Tech chiefs at war over future of funding that helped forge Silicon Roundabout

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Founders who participated in the organization’s programs give positive reviews. Aneesh Varma of Aire Labs, a credit reporting start-up, says, “It really helped expand our network, train key management and optimize the playbook for international expansion.”

Charlie Delingpole, founder of fraud detection startup Complyadvantage, says his company’s experience with a Tech Nation program “was invaluable for the networking, support and guidance it offered.”

However, he adds: “If Tech Nation disappeared I don’t think it would be a hammer blow to the whole tech ecosystem, but on the other hand the UK needs all the help possible.”

But what perplexes startup founders most is the awarding of the grant to Barclays, a bank with which some Tech Nation companies would have hoped to compete. Varma adds that he would be “disgusted to see something like this going to a major bank”.

Barclays’ Eagle Labs may have had an advantage in part thanks to its UK-wide network of Startup Centers. It has 30 locations in cities and towns across the UK. Tech Nation has 11 regional scaling teams.

The goal of the DCMS Digital Growth Grant was that “support should be tailored to local needs and technology specialties, and should be developed in partnership with local bodies and existing technology groups”.

However, tech sources say many of the companies Barclays works with are at a very early stage, while Tech Nation is looking to boost more established players.

The early leak of the DCMS interim decision prompted a furious response from Whitehall, which wrote to bidders and participants warning them that they remain bound by non-disclosure agreements and cannot discuss the process.

Still, any decision to withdraw Tech Nation’s grant has sparked skepticism about the new government’s priorities for the tech sector. Ministers are far more likely to be seen with headsets on an industrial site than chatting with founders in blenders off the Silicon Roundabout.

Daniel Korski, managing director of venture capital firm Public and former special adviser to David Cameron, said: “The job of supporting UK startups is by no means done.

“In fact, start-up investments have declined recently and access to networks and capital is very uneven across the country. There are therefore good reasons for the government to continue to defend the sector and support startups. Every other country we compete with, from France to Israel, is doing exactly that. We should too.

“TechNation has naturally evolved since its inception and has focused primarily on Silicon Roundabout and can evolve again. Nothing should remain static. Above all, however, it is extremely important not to hand over the task of supporting startups to the very incumbents they are meant to disrupt. It would undermine all the work that has been done since 2010.”

Gerard Grech, Managing Director of Tech Nation, said: “Tech Nation has created a national and regional program of initiatives that ensures the UK has one of the most efficient and successful technology ecosystems in the world.

More than 4,000 companies have participated in one of its programs, he adds. Tech Nation is no longer 100% dependent on government funding, although public money makes up 62% of its revenue.

A DCMS spokesperson said, “The move to competitive funding was not tied to Tech Nation performance, but to align with the majority of government grants that are awarded on a competitive basis.

“No final decision has been made and the successful grant recipient will be the best organisation(s) to drive the growth of the technology sector across the UK while ensuring value for taxpayers.”

Separate from the grant is the government’s Tech Nation Visa program, which expedites visa applications for tech talent.

A decade after Cameron launched his East London Tech City scheme, the significance of the Old Street area has begun to fade. Last year, Google’s influential startup program, Google Campus, announced that it would not reopen its coworking center in the wake of the pandemic.

Yet tech investors say the government has come to the wrong conclusion if it thinks the job of making Britain a tech hub is done, after a series of less than impressive floats on the London Stock Exchange and a decrease in funding.

An image making the rounds on WhatsApp in response to the news featured a photo of George W Bush at the start of the Iraq War, standing aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln under the fateful phrase: “Mission accomplished”. David Cameron’s dream of a true British rival in Silicon Valley still seems a long way off.

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