Since the start of the pandemic, the entire economy and its workforce have moved online, with technology and digital tools keeping many businesses going.
Jeremy Silver, CEO of Digital Catapult, a digital technology innovation firm based in Camden Town, has helped UK businesses small and large and across various industries to be more competitive online and to implement technological models, often bringing startups and more established businesses together.
As lockdown lifts even further this week, and industries begin to emerge from the pandemic, City A.M. sits down with Silver to discuss the role and importance of digital innovation as a key metric for economic recovery post Covid-19.
What impact has accelerators going ‘remote’ had on innovation in the pandemic?
In March last year, within 24 hours of making the decision to work from home – a week ahead of the PM’s edict – we put most of our 80 projects online and carried on working. To say we didn’t skip a beat would be pushing it, but it was amazing how fast we were able to resume service – albeit not normal – and most of our partner companies came too.
Admittedly, digital tech companies had something of an advantage, and many saw a boost in their business as the lockdown intensified. But many companies were forced to respond to radically changed markets: those that adapted most quickly and smartly pivoted their offerings and thrived.
We had some delays to our 5G accelerator programmes because they involve businesses literally getting their hands on the technology and doing practical integration work at a hardware level on our testbeds – but those that could access remotely did so.
There is a human factor to accelerators and meeting with mentors became more structured. Working remotely actually intensified the focus of the cohorts, but it did also make it less fun. Virtual beer and pizza just doesn’t taste the same.
How have you seen businesses adapt their offerings during the pandemic?
We’ve also shifted our lab activities to make them remote wherever possible, by shipping kit to participants.
However, let’s remember that accelerators by their very nature are designed for spontaneous, in-person interaction. Inspiration – and subsequently innovation – are often spawned by face-to-face networking and chance meetings, which have been virtually non-existent over the last year or so.
What’s more, ‘show and tell’ activities taking place remotely involve an element of curation and structure. Having this happen over video link doesn’t allow for serendipitous encounters, and it’s harder to create a collaborative atmosphere.
What are the results of not having physical access to tech labs or on-premise accelerators?
There’s no denying that virtual and hybrid ways of working are the future, but I would expect to see a notable innovation lag if physical clusters and hubs completely ceased to exist indefinitely. I think we might also see something of an offline rebellion once the virus has really disappeared – some people will just be desperate not to be online.
There’s a reason small business and entrepreneurs have traditionally existed in clusters across the City. Their hunger for success and willingness to push boundaries is infectious, and being embedded in a community – sharing some of that competitive excitement – is the secret to unlocking new revenues and scaling opportunities.
It’s all very well taking your existing contacts remote, but when it comes to forging new partnerships, that’s pretty difficult to do from afar.
What’s more, for the startup community, having the chance to access advanced tech labs to test products and services in real-world environments can be critical. Having cost-effective access to physical infrastructure and testbeds is a crucial part of developing use cases for tech and wider business offerings.
Many of our programmes also rely on startups producing prototypes and showcasing them to investors, and the fact that we cannot facilitate on-premise demos and showcases makes it more challenging to attract and excite funders. But investors were also struggling to maintain deal flow, since companies coming in and pitching was just not happening.
The virtual investor showcases we ran attracted far larger numbers of investors (angels, syndicates and funds) than pre-lockdown, and they loved it.
So you believe there is still a place for ‘physical’ accelerators – or are they dead?
Absolutely, there’s an important role for socialising. Some argue that having a quieter, less distracting environment at home means creativity can more easily flow, and this well may be true.
In reality, though, having the opportunities to bounce ideas, stories and expertise off others is what can take an idea from seed to market. Exposure to new experiences, environments and stimulating competition can help ignite creative sparks to make startups’ products or services a success.
Additionally, many participants miss being part of a ‘physical’ cohort, going through experiences side-by-side with other participants. Serendipity really suffers in remote working – having those in-person chance meetings that lead to amazing collaborations are hard to quantify but vital for the community.
How important is innovation and entrepreneurship in our economic recovery?
Hugely. The UK is home to some of the brightest pioneers in the world, who will be firmly at the centre of plans to build back better, greener and level up.
Digital innovation should be viewed as a key metric for economic recovery post Covid-19. As we navigate a record economic slump, nourishing positive forms of disruption will be imperative. Our ability to provide expert agnostic technology advice and convene different players across the ecosystem – startups, corporates and academics – will become even more critical in this period.
Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
A final word of caution: at a pivotal time for our economy, we must get the balance right between supporting lots of new business creation, and providing persistent support for existing companies who are looking to invest in advanced digital technologies to increase their competitiveness and reduce their carbon emissions. If we can achieve both, then we’ll really be on to something!