Joanna Shields, a scheduled speaker at London Web Summit, was recently appointed Chief Executive Officer and Chair of the UK’s Tech City Investment Organisation and the UK’s Business Ambassador for Digital Industries. Prior to this she was Facebook’s European boss. She has also held senior positions at RealNetworks, Google, Bebo and AOL. While CEO of Bebo she helped secure its $850 million sale to AOL, the most successful exit of a consumer Internet company in the history of the UK’s tech sector. Shields granted Informilo Editor-in-Chief Jennifer Schenker her first one-on-one interview since starting her new Tech City position in January. Schenker has been following Shields’s career for a dozen years, since her days at RealNetworks.
Q: What attracted you to take this job?
A: When I got the call from Number 10 to take on the challenge to champion entrepreneurship and help create a high-growth technology powerhouse in Britain — starting first with Tech City in East London — I jumped at the chance. While it may seem out of the blue, as it was completely unplanned, for me it was a logical next step.
Entrepreneurship and innovation are two themes that are close to my heart. My father was an entrepreneur and growing up I saw first hand how starting a business could lift a family from difficult circumstances and completely change the outlook and opportunities for the community as a whole. As my Dad built his company and created hundreds of jobs, I knew that in my life, I wanted to do the same.
Over the past 25 years, I have had the privilege to work in and lead some of the world’s greatest technology companies (Facebook, Google, AOL, RealNetworks, Bebo). These companies created new services, markets, industries and even new economies and in the process, jobs for people all over the world. This, combined with the opportunity to help support the people I worked with and who I care deeply about, to grow into world-class experts and leaders has been incredibly rewarding. But now, I felt it was only fitting that I give back. In our digital tech world, we often talk about scale and how we leverage it to make massive impact. I felt it was time for me to scale the impact that I can make.
Q: What do you regard as the most challenging thing about your new job?
A: A key challenge is helping to support the sheer number of businesses based in the cluster — there are more than 1,200 companies today. They are all at different stages in their lifecycle, different stages of growth and have very varied needs and requirements. Our role is to support the existing organic growth of these businesses, and ensure that the growth is sustainable. This means very different things to the various businesses involved and we have to cover a lot of bases to provide this.
Equally, Tech City attracts a great deal of interest internationally — we have requests to meet, share insights, ideas and the benefits of our experience with a wide range of organizations, government leaders and chief executives from all over the world. Adding value and contributing to such a varied mix of requirements and requests is a key part of our role but requires an effective, streamlined, and highly efficient approach and it is a real challenge to keep everyone happy all of the time.
Q: Some people argue that all of London should be deemed Tech City since some of the most successful young high-growth companies are located throughout the city. Do you intend to widen the scope beyond Old Street?
A: I believe there is a movement underway in this country. What is happening in East London around the Old Street Roundabout is proof of that and we have to shape it and ensure it continues. That movement now extends from the Olympic Park to Kings Cross and it is spreading all across London and the nation, for that matter, with dozens of clusters springing up that reflect the strengths of local economies. Entrepreneurs in all parts of the country are using technology to transform our economy and boost new growth. Clusters just like the more established ones we have in East London and Cambridge are sprouting around the country, for example the Sharp Project/MediaCity in Manchester, the cluster of high-tech manufacturing companies around Daresbury and Runcorn Heath in the North West and the science, technology and business campus at Harwell in Oxford.
Q: How will you tie what is happening in London to clusters in the rest of the UK?
A: One of our objectives for this year is replicating the success of Tech City and moving it from something local to something that will have national impact. We are going to do this by documenting our learning in an open, transparent and accessible way, building a central repository for all government initiatives aimed at supporting entrepreneurship and by supporting the success of other local technology clusters across the UK by exchanging knowledge and best practices. Not all the knowledge will come from East London — our goal is to maximize sharing and cross-pollination among all of the clusters.
Q: The UK has attracted companies like Google to open offices in London but some say the real key will be getting Silicon Valley companies to open engineering centers in London. Are you making efforts in this area? Do you see this happening anytime soon?
A: Absolutely. We have developed a new team focused on partnerships for exactly this purpose — to build links and develop our relationship with large corporates, and strengthen our engagement with the engineering and research teams of such global organizations. To date, we have had a good deal of success with such companies opening their R&D centers in Tech City. These include Amazon which is opening its Global Digital Media Development Centre in Glasshouse Yard near Barbican Tube station. Yammer has opened a developer center in Tech City, explaining the move in large part due to the availability of talent there and have grown from a team of eight to over 200 in two years. As part of a two-year anniversary announcement in December, Microsoft announced that it is establishing a Technology Development Centre in the heart of Tech City. They will create packages of support for developer apprentices and are working on a new apprenticeship to support young people in and around Tech City.
And Intel, Imperial College London and University College London have collaborated to launch the Intel Collaborative Research Institute for Sustainable Connected Cities — Intel’s first research center and global hub dedicated to exploring how technology can support and sustain the social and economic development of cities worldwide.
There are a host of other examples too, including Virtual Instruments — a leader in Infrastructure Performance Management (IPM) for physical, virtual and cloud computing environments which announced in November 2012 that it will be opening its EMEA Engineering Headquarters in Tech City.
Q: Where is London’s Stanford equivalent? Is this an issue, in your opinion?
A: London is home to some of the world’s leading universities. Looking at quality of research output alone, the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2012-2013 places Imperial College eighth, UCL 17th and LSE 39th in worldwide standings, with Oxford tying second place with Stanford. Furthermore, the Times Higher Education rankings put Imperial College in tenth (and Stanford joint fifth with Cambridge) in its list of top 50 global engineering and tech universities, proving that London institutions are right up there with the best U.S. colleges.
Beyond league tables, academic institutions are a key contributor to Tech City’s unique eco-system. The cluster offers a completely original environment that fuses creativity, entrepreneurship, investment opportunities, academic prowess and companies at every conceivable stage of their development and maturity. It’s this dynamism that’s vital to attracting and retaining talent in East London. And of course, London’s rich academic talent pool provides companies access to talented graduates.
Q: The government recently took steps to make it more attractive to list companies in London. Will this be enough to boost London tech flotations?
A: For many high-growth companies, listing in the UK was not a viable option. The result was that the best and brightest companies founded in the UK left our shores, or were acquired just when they were starting to make a real impact on the economy. By offering high-growth British companies an additional route to access the public markets with more achievable eligibility requirements and a whole host of initiatives, the London Stock Exchange has paved the way for them to build and grow their business in the UK. It means our most promising companies are no longer facing a trade-off between listing in the U.S. or not going public at all. By the way, the positive impact of these changes, along with everything else the government is doing, isn’t limited to entrepreneurs, their businesses and the investors that back them; they will resonate with the public. IPOs, by their very nature, allow the public to invest.
By allowing people to invest, they participate and get excited about our high-growth businesses. It means technology, our leading growth industry, will create more visible role models to other small start-ups who are thinking about replicating that success. It means they will also become more visible to young people.
Of course we need to do a better job of informing the institutional side as well about how tech growth companies operate and what success looks like to ensure there is a robust equity market for these great companies.
Q: London clearly competes with Silicon Valley and New York and other tech hubs. What, in your opinion, sets London apart?
A: There simply isn’t another city like London, not just in Europe, but anywhere in the world. It’s like New York (The City), Los Angeles (media, film, TV and creative industries), Washington, D.C. (Westminster & Whitehall) and now San Francisco/Silicon Valley (Tech City) all in one. Access to government is unprecedented. This government is more open to ideas, more likely to engage and more likely to ask business for our opinions and to take our advice and feedback to heart than any other government I have worked with.Everyone looks to America for the best and most innovative ideas and businesses. While the country of my birth continues to churn out some of the greatest products, services, inventions and companies, the wave of entrepreneurship and individualism, self determination and motivation has taken root on this side of the Atlantic as well and nothing could be more significant and promising for the British economy.