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The UK startup scene in 2018 can best be defined by two trends: public sector collaboration and a desire to deliver innovation for social good.
Since the publication of the government’s Industrial Strategy in November 2017, there has been a much greater emphasis on bringing startups and small businesses into the public sector to help provide innovative solutions to specific social challenges.
For example, five startups were awarded contacts to deal with rural isolation and loneliness through the GovTech Catalyst Fund, while the government’s Accelerated Access Partnership Rapid Uptake Products programme supported seven innovative treatments with funding.
This includes the non-invasive, AI-powered cardiac test pioneered by US medtech firm HeartFlow, which has been deployed in 28 NHS hospitals in the past six months.
Beyond this, the desire to innovate for social good is reflected in the creation of accelerator programmes such as We in Social Tech, which aims to address the gender imbalance in London’s tech sector by supporting female-led startups.
Furthermore, many groups and individuals in this space have taken it upon themselves to make this push for social good.
Inventor of the World Wide Web Tim Berners-Lee, for example, founded startup Inrupt, which aims to give people more control over their personal data, while innovation centre Digital Catapult launched an ethics framework for artificial intelligence and machine learning, which was specifically geared toward helping startups adopt ethical practices from day one.
Despite these dominant trends, however, there are still a number of barriers that stand in the way of effective startup engagement in the public sector, and while there has been an emphasis on social good and ethics in the wider debate, only time will tell if these practices will be adopted on a large scale.
A report published by Public, an organisation set up by former Number 10 aide Daniel Korski to bridge the gap between the public and private sector, looked at 75 of the most innovative PoliceTech startups.
The report focused on how SMEs could build relationships within the public sector and looked at the potential they have to change how police in the UK operate.
Given the importance of public trust to the police’s legitimacy, the accountability and ethics of private firms and their solutions is something that needs to be focused on much more, especially with recent revelations regarding the Metropolitan Police’s use of the Gangs Matrix raising concerns about its own use of technology and data.
In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Tim Berners-Lee decided to launch his own startup, Inrupt, in an attempt to support an open source platform that allows users to choose how and where their data is stored.
Berners-Lee has also been critical of web giants such as Facebook and Google for their approach to managing users’ personal data.
The platform, called Solid, essentially works as a secure digital USB that can be accessed from anywhere. It is hoped that Inrupt will provide the corporate infrastructure to allow the platform to grow.
In keeping with this year’s trend of startups geared towards social good, a new accelerator programme was launched for female-led companies, the aim being to combat the gender imbalance in the tech sector.
We in Social Tech will support the growth of 60 businesses over the next 18 months through bespoke business consultancy packages that include access to industry mentors, who will be matched to the startups based on individual needs, and free co-working space.
The launching of the ‘social-tech’ accelerator reflects the realisation that consumers, especially younger people, want to buy from organisations they agree with and trust.
Innovation centre Digital Catapult unveiled its first Ethics Framework in October, which it hopes will increase the adoption of ethical standards by organisations developing artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies.
The framework is focusing primarily on startups which, unencumbered by lumbering legacy systems, can more readily benefit from adopting ethical practices early on.
Digital Catapult also set up an ethics committee, made up of a working group and a steering group, to help the startups navigate the framework and develop best practices.
HeartFlow is a US-based medical technology (medtech) firm that has created a non-invasive, AI-powered cardiac test that allows clinicians to accurately diagnose various heart conditions.
According to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice), the technology could save the NHS up to £214 per patient, equivalent to £9m a year.
It has already been deployed in 28 NHS hospitals over the past six months, and is supported by funding from the government’s Accelerated Access Partnership Rapid Uptake Products programme, which seeks to promote the adoption of innovative new treatments across the NHS.
In August, the Department for Transport set out an action plan to increase its spend with small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).
The department’s aim is to steadily increase its spend over the next few years, aiming to have 29% spent with SMEs by the end of this financial year and 33% by 2022.
The plan, though behind the government’s overall target of a 33% SME spend by 2020, highlights the renewed importance of SMEs and startups in the public sector, which are seen as vital to creating better opportunities in the supply chain.
The desire to do social good is not simply limited to UK startups, with Norway’s capital, Oslo, now thriving due to a unique combination of business agility, a cultural receptiveness to technology and, of course, a social desire to do good.
Many of those Computer Weekly spoke to about Oslo’s ascendancy said that 2008’s financial crash turned many away from Norway’s traditional industries, including oil, gas, fishing and shipping, and into new commercial areas.
This diversification has propelled innovation, with many now focusing instead on using their skills to solve social problems via technology.
The government will be awarding up to £300,000 to two businesses that have developed prototype technology project as part of the Department of Education’s Higher Education Open Data Competition.
The competition was launched in summer 2018 to get small companies to use open data for the purpose of creating new digital services to help students choose a the best Higher Education path for them.
Five tech companies were involved, with the two winners planned to be announced before the end of the year. Again, this story shows the government’s desire to bring smaller, well-capitalised firms into the public sector, which it is hoped will inject more innovation into the space.
During London Tech Week, the prime minister announced that the government would launch a “startup visa” for entrepreneurs in spring 2019.
According to figures from Tech Nation, a new digital technology job is created in the UK every 50 minutes, and the sector employs 2.1 million people.
The prime minister said the measures would “allow innovative British startups to invest in their future – and in the UK – by hiring more skilled people, expanding their business and exporting their expertise across the world”.
The visa, it is said, will be open to “talented business founders”, with accelerators playing a role in endorsing potential candidates.
Research by Tech Nation published in October showed that the UK is producing more billion-dollar tech startups than any other European country.
While London remains the centre of the startup scene, having produced 36 of the UK’s 60 unicorns, the research showed that even regional cities are competing head-to-head with many European capitals.
This means that despite the uncertainty of Brexit, there are no signs of tech investment in the UK slowing, and there are a number of technology hubs blossoming outside of the capital.