Rohan Silva, senior policy adviser to British Prime Minister David Cameron, works across all areas of government policy, but has made technology and innovation a priority. Silva has also been responsible for developing key policies to improve the environment for start-ups in the UK, such as the EIS tax changes announced in Budget 2011, the Entrepreneur Visa, the Hargreaves Review of Intellectual Property, and the development of the Tech City cluster. He has also led the development of creative new approaches to policy making, including the application of behavioral economics to policy issues; the use of crowd-sourcing models to generate ideas and open up the decision-making process; and the harnessing of open data and government transparency to drive social and economic innovation. Outside Westminster, Silva is a trustee of Entrepreneur First, a private-sector initiative to encourage more graduates to start their own businesses. Silva recently spoke to Informilo’s Jennifer Schenker about the importance of technology to the UK economy, the evolution of the Tech City initiative and the importance of teaching coding in Britain’s schools.
Q: How important is medtech and the technology sector in general to the overall economy in Britain?
A: Technology is an absolutely vital part of the UK economy and central to this government’s agenda, not only in making it central to the way the government works and public services work, but in creating an environment where the UK is the best way to start, grow and invest in a technology company. We have set our sites very, very high.
Q: How does the Tech City initiative fit in with those objectives?
A: When we started the Tech City initiative two years ago in November 2010 there were 200 digital tech companies. There are now over 1,000. Two years ago global awareness of this cluster was very low. There were no Googles, Amazons, Intels or Salesforces but all of these companies now have a presence or are opening a presence in east London. There has been a phenomenal growth in the last two years.
Q: The government recently appointed Facebook Europe boss Joanna Shields to head up the Tech City Investment Organization. Why did you hire her and what changes do you expect her to make?
A: Joanna’s mission will be to broaden out the message to young people and make sure they get apprenticeships and access to training and also raising awareness of this cluster in the west coast and east coast of the U.S. as well as in Israel, India and China. Joanna has a world-class gift, she knows how to take a company or organization global and make it genuinely global so in the next couple of years she will be taking the Tech City story to the world.
Q: There are more billion-dollar-plus tech companies in Cambridge than there are in London, so why is the government focusing so much attention on Tech City?
A: It is not a question of either London or Cambridge. There is great interplay between London and Cambridge. The Cambridge Cluster map Sherry (Coutu, the co-founder of the Silicon Valley Comes to the UK conference) has developed is based on the Tech City map and that exchange of ideas is absolutely wonderful. And Mike Lynch, the founder of Autonomy, one of the biggest companies in Cambridge, has been very supportive of this initiative and is a member of the Tech City advisory group.
What Tech City is about is telling the story about UK technology. Tech City is a Trojan horse for introducing the Entrepreneur Visa, the open data agenda and opening up procurements for SMEs. These are all national policies. All of the policies benefit not just Tech City but Cambridge, Bristol, and Manchester, just as much as east London.
Q: How do you view the Silicon Valley Comes to the UK conference?
A: SVC2UK is one of the most important tech events in Europe. It is not only about new connections between entrepreneurs and investors; it also hopes to promote the exchange of ideas and showcase the best. Last year we organized an event at Number 10 with David Cameron and we have also worked with Sherry (Coutu) and the team to ensure that Tech City becomes part of the agenda. We really salute and support what Sherry and the team are trying to do.
Q: What areas in tech do you think afford the biggest opportunities?
A: There are three big areas: The interplay between finance and technology; media content and tech; and fashion and tech. In places like London and New York you have that interplay; we are not a one-trick pony like Palo Alto. In New York and the UK there are lots of different fields that are really exciting. Fintech is an area of specialty of excellence. Secondly, there is life sciences. The UK has developed a life sciences strategy that is based around using the collection of NHS data —which is centralized and standardized — as a catalyst for life sciences innovation and growth. This is a really good opportunity for entrepreneurs. The third area of real opportunity is in online education. Britain is recognized around the world as having a strong record in education and can help existing education brands with online offers. We could see big companies developing in this sector.
Q: The BBC Micro project ensured that a whole generation of British children learned about computing but some say that schools are not doing enough to ensure that students have a good understanding of computer science. Do you agree?
A: The IT curriculum is being torn up and is in the process of being rewritten. We are committed to making sure that British school children can write code and create apps.
Q: What else is the government doing to help ensure that Britain has a thriving tech sector?
A: There is an incredible array of things — tax relief, the Entrepreneur Visa, we have just announced changes to make it easier for high-growth companies to float on the London Stock Exchange, we have given regulatory approvals for crowd-sourcing equity financing. There is a list of 50 different things and the proof of all that is that investment into early-stage companies is at a 20-year high. To see that kind of data point with the state of the world economy is really telling.