The Brits at the heart of Silicon Valley

Seven Hills co-founder Nick Giles on the UK tech start-ups bringing new ideas and innovation to America’s tech capital

Downtown San Francisco on a Thursday evening and it’s a veritable who’s who of British tech.

Eben Upton, the charismatic founder of Raspberry Pi sits alongside Simon Segars, the chief executive of ARM, arguably Britain’s number one tech export, and Andy McLoughlin of Huddle, the darlings of Tech City.

They are joined by David Richards of WANdisco (pictured left) and the US general managers for other British tech exports including Playmob and Audioboo.

We are here for an event organised by UKTI to celebrate the British businesses that are bringing innovation and ideas to Silicon Valley. The room is packed and the entrepreneurs and business leaders gathered embody the enthusiasm and excitement that is palpable wherever you look in the Valley.

What’s immediately apparent is that the Brits are here in force. Estimates suggest that more than 250,000 UK expats are resident in the Bay Area and many of them are at the leading edge of the tech renaissance that is being driven out of Silicon Valley.

From Sir Jonathan Ive at Apple to Sir Michael Moritz, the Welsh-born billionaire who made his fortune at the legendary venture firm Sequoia Capital, UK expats have been at the heart of some of the Valley’s biggest success stories. These pioneers form an important part of the magnetic pull that continues to draw ambitious British founders to San Francisco and its surrounds.

And it’s not hard to understand why the best of British tech talent is making its way to this spiritual home of start-ups. In the Valley there is a fearless, energetic, ambitious sense of opportunity that’s given fuel by the California sun, the rivers of cash that continue to pour into tech firms in the area and the diverse community made up of the most talented thinkers from all around the world.

If you want a taste of the unique attitude and culture that prevails in Silicon Valley, take the response to Facebook’s $19bn acquisition of WhatsApp from Aaron Levie, founder of cloud storage firm Box; “Zuck is literally the most badass CEO of all time. This guy doesn’t screw around with innovators’ dilemmas.”

I talked to several British founders during my visit to the city last week and for them the rationale for being in San Francisco was clear.

“It’s fascinating to come to California because you always go home with this sense of pace,” Raspberry Pi founder Eben Upton told me. “It’s the concentration of global talent here that makes Silicon Valley so special.”

This view is backed by Jon Reynolds, the co-founder of SwiftKey, (pictured right) the celebrated British firm behind the predictive keyboard for smartphones that has become one of Android’s most popular apps.

Reynolds, who started SwiftKey in 2008 as a 22 year-old Cambridge graduate, is a newcomer to California having moved over seven months ago, drawn by the opportunity to connect and learn from those around him, emboldened by the sense of opportunity and relentless positivity that abounds:

“Five years ago when we started in the UK we were heading into recession and the reaction was, “Wow, that’s brave. Now being in software and apps is seen as pretty cool, a good thing to do, and there’s a real positivity.”

On coming to San Francisco, Reynolds is clear about the advantages:

“There’s 10 times more of everything here. There are more people that have done it and been successful. There are more firms to go to for investment. It makes sense for us to be here but we maintain a very strong link with the UK and I connect back every day.”

One thing that’s immediately apparent from these discussions is the crucial role that the UK’s top universities have to play if we are to create more high potential technology companies. Not only in nurturing the founders of the future, but backing emerging ventures with investment and talent.

Both Upton and Reynolds see their young firms as part of the Cambridge cluster of tech companies that traces its lineage through Acorn Computers, ARM and Autonomy. Upton talks of a spiritual connection to this Cambridge community and remarks that it is sucking in talent in just the same way that Silicon Valley does.

But both entrepreneurs caution that there is a long way to go until Cambridge can enjoy the same symbiotic link as exists between Silicon Valley and Stanford University. The clear message from California is that more must be done to back the prospective founders emerging from our best universities, and that these institutions must take on an active role as shapers and supporters of talent, not merely educators and providers.

WANdisco’s David Richards pinpoints the essential role of the best US universities: “We’re hiring directly from Stanford, Berkeley. Benchmarking against those institutions is the right way to go – and understanding what they get right.”

Back in Britain, we often look to Silicon Valley and lament our apparent inability to build a Facebook or a Google, but the simple fact remains that the vibrancy of Silicon Valley today took decades to create.

The new wave of Brits heading to the Valley are quickly inculcated with the fearless optimism that anything is possible and connecting with those that have been there and done it. And this isn’t necessarily talent or business lost to the UK; companies that venture out to California are building international businesses with strong teams back in London, Cambridge, Sheffield and beyond. The work of UKTI does a lot to ensure that these transatlantic links remain robust.

For Reynolds, the positive impact back in the UK is clear: “Silicon Valley wasn’t built overnight and I think we will look back in the next decade and say this was a transformational time for UK tech.”

If the experiences of British founders in California are anything to go by, we might not be as far behind as some seem to think.

Nick Giles is co-founder of campaigns firm Seven Hills.  

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