London Technology Week displays scalability of digital firms, but what about other UK cities?

Depending on who you ask, London has anywhere between 20,000 and 40,000 technology firms calling the city home. The proliferation of technology companies has spread from the early community found in East London in the aftermath of the financial crisis, to Soho, Camden and, most recently, Croydon.

As more have been encouraged to set up fast-moving and disruptive technology companies, inward investment from corporates, venture capital firms and institutional investors has swelled – creating the kind of melting pot other cities around the world would bite your arm off for.

London Technology Week, a kind of joint venture between the capital’s “promotional company” London & Partners and media company UBM, was established last year to build on what has already been achieved and drive conversation on what barriers need to be removed.

There is no doubt that London has produced some phenomenal technology companies during the last six or seven years. Fresh research from corporate finance firm GP Bullhound has identified a growing number of businesses that are now worth in excess of $1bn – the so-called “unicorn companies”. Funding Circle, JUST EAT, Zoopla and Shazam all call London home, and are made up of incredibly diverse founding teams and workforces.

However, in an age where we are increasingly being warned of the bubble London operates in, shouldn’t we be extolling the virtues of a British technology sector – or even a European-wide one. The government-dubbed “Northern Powerhouse” is driving forward with an agenda of better connecting the north and south as well as showcasing the kind of diverse economies that exist in cities such as Newcastle, Dundee, Leeds, Hull and York.

Everybody knows the strengths London has to offer. It has five well-connected airports, a comprehensive local transport network, a cultural melting pot of diverse talent, a firmly-established financial services industry, world-leading academic institutions and a thriving stock market. But what about letting the world know about what the UK has to offer, such as bleeding edge gaming technology in Dundee, the creativity going on in Bristol and Bath, or the media hub growing every day in Manchester.

The delegate parties being led round London this week by Tech City UK, London & Partners, UBM and many other organisations with a vested interest will return home having been drowned in London-friendly rhetoric. But they’re unlikely to hear about any of the other hubs that reside less than three hours away by train.

London Technology Week’s launch event brought together a very impressive ensemble of cast members. Former Google VP for brand solutions and now venture capital investor Dan Cobley, EY chief economist Mark Gregory and serial angel investor Sherry Coutu where joined by those at the helm of Funding Circle, Blippar and JUST EAT. Moving from the theme of what we can expect next from London’s technology sector, where Tech London Advocates founder Russ Shaw predicted more distinct retail, financial and creative technology movements and Cobley believed we will see startups become ever more the popular career choice out of university, to scaling up and creating a $1bn company, the conversations didn’t really touch on anything outside of the M25 motorway.

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The scale of London’s challenge when it comes to creating businesses on par with those being churned out of Silicon Valley at an exponential rate was laid bare in the same GP Bullhound study. The cumulative value of Europe’s unicorn companies ($120bn) is small fry when it is compared to the net worths of Apple ($737bn), Facebook ($230bn), Uber ($50bn) and Airbnb ($20bn). However, with a European community including Skype, King, Spotify, BlaBlaCar, Supercell and Delivery Hero, the continent has the framework to one day construct firms that will rival North American peers.

Take nothing away from London Technology Week – it has a fantastic range of events that Real Business has been through with a fine-tooth comb to pick our top ten – but this space has to be a numbers play. Segmenting it out into a country-by-country basis, or in this case city-by-city, simply dilutes those figures.

London needs to be used as a beacon and support structure for technology businesses throughout the UK. Research from Oxford Economics showing that London’s technology sector is expanding twice as fast as the UK average ins’t necessarily something to be celebrated, it just exacerbates the divide. A clever young graduate in Newcastle or Liverpool shouldn’t have to feel that the only way into the the technology sector is by journeying down the M6 or M1. Instead, we should focus on promoting the specialised offerings that cities are beginning to carve out.

Only then can we go out into the world confident in the knowledge that Britain has every box ticked when it comes to being a diverse technology ecosystem.

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