible,” he explains.

Funding isn’t the only question that is continually sprung at Grech, another is in regards to an apparent bias towards London as a city, and London-based start-ups, particularly after Tech City UK picked only seven start-ups outside London for a national company growth programme with space for 33 businesses.

Grech labels the criticism as “unfair”, as Tech City UK has expanded its programmes across the country – particularly in the North of England. He says that the organisation is “very representative of what’s going on across the country” and pointed to its Future 50 companies ranging from start-ups in Sheffield and Newcastle to Exeter and Brighton.

However, he suggests that London will always be ahead of other cities as it is nine times bigger in terms of population. “There will be a bit of matching that and aligning that directly – but we are raising the game for the whole country,” he says.

Tech Talent

Applications for Tech Nation’s Tier 1 Exceptional Talent Scheme more than quadrupled over the course of the year, Tech City UK revealed in May.

Grech says that this was good news for the UK because businesses were growing rapidly and many of them needed some of the best talent in the world – in skillsets which are currently niche.

“You’d hope that over time these skills become more available [in the UK] but at this point when you’re growing a business, we have international competition, so you want to make sure you can bring that person in whether they’re from China or the US,” he states.

And Grech highlights that the scheme was not only for technologists not only in the technical space but also in the commercial space.

“The dedicated visa scheme we’ve put together is very much built around what digital businesses need from algorithm designers and engineers to tech specialist CFOs,” he states.

However, Brexit could mean an even fiercer challenge for UK businesses in recruiting talent. Grech acknowledges this but hopes that it will be “short-term pain for long-term gain”.

“The UK has taken a huge risk but the potential for the tech sector is high – only if it’s backed wisely with a vision,” he says.

Grech will be hoping that Tech City UK is involved with that vision.

Assessing Achievements

Grech says the UK was one of the first countries to launch a concept like Tech City UK – an organisation that sits between the technology community and the government.

He says that more countries are implementing the model.

“This week we had a delegation with the Mayor of Chicago, and their team was hugely impressed with what we’ve been able to achieve,” he says.

“We’re building programmes that help businesses from start to becoming late-stage pioneers, and generating a lot of data that creates actionable insight – from both a policy and investment standpoint,” he says.

By this, he means that Tech City UK can help other businesses and investors to know where they should invest in the UK tech sector. Data points such as where there is a concentration of fintech companies, or the cost of living in certain areas, the number of start-up birth rates across the country, and so on.

“We’re completely democratising access to high-growth entrepreneurship, so in that sense, we’ve achieved a lot,” he says.