In the wake of Brexit, Germany’s Free Democratic Party hired a van to circle Shoreditch with an advert saying: “Dear start-ups: Keep calm and move to Berlin.”
There were many dire predictions of an exodus of talent and businesses from Britain’s fledgling Silicon Roundabout.
But as The Telegraph’s Tech Hot 100 list shows, those fears may have been misplaced. In fact, what is apparent is the uniquely global nature of Britain’s technology scene, with just over a quarter of the founders featured on our list being born overseas. Many others have spent long periods travelling the world before settling on Britain to build their new business.
Out of the top ten founders, five have all lived in Britain for many years but grew up overseas. They include Nikolay Storonsky and Vlad Yatsenko of Revolut, Kristo Kӓӓrman and Taavet Hinrikus of Transferwise, and Joel Perlman of Oaknorth.
The list, calculated with data partners Beauhurst, demonstrates the draw of Britain for founders from all corners of the world, not just Europe, with entrepreneurs from the US, Israel and Russia and as far as Australia and Yemen.
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While this would seem to put to bed the most gloomy fears that Brexit would forever stunt Britain’s reputation as a place to do business, making sure this success lasts is a delicate balance.
For one thing, the prospect of a no-deal Brexit continues to loom large. Founders fear this could make hiring from European countries harder.
Another, most obviously, is the Covid-19 pandemic. With business travel at a standstill and the movement of talent, for university and work, under threat, can we expect such an array of founders in years to come?
Silicon Valley expats
“London is still a genuinely great place to be and the tech economy has grown over the last decade,” says Hussein Kanji, a partner at Hoxton Ventures, which has backed Deliveroo, Behavox and Kbox, whose founders featured on this year’s Tech Hot 100.
Kanji himself worked in the Bay Area before setting up a fund with Rob Kniaz in London in 2013. For Britain, he says, there has been a push and a pull factor bringing people to work in the UK.
Silicon Valley has long held the glamour of working for a Big Tech firm such as Apple or Google. Founders from across the US, India and Europe would set their sites on life in the Golden State. But the declining quality of life, political climate and cost of living is starting to put them off, and the pandemic is also causing many to reconsider their options.
“The pandemic has been less than ideal in a lot of countries, but far less than ideal in the US,” Kanji says. “That has led people to consider relocating. San Francisco is horribly expensive. Wage inflation is high and it is a mess with wildfires.”
Wildfires and the pandemic have made the West Coast a less attractive destination for some founders
With many tech companies embracing working from home, London, he says, could be one beneficiary of an exodus from the Bay Area.
It’s not just founders. Kanji points to top tech talent such as Mike Huddack, who moved from Facebook in Menlo Park to Deliveroo as head of technology and is now at Monzo. He also points to Rahma Javed, a Canadian who, via Silicon Valley, is now head of engineering at Deliveroo and an angel investor in British start-ups.
‘A golden period for UK tech’
Matt Clifford, co-founder of investor network Entrepreneur First, strikes a similarly positive tone. “Against all the odds, this is a golden period for UK tech and I don’t think that will change.”
Clifford notes Britain’s universities have long attracted top talent, in particular in spaces like artificial intelligence. He adds that a visa scheme run by Tech Nation has made it easier for technical talent to head to the UK since it was launched in 2014.
However, Clifford adds Brexit could make it harder for Britain to access the very best engineers from across Europe due to the end of free movement. “It will definitely be a tricky matter,” he says.
Britain’s power as a financial hub has also not, as of yet, been totally upended by Brexit. The ranks of trainees at big banks, management consultancies and law firms are likely to include some technology leaders of the future.
Israeli entrepreneur Shachar Bialick moved to the UK and founded fintech Curve
In particular, financial firms have been a breeding ground for founders and are often their first job in the UK.
Take PensionBee, a start-up that has built an app that helps users combine their different pensions into a single plan. It was founded by Romi Savova, who was born in Bulgaria, grew up in South Africa and attended university in the US. She worked in finance in London at Morgan Stanley, and later the start-up Credit Benchmark, before founding PensionBee in 2015.
And leaving the single market does not necessarily spell disaster. Clifford says that Israel, the “original start-up nation”, has punched above its weight internationally as entrepreneurs are forced to think creatively in a small market before launching global ambitions.
Someone who would know is Shachar Bialick. A serial entrepreneur after coming out of the Israeli Defence Force, Bialick moved to the UK and founded Curve, a fintech start-up that combines different spending apps and cards into one.
“The pandemic has only reinforced our long-serving rationale for being based in London,” he says. “This is the best place to find the diverse group of world-class individuals we need. No pandemic can change that fact.”