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Oliver Dowden

Digital and culture secretary, UK government

Oliver Dowden: Post-crisis, tech can be the economy’s growth engine

In the last three months, many of us have looked at the world through new eyes.

We have learned the thrill and the frustration of a virtual call with a much-loved grandparent, the joy of a virtual tour around a world-class art gallery and the simple pleasure of downloading a book at the touch of a key.

Technology has been one of the foremost tools in our battle against coronavirus. It has allowed many to work productively from home, enabling our children to carry on learning, and helped us stay in touch with friends and loved ones.

The ability to shop online has been critical for vulnerable groups and the rapid switch to online sales has been key to many SMEs and high street stores not only surviving but thriving.

Most importantly, technology has also been critical to monitoring the spread of the coronavirus with large tech companies providing data analytics and software services to the NHS, and will continue to play a key role in helping us to emerge from the health crisis safely, with track and trace and other innovations.

Lockdown has underlined our reliance on technology and the UK’s digital and tech sector has responded to the public health emergency with unparalleled energy and innovation. As part of an unashamedly pro-tech government, I’m determined to ensure it can now boost our economic recovery too.

We start from a position of strength, despite the impact of coronavirus. As we meet virtually for London Tech Week Connects, I am very pleased to reveal new figures which show that from January to May, UK companies raised $5.3bn from venture capital investors and over the same period, some $5bn was announced in new venture funds.

This time last year we had 72 unicorns – those private companies worth $1bn and above – and now we have 79, including health tech company Babylon and Octopus Energy. The UK also ranks number one in Europe for potential future unicorns, with 109 companies valued at between $250m and $800m.

There are 2.93 million people working in tech now and the sector creates jobs at up to three times the rate of other industries.

London has always led the way and since the start of January continues to attract more investment than Paris, Stockholm, Berlin and Tel Aviv combined. And we’re seeing regions across the country emerging as strong tech clusters and great places to start an online business. Bristol, home to Graphcore which develops processors suitable for artificial intelligence, has seen salaries in tech rise by 13 per cent. This year companies in Newcastle, Cardiff, Manchester and Oxford have all raised significant sums to help them scale-up.

However, there are issues in the technology sector which we must not overlook: female and BAME founders businesses receive a fraction of start-up investment. This matters because technology will continue to be fundamental to our lives in future and the people who work in the sector and the companies that are investing in it need to reflect the full diversity of our society. Tech needs to be for everyone, regardless of where they live, their gender, age or colour of their skin.

To help boost diversity in AI and data science roles we’ve launched the world’s first conversion courses which will see graduates from a range of backgrounds apply for one of the 2,500 places available from today. There will also be 1,000 scholarships on offer to support applications from female, black and disabled applicants.

This is part of our commitment to maintaining the UK’s status as a global leader for tech. It’s why we worked closely with experienced investors and entrepreneurs to put together the Future Fund package, providing £500m of matched loans and research grants for start ups and science-led companies.

This, plus £750m of grants for businesses focusing on research and development, will help to ensure our innovators are supported to get on with what they do best.

We need a strong focus on digital skills development too and are working with partners across the sector to make sure SMEs are able to access the digital tools that can increase their competitiveness.

Earlier this week Founders4Schools and BCG Digital Ventures launched Digital Boost, a free volunteer-driven platform created to support small businesses and charities develop essential digital skills.

Just as the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis triggered an entrepreneurship boom in the UK, leading directly to the creation of some of the UK’s most successful tech companies – including Zoopla, Farfetch, Swiftkey and Deepmind – this pandemic could be another pivotal moment for the development of the UK tech sector.

Since the crisis started, digital adoption has increased at a rate we would expect to see over five years. Tech sub-sectors such as healthtech, online grocery, edtech and gaming have really accelerated in both customer numbers and progress.

Fighting this virus has taken a huge amount of invention and energy, but when the pandemic is over we can apply this creativity and versatility to other new ideas and innovations. And I’ve no doubt that thanks to our strong tech sector – we will emerge stronger overall.

Oliver Dowden is the digital and culture secretary