Tech City’s free radicals can’t be run by the state

TODAY, the UK has a huge array of entrepreneurial talent. However, with the latest GDP figures showing the country back in recession, we need more than political spin from Westminster about promoting innovation and entrepreneurship. We need the politicians to get out of the way so we can achieve results.

No project has inflamed more political debate recently than Tech City, “Britain’s answer to Silicon Valley.” The government leapt in to support its early promise, after the number of high-tech companies jumped from about 20 to 200 in just four years. But the project is now in danger of stalling. If the project is to build on its success, it can’t rely on big government to guide it. The project needs to remain tightly connected to people who have a heritage and a track record in technology and a propensity for risk.

The emphasis should be on incubating startups, and, yes, there’s room for help here, with tax incentives and financing all geared to small firms, supported by extensive mentoring programmes. But there should also be even more focus on community-building, so developers help one other on technical and business matters.

Tech City’s hopes are tied to the mobile internet, where the power of social networking meets a marketplace of more than 6bn personal mobile devices. Ease of developer access and commercial potential are fuelling a powerful new wave of global innovation, decentralising power into distributed hubs around the globe.

This is no surprise. Large organisations simply can’t innovate fast enough to keep up with mobile internet technology. Innovators in the mobile space and other sectors are free radicals, in both the chemical and sociological sense. Highly reactive within their environment, they emerge in a time of economic uncertainty, triggering change. Orderliness is not part of their makeup.

Tech City is capable of an extraordinary future, but only if it can escape the danger of becoming a government project. The pace of traditional government doesn’t match up well with the rapid ambition that brings innovation. Over time, politicians – who must constantly balance the needs of many – tend to turn to middle-of-the-road mediocrity. Tech City is the embodiment of a principle that people are just beginning to understand: Silicon Valley is not a geographic location but a platform, a set of services and expertise with a highly engaged community brought together on behalf of innovation. Tech City has many of the best attributes of Silicon Valley already. For continued success, government needs to know its limits, release the apron strings on London’s entrepreneurial spirit and allow innovative technology vendors to lead the economic recovery.

Robert Marcus is chief executive of QuantumWave Capital, a mobile internet investment banking firm, and author of The Fifth Wave.