What exactly is Tech City? A simple question to ask, a trickier one to answer. When the initiative was launched by UK Prime Minster David Cameron, in November 2010, he was clear: “A hub that stretches from Shoreditch and Old Street to the Olympic Park,” he told the audience in east London.More than three years on if you went to Tech City’s sparsely-worded website and watched the breathless video you would think not much had changed. But according to the newly-appointed CEO, Gerard Grech, you would be wrong.
Tech City is no longer focused just on promoting the start-ups around the Old Street roundabout and Shoreditch; it seems to have morphed into a slightly fuzzy-edged conduit between government and start-ups that focuses on the whole of the UK — including the 13 clusters around the country. The ‘Tech City as synonym for Silicon Roundabout’ has been superseded.
Grech, who replaces Joanna Shields although she remains the chair of Tech City UK, said the 12-strong organization’s role “is focusing on the digital entrepreneur and lowering the barriers for growth for them and shining a light on them and clusters across the UK.”
He describes Tech City UK as “a ground-up, grass-roots entity that brings insight into government at senior levels in the best way possible.”
He has only been in the job since February but says he is a strong believer that government has a key role to play going forward. “The government is part of the ecosystem, just like investors, like universities, just like the entrepreneurs themselves… and therefore they have to be actively involved in the development of the ecosystem to continue accelerating growth for London and the UK,” he says.
By way of example, he said the UK government’s recently-announced Internet of Things grant fund for start-ups was driven by his organization . “Tech City UK took a leadership role saying this is a growing area, this needs to be addressed, we need to raise the profile of things in the country and let’s make sure we are helping the next wave of digital entrepreneurs in this space,” says Grech.
But since the money will be granted by the Technology Strategy Board, another government body, wouldn’t that have happened anyway? “I think there are strengths to the TSB and to Tech City UK,” he says. “When you put those two strengths together it is something a lot more powerful.”
Grech denied that Tech City UK has been sidelined because it has lost responsibility for attracting foreign investment, a role taken over by London & Partners, the official promotional organization for London.
“On strategic inward investment that will not only concern London, but the rest of the UK, we will very much be part of that,” he says before adding “we are being measured on how well are we helping accelerate those developments.”
He also refuted suggestions that Tech City did not have clear objectives. “The programs have specific KPIs and success factors,” he said, citing by way of example the Future 50 program designed to aid selected high-growth UK companies with access to expertise within government and across the private sector.
But measuring his own success as CEO, the metrics are a bit less clear. He cited things like: “how much advocacy have I done on behalf of the community? How much informing have I done to government and making the right changes or making sure that the relevant issues are being raised in the right forums with the right people.” That all sounds like worthy stuff, but when called to account measuring those may prove challenging.
His role is dependent on the budget cycle
When that reckoning would take place Grech wasn’t certain. His role is dependent on the budget cycle, he said, which means if funding is not extended his job could end as early as March 2015.
Above all Grech says he wants to hear from the tech entrepreneur community right across the country and not just in London about what it wants and how government can help. He has launched a number of initiatives to garner opinion and suggestions, and he is not afraid to put his money where his mouth is.
When challenged that if he really wanted to hear what people had to say, he would make his own private email address public, he mulled it over before saying “Gerard@techcityuk.com.”
If you have constructive suggestions, drop him a line. He wants to hear from you.