A Tech City University?
I’ve been openly skeptical about David Cameron’s plans to turn East London into a “Tech City” to rival Silicon Valley, blogging about the important role the California state government’s Master Plan for Higher Education played in supporting the development of Silicon Valley and opining that, instead of focusing on one tiny area, “Cameron should concentrate on doing his job (improving the educational system) and simply get out of the way of entrepreneurs by reducing taxes, red tape and other costs for all start-ups, not just the ones in East London.”
In late May, a poll conducted at London Business School’s Global Leadership Summit reinforced my opinion. Attendees were asked “How best can government stimulate entrepreneurship?” and given four options. The results were:
- By improving incentives (e.g. by taxing entrepreneurs less) – 33%
- By creating incubators, and other geographical clusters of entrepreneurial activity – 18%
- By preferential procurement from entrepreneurial start-ups – 5%
- By reducing red tape and promoting greater flexibility in the business environment – 44%
A few things have happened since then.
Firstly, the Treasury has begun an open consultation on plans to encourage seed investment by angels and word has emerged that the Tech City Launchpad concept is to be “rolled out nationally” (although what exactly that entails remains to be seen – with luck, it means that the kind of support offered to Shoreditch-based tech startups will be available to any startup, anywhere in the UK).
This is very welcome news. It indicates that the government is actually interested in doing more than just jumping on a bandwagon and generating a few positive headlines.
Secondly, I’ve just spent a few days in Silicon Valley. I’ve spent a lot of time in California over the past few years but, this time, I made a point of deliberately hanging out in Silicon Valley for a couple of days. I went to a 106 Miles meetup, visited the Googleplex, hung out at the Coupa Café in Palo Alto (I can recommend the mango smoothies) and met, informally, with a couple of VCs.
Driving down Sand Hill Road (a mecca for anyone seeking to raise money from VCs) brought home to me the pivotal role Stanford University has played in the development of Silicon Valley. I knew, intellectually, that Silicon Valley had been built on an education master plan but it wasn’t until I was driving along, with the Stanford campus on my right and a slew of VC firms’ offices on my left that I really understood Stanford’s role as the focal point of Silicon Valley.
Last night I stayed in Berkeley, just a couple of blocks from the UCB campus. In fact, I can see the Campanile from my hotel room. Walking around downtown Berkeley yesterday, I could see the influence the university has had on the vicinity. Its left-leaning, libertarian culture permeates the local area – street vendors hawk hippyish jewellery and knick-knacks, the coffee shops’ noticeboards display posters for political and literature-themed events, there’s a bustling all-vegetarian café and a Tibetan souvenir store within a stone’s throw of the campus boundary, and the surrounding streets house various Centres for research into this or that.
You don’t really get the same degree of influence around the various schools and colleges of the University of London, probably because LBS, LSE, UCL, KCL and ICL are located within central London, while both Stanford and Berkeley are geographically removed from San Francisco.
Some people get embarrassed and/or defensive when they’re wrong. I like to think that I don’t (although I say “like to” because I’m sure that my friends and colleagues can cite many instances when I have, in fact, been both embarrassed and defensive when I’ve been proven wrong). I could write an entire blog post on the topic of being wrong (and I probably will, when I get the time) but the pertinent fact here is that I now believe that Cameron’s vision of building the British equivalent of Silicon Valley in East London may not be such a silly idea after all. However, I still think it’s going to take more than £200m and a catchy name to make it happen.
If I’m right and Stanford did (and continues to) play a pivotal role in the development of Silicon Valley, then the way to create a British Silicon Valley is to establish a British Stanford. It just so happens that, in the Olympic Park, we have the perfect site for a new campus for a University of London School of Technology, Innovation & Entrepreneurship, with plenty of space for commercial premises that can be leased by startups and joint ventures affiliated with the new university.
The opportunity to establish a new university, on its own, contiguous campus, is one that will probably not present itself again in our lifetime.