Will a UK technology hub really rival Silicon Valley?

Earlier this month, prime minister David Cameron set out the government's ambitious plans to create a technology hub to rival Silicon Valley in London's...

Earlier this month, prime minister David Cameron set out the government's ambitious plans to create a technology hub to rival Silicon Valley in London's East End. Large companies such as Google, Facebook and BT are lining up to invest in the East London Tech City, stretching from Silicon Roundabout to the Olympic Park, but can the UK really build a rival to the Valley?

As one of Huddle's co-founders, I'm only too familiar with the challenges faced by entrepreneurs and technology start-ups in the UK. I feel that there are three key barriers that UK start-ups have to overcome: finding finance; the need for a self-supporting community of successful - entrepreneurs and investors; and building talented teams. David Cameron's plans certainly go some way to addressing these issues.

Raising venture capital in the UK has become increasingly difficult. Despite the government's best efforts to improve it, the UK market has proved too conservative and the environment remains tough. You have numerous start-ups all hoping to secure the finance that they need to grow and they have to fight for it.

With US venture capitalists brandishing bigger pots of money, willing to take risks and invest far earlier in a business' lifecycle, it's hardly surprising that some of the UK's most promising tech start-ups go West.

Cameron's pledge of £200m of ­equity finance for businesses with high growth potential appears to be a step in the right direction. However, speaking from my experiences of trying to raise finance from Enterprise Capital Funds (ECF), there is a lack of supervision at the stage when money has to be invested into businesses.

With his plans for the East London Tech City, the prime minister is also attempting to develop a strong community of technology investors and entrepreneurs. This community is ­essential for start-ups.

The sheer size and buzz of the support system in the Valley is the reason that Mark Zuckerberg gives for moving Facebook from Harvard to Palo Alto. We have to replicate the organic growth of the Valley's entrepreneur ecosystem in the UK and nurture an environment where second and third time entrepreneurs support and invest in the new breed of start-ups. It's this Silicon Valley model of investment that Andy McLoughlin and I followed (albeit by accident) to gain initial finance for Huddle.

Andy and I were introduced by a friend whose grandmother - Sheila Watson-Chalice - started successful UK start-up Blue Arrow. When Sheila sold Blue Arrow, she invested in Fibernet and the company's CEO, Charles McGregor, ended up working with Andy. When Andy and I set up Huddle in 2006, Charles was our first angel investor.

Once you have your finance and your office space sorted you need a team. Cameron's plan for University College London, Imperial College London and Loughborough University to contribute to the hub is a great way of nurturing the entrepreneurial spirit in today's students. After all, what good is the UK's answer to Silicon Valley if we don't have the talent, bright ideas and concepts to nurture and take through to fruition and cash flow?

Zuckerberg launched Facebook from his Harvard dorm and Google was co-founded by Larry Page and Sergey Brin when they were at Stanford University - need I say more?

The collaboration between universities and the East London Tech City will be vital. Stanford University and the University of California Berkeley feed some of the best technology talent and brains into Silicon Valley. Closer to home, many of the tech companies in Silicon Fen were started by Cambridge University students or professors.

On the surface, all the ingredients are in place to help make the UK's Silicon Valley a success. However, I now come back to my original question: can we really build a rival? The fact is we shouldn't be rivalling the Valley, we should be learning from it and replicating it.

Alastair Mitchell is CEO at Huddle

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