5 April 2018
Tell us about your entrepreneurial journey and why you moved to Coadec.
I always feel a bit of an imposter in this world of entrepreneurs. I have a background in Politics, I started out running election campaigns for the Lib Dems, then worked in various public policy roles. I was a consultant for a few years doing Tech policy in London and Brussels, then went off to live and work in New Delhi for 2 years for Michael Bloomberg’s foundation Bloomberg Philanthropies. I then returned to the UK to work on diplomatic strategy for the British Government in relation to Brexit and finally arrived at Coadec in January 2018. Quite a journey!
As far as entrepreneurialism is concerned and one of the key elements that drew me to the role at Coadec, and something I’ve had the chance to do in a lot of my roles, is to really take something and run with it. Which is ultimately what entrepreneurs do every day.
I would describe my role at Coadec as a translator, where I sit right in the middle of government and the start-up/scale-up community. I simply translate between the two, on policy for start-ups and on entrepreneurial issues for government.
Tell is more about Coadec?
The Coadec story is fascinating. It was founded in 2010 by Mike Butcher from TechCrunch and our current chairman Jeff Lynn who co-founded Seedrs. They started by focusing on campaign work, such as civil liberties, and the way government was using data in the security services etc. Later they hired a full-time Executive Director in the middle of the David Cameron government. This is when Coadec started to get serious about how to engagement government at a much deeper level, on the issues that mattered for start-ups. I am the 3rd such Director.
My predecessors did an amazing job at engaging with government and building a powerful relationship. So much so that now, as director, I sit on the Digital Economy Council with UK Managing Directors of Facebook and Google. This has strengthened Coadec’s relationship with government to the extent that we are consulted on key decisions. This reflects the shift for tech start-ups in general, from being seen as outsiders in Shoreditch to being at the heart of the British economy.
Coadec’s mission is to be the national policy voice for Tech start-ups and scale up. Can you tell us more?
One of the biggest areas is the shift over the past 5-10yrs in the role of start-ups in the British economy. It’s moved from being an industry that was very trendy but not vastly economically significant, to suddenly being a critical part of the UK economy. Our ability to engage with the government through that process is going to be really important. It is about having the conversations and ensuring the industry is at the table during these discussions.
It’s crucial to have successful entrepreneurs, willing to stand up and say what the issues are. I can’t do my job unless people are engaging with the process. One of the biggest challenges we have as a sector, is that understandably start-ups have their head down, working at scaling their businesses. However what is going to make the difference is powerful engagement with government, and this is essentially that’s why Coadec exist. We need people to tell us their challenges, their issues around data policy, immigration uncertainty. Coadec is here to put founders in front of the right people in government to discuss these issues and ultimately find solutions. The government hears from lads from Leeds with art degrees all the time, who they really want to hear is from, are the Founders!
You recently commented that, “One of the big challenges for tech, frankly, is on the level of understanding from politicians and officials,” Can you explain how you will address this?
On topics such as, data ethics, AI and machine learning, it requires a deep level of understanding. These are complex issues that require complex solutions. One of the big challenges that public policy always faces, is that either politics gets in the way or knowledge gets in the way.
I’m very honest in the fact that people like me with a politics degree aren’t necessarily the best people to be making the long term decisions about how these areas should be regulated. What we need are people with true expertise having these conversations. So, for example, one of the good things the government is doing is creating a new Centre of Data Ethics and Innovation to have those conversations with the top experts in the room. However, we also need to educate politicians to have these conversations as well.
What is the biggest hurdle for Coadec at present, Governmental or Entrepreneurial?
I’m naturally going to sit on the fence and say both. One of the good things about Brexit is that the level of engagement from entrepreneurs has vastly increased. There is a practical reality in that people who thought that ‘politics really doesn’t matter to me’, have found that suddenly it’s landed on their door step. This has meant the entrepreneurial community have had to become more engaged than they ever haveon issues such as immigration and data. The flip side is, that the political environment is becoming more hostile than it has ever been. Therefore the challenge for me is to ensure I can have sensible conversations with both.
You have launched an open call to the Tech startup community for “your help, your ideas, and your thoughts”. How is this going, is the Tech community responding?
It’s going extremely well. I sent out the ‘open call’ on my first day at Coadec and the next day I had 350 emails in my inbox, which is a pretty staggering response. Over the past few months I’ve had the opportunity to meet many of those respondents, to find out what kind of challenges they have. We are always open to more responses, more ideas, and to constantly keep on top of the challenges and issues facing the industry.
How can Funding London and our own Tech portfolio companies, help support the work yourself and Coadec are doing?
Firstly is to ensure that people are constantly engaged with the process. To keep connected to Coadec, so that when policy issues do arise we can develop the best strategies for engagement and responses. To also be receptive to calls for action, when we need to engage experienced entrepreneurs with government.
What are the biggest challenges the Tech industry will face during the Brexit process?
A lot of the challenges the industry will face will revolve around uncertainty. There is a genuine and understandable concern around what’s going to happen. The more Coadec can play a part in reminding government of entrepreneurial concerns, the more effective the results will be.
I see three main policy concerns around this issue. Firstly continued access to talent, the constant problem around ‘do we have enough skilled people to continue the great work of the Tech community is doing’. The second concern is around access to finance, at the moment 30-40% of the VC funding in the London market comes from the European Investment Fund (EIF), and at the moment the EIF is not paying out to UK Funds. The third concern, arguably the most important but least spoke about, is around data flows. The data economy in Europe is worth around 272bn Euros. Without a deal from the European Commission, data won’t be able to flow freely between the UK and Europe.
What impact will exiting the EU have on the British start-up/scale-up scene?
I am maybe more bullish on this than some are. We continue to have a good regulatory environment, we continue to have fantastic talent, and we continue to have strong access to finance. I think there is a reason why the Tech scene in the UK has been so successful and not all of that is directly correlated to being in the EU. However, obviously there are a lot of big question marks, and the more we can answer those questions the better.
What is your current view of the Tech Sector, especially in London?
The last 5-10 years it has been so incredibly successful. Our ability to continue this success, does relate to public policy. The public policy environment, now more than ever matters to the success of the Tech scene. The sector continues to do incredibly well and my job is to make sure at Coadec we can help to build on that success.
What are some of the most exciting innovations yourself and Coadec are seeing in Tech this year?
I went to a fascinating round table recently around machine learning and AI, the sheer scale of progress being made is astounding. Even more so, as AI is providing practical progress on everyday issues. London is clearly at the centre of the AI/machine learning revolution and is really pushing the boundaries of possibilities.
Another area I find really exciting are the developments in GovTech. It’s been slow progress to date, but now there is much more willingness on behalf of the Government to engage in areas such as procurement. Companies like Public are doing extraordinary work and really helping to accelerate the growth of the GovTech scene.
How do you see the Tech landscape developing over the next 5 years?
I think it’s increasingly more and more important for Tech companies to think about social Impact and the implications around AI and machine learning. More broadly if you look at London in particular we will continue to see a thriving tech ecosystem, and long may that continue.