Britain takes its place among the tech titans

Brid-Aine Parnell

Tuesday 7 October 2014

Ask someone who Britain’s tech titans are and you might find that they’re stumped. But the UK has been making its mark in the technology sector since the very beginning, in hardware, software and even the web.

When people think about technology innovation, they imagine bespectacled 90s-era guys working in their garages or Ivy League university students coding in their dorm rooms. The success of firms like Facebook and Microsoft has made these kinds of American scenes the de facto image of the IT entrepreneur. But where does the UK fit into the picture?

Despite the efforts of the government to foster technology innovation with initiatives such as London’s Silicon Roundabout, it sometimes seems that Britain’s success stories are nowhere to be found. We don’t see people walking down the street with UK-made gadgets, so it’s hard to believe that Britain has its own success stories, stretching as far back as the 1980s. In fact, many of the smart phones that you see in people’s hands today contain processors from a British tech firm, ARM Holdings, which was set up in 1990.

Even earlier than that, a British student from Newcastle University, Graham Wylie, was developing software with an accountancy firm as a summer job – an endeavour that eventually resulted in the founding of accountancy and payroll firm Sage in the early 1980s with his boss David Goldman and academic Paul Muller.

Fast-forward to the present and both these firms are still going strong, while Britain gathers its own runaway success stories to admire.

Perhaps the most recognisable is James Dyson, inventor of the eponymous vacuum cleaner, which has since been joined by fans and air-drying systems. Dyson has long been an advocate for getting more youngsters into STEM subjects and producing more science, technology and engineering graduates. He’s also been known to be somewhat disparaging of the government’s focus on the web, preferring the idea of tangible tech products.  Last year, he criticised what he called “an obsession with Shoreditch’s so-called Silicon roundabout”.

“The government must do more to attract the brightest and best into engineering and science so that we can compete internationally. Twenty-six per cent of engineering graduates do not go into engineering or technical professions,” he said.

“More worrying is that 85 per cent of all engineering and science postgraduates in our universities come from outside the UK. Yet nine in ten leave the UK after they finish their studies. British knowledge is simply taken abroad. Engineering postgraduates need to be encouraged with generous salaries. A salary of £7,000 a year for postgraduate research is insulting.”

Despite Dyson’s pessimism, there is at least one person who’s no doubt delighted he focused on “web fads” instead of engineering. Nick D’Aloisio, a British teen, has recently sold his news summary app Summly to US web firm Yahoo! for a reported £20m. D’Aloisio, who still works with Yahoo!, has repeatedly been trumpeted by the media as Britain’s own version of young tech titans like Mark Zuckerberg, although the now-18-year-old is only just considering whether he should go to university or continue working in IT.

But the modern British tech scene isn’t only populated by rags-to-riches tales of charismatic entrepreneurs, it’s also filled with hardworking firms that make a lot of the tech behind the tech, just like ARM is still doing.

NVIDIA may be the first name that comes to mind when people think about graphics, but much of the graphics processing in smart phones and tablets is done with the help of Imagination Technologies.The small company outside London isn’t well-known because it’s not manufacturing the graphics chips itself. Instead, it licenses its designs to firms such as Intel, which put the company’s technological innovations into their own chips. Now, it’s focusing its energies on new technologies for use in areas like the Internet of Things.

“We believe that the communications device in your phone or tablet needs to be able to speak many languages,” Imagination Technologies says on its blog. “But some of these languages will only need to be spoken occasionally. “Together, Explorer and Whisper provide the flexibility for the new and highly fragmented IoT wireless communications. With a choice of platforms and solutions, we at Imagination provide the correct solution for the needs of all parts of the market.”

Although British tech firms aren’t always in the limelight, its tech sector continues to grow, Tech City UK’s CMO Kathy Turner told Think Progress.

“The British technology sector is predicted to expand at a rate of 11 per cent a year until 2016, creating an internet economy worth £221bn. Tech clusters across the UK are excelling in their own right and at the same time developing areas of expertise and complementary strengths: gaming in Newcastle, sports tech in Cardiff, digital media in Manchester and fintech in London. In fintech alone, the UK and Ireland represented more than half (53 per cent) of Europe’s deals and more than two-thirds (69 per cent) of Europe’s entire fintech funding.

“Each individual city needs to maintain the momentum, building up their local tech skills and infrastructure, while forging deeper links with other tech clusters across the UK. When these clusters work together we have the potential to increase our collective capabilities,” she said.

It’s easy to be dazzled by high-flying web titans and miss the backbone of the IT sector – the place where British technological innovation started with people such as Alan Turing and Sir Tim Berners-Lee, and where modern tech firms are still making their mark.

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