Sunday 22 November 2015 10:07 pm

Tech City UK’s Gerard Grech on blockchain, BMWs and the Commonwealth

A View To A Kill, with Roger Moore – you know, the one where Max Zorin plots to blow up Silicon Valley and halt microchip production? That was back in the mid-80s!” says Gerard Grech, chief executive of Tech City UK, the government-funded tech cluster at the heart of Silicon Roundabout and London’s burgeoning tech scene. 
I’ve asked him how he thinks London’s tech scene is doing next to its much bigger brother over the pond. “The point is that Silicon Valley is pretty old now. We mustn’t rest on our laurels in London, but we’ve done pretty well. And the next big wave is how tech will go even more mainstream in existing industries – healthcare, education, banking. It’s a software question; it also depends on how those industries perceive each other and respond to change.” 


Tech City does a lot of lobbying and collaboration work. Grech is keen, for instance, to mention its current partnership with the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council and the City of London. But it has been running programmes to support and connect businesses since 2010, when it was launched by the Prime Minister, including the Future Fifty, which offers a bespoke support service to high-growth digital businesses. Its alumni have raised £790m, says Grech. Four, including Zoopla and Just Eat, have listed on the London Stock Exchange. 
Last autumn, it launched the Digital Business Academy, which enables anyone in the UK to take free digital business courses. “When we launched, we thought that people taking the courses would be 18-24 year-olds. It quickly became clear that over 50 per cent were older than 30. Recently, a 60 year-old guy did all our courses, and he’s now applying for jobs in the digital industry.” 
I spoke to Grech last week, and he had a busy few days ahead of him. He was in Estonia on Friday at the D5 Summit – a government initiative to strengthen digital networks between countries, with the UK, South Korea, Estonia, Israel and New Zealand its founding members. And tomorrow, he’ll be in his home country of Malta at the Business Forum of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. 
It may be a mouthful, but this annual meeting provides an opportunity to discuss how tech can help bring about a more prosperous Commonwealth – and increase collaboration at the level of governments and businesses. The digital firms going from the UK this year include What3Words, a startup that has divided the entire surface of the earth into three metre by three metre squares, with unique three-word identities for each square. Think what that could mean for unmapped parts of the globe, or logistics companies.
Grech is enthusiastic about the Commonwealth focus. He quickly cites a Harvard study which found that countries which share a language trade 42 per cent more with each other. “There are 2.2bn people in the Commonwealth, across 53 countries. Roughly half of the websites in those countries carry content in English, and a very large number of people speak English in them. There’s a great export opportunity for digital businesses.” 


The UK comes sixth in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Ranking, which focuses on how conducive the regulatory environment is to getting a company off the ground. I ask Grech how good a job the government is doing. “The great news is that it is constantly listening” – he references the government’s bad debt relief for peer-to-peer lenders. “But the industry is constantly evolving, so it has to be about anticipating what might come up next.” 
One area Grech thinks the government is doing well in “getting itself out of the way” is blockchain. Developed as a way to solve bitcoin’s double-spend problem, it has now, perhaps ironically (because bitcoin was created to help people move away from banks), become a focus for several of the largest institutions in the world. “Blockchain could make markets even more efficient, and the big players are acknowledging that emerging technologies like it are worth investigating from multiple perspectives. They know they need to do it, because they’ve seen how other industries have been impacted by disruption.” 


Grech is certainly not one to shy away from disruption. “Do you have a car?” he asks me. He hasn’t had one for a decade – and that’s with three children. “I use Zipcar, and it’s great, but even within disruptive industries, there are new emerging models that are pushing the boundaries.” Zipcar bills you per half hour, and you drive the car back where to you found it. DriveNow, Grech explains, does per minute billing, and you can park the car back anywhere within a parking zone because of deals it’s done with councils. Peter Thiel, the co-founder of Paypal and venture capitalist, has called this innovative tweak the “last mover” phenomenon. 
“It means that when I play tennis with my son, I can literally fire up the app, rock up to the car, tap the card on the windscreen and we’re in a brand new BMW. I mean, that’s just fantastic. My neighbour thinks, ‘how can you not have a car?’ But the reality is that these technologies are actually really convenient. And it comes down to economics and convenience. That’s what is ultimately going to push a new wave of innovation, whether it’s the sharing economy or blockchain. Who knows? Maybe we’ll become even more trusting of each other.” 


Company name: Tech City UK
Founded: 2010
Number of staff: 24
Job title: Chief executive
Age: 42
Born: Malta
Studied: Southampton University (Engineering Acoustics); Bath University (MBA) 
Drinking: Red wine (Pinot)
Eating: Cheese
Currently reading: Humans Are Underrated, by Geoffrey Colvin
Favourite Business Book: Good to Great, by Jim Collins
Talents: Could not possibly comment
Heroes: Too many to mention 
First ambition: To be a film director 
Motto: “Leadership is making the impossible possible.”
Most likely to say: Can we make a data-driven decision on that/where is that data dashboard? 
Least likely to say: I’m bored