Start Me Up

Quick. In which areas of the city are you more likely to be mugged? The data was in government computers but wasn’t much help to unsuspecting visitors to dicey areas of London until a group of university students created an app for that.The app, which uses crime data to create walking directions that avoid high-crime areas, was one of several that won prizes last year during Start-Up Weekend, a warm-up event to Silicon Valley Comes to the UK, an annual conference co-founded by serial entrepreneur and investor Sherry Coutu and LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman six years ago.

This year ‘s event kicked off November 9-11. Developers, designers, marketers and product managers got together in London, Cambridge, Manchester, Southampton and Sheffield to share ideas and build projects as part of Britain’s 54-hour start-up competition.

Startup Weekend, a non-profit organization based in Seattle, provides the inspiration for events in hundreds of cities around the world. The outline is the same whether it be in Sheffield or Sao Paulo, but with a local twist. At the UK event the more than 2,000 participants were given the task of using freely-available UK government data to build useful applications that run on the iOS, Android and Windows Phone operating systems.

During the weekend participants go through all the phases of launching a start-up, pitching and brain storming, followed by team building, business plan creation, coding and designing, talks with investors and then testing the market. Prototypes are demoed for judges on Sunday at the conclusion of the event with winners getting, according to the organizers, “invaluable opportunities to help grow their new business.”

The competition “was the final piece in the puzzle for me and pushed me towards a future as an entrepreneur,” says Steven Briscoe, 20. His team was one of last year’s winners for the high-crime area avoidance app.

Briscoe’s team of four, together with other teams, won a visit to 10 Downing Street to meet Prime Minister David Cameron and he was picked from the team for a trip to Silicon Valley. “Silicon Valley was incredible,” says Briscoe, 20, a software engineer working for Intel who is planning to finish university after a 12-month stint with the semiconductor giant. While in California Coutu, the angel investor, took Briscoe and winners from other teams to meet top executives at Google, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other large tech companies.

Briscoe, energized by last year’s event, dusted off his idea for a start-up and this month launched his first product. The web-based software, which he is giving away for free for now to schools and universities while he works on finding a viable revenue model, allows people without coding skills to create websites. He says it is similar to WordPress though more customizable. “A 12-year-old can use this software,” says Briscoe. “My target market is those people who aren’t software engineers and let’s face it, most people aren’t.”

This year the London events include a visit to Parliament by more than 100 students from more than a dozen high schools who will meet with politicians and Silicon Valley executives including Megan Smith, a vice president at Google, and Mary Lou Jepsen, founder and CEO of Pixel Qi and co-founder of One Laptop per Child.

In another event, called “Silicon Valley Comes2 Schools” entrepreneurs will speak at schools throughout the city to explain why they chose their career path.

Separately, chief executives from promising European start-ups will be invited to attend a workshop with successful Silicon Valley executives to discuss how to best scale up their start-ups. The aim is to help already-established start-ups to gain the tools and connections needed to increase the size of their businesses.

Events in Cambridge will be based around the themes of health care and education, two areas that are being disrupted by technology, offering opportunities for budding entrepreneurs. Cambridge University’s Judge Business School will hold a conference titled “The Art of Scaling.” There will also be school visits, a jobs fair and a panel that will consider the future of health-related tech.

Oxford events on November 18th-19th will bring together Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and investors with Oxford faculty, students and alumni.

While the entrepreneurial weekend is taking place in the UK, sister events will be taking place on the Continent with Silicon Valley comes to the Baltics (in Vilnius) and Silicon Valley comes to Lisbon (see the article on page 18).

Past events have not only helped kindle the start-up spirit in budding entrepreneurs but encouraged them to pay it forward. Briscoe, for example. who is not taking part in any competitions this year, has volunteered to help the organizers with the 2012 event.

It’s all part of an effort to encourage young people to consider becoming entrepreneurs and help Europe pull itself out of its persistent economic stagnation.

“Helping these young entrepreneurs take their creations and grow them into big companies is a good way to counterbalance the economic problems in Europe,” says Nicholas Heller, co-chair of the event and Google’s head of product partnerships and new initiatives for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. “Europe is going to have a brain drain with all the smart people leaving if we don’t create the right environment for entrepreneurs to be successful.”