The U.K. government’s latest tech-related initiative has political photo opportunity written all over it. Said scheme – The GREAT Tech Awards (TGTA) – is heavy on jingoism (yes that’s “GREAT” as in Britain and GREAT as in technology, see what they did there?) – and light on payload and pay-off. But then the business of government is mostly a marketing exercise these days, so none of this should surprise.
TGTA calls on U.S. startups who don’t currently have a U.K. presence, but do have some presence in New York, to enter the competition to win a return ticket to the U.K. in October — season of mists and mellow fruitfulness (well, rain, spiders and gutters filled with sodden leaves, actually).
There will be five ticket winners in all, one U.S. startup in each of following categories: hardware, education, lifestyle, finance and media. (British startups feeling left out will have to console yourself with an ‘advisors’ choice’ award for a “successful British tech company that has established a dynamic presence in the New York market”. No free plane tickets for you, either.)
What do the five U.S. winners get, apart from a free “premium economy” plane ticket apiece? The trip will involve meeting a few bods at No.10 Downing Street, getting some legal and biz dev advice, an intro meeting with a “major British brand” and a tour of a few London co-working spaces, along with a few other bits and bobs (see below for full prize list).
But really that’s just garnish. The real prize is getting to spend a working week running around in UK Plc’s hamster-wheel of spin. Yay! Doubtless the winners will receive a lot of ministerial handshakes in front of carefully selected news media. Politicos love nothing better than a well-composed photo opportunity. Or at very least a barrage of self-congratulatory press releases. So expect plentiful digital emissions from BIS and UKTI come October, about how the government is luring U.S. entrepreneurs across the pond, helped by London’s trendy Tech City initiative. Spin, spin, spin!
(For some political context, the Conservative-led U.K. coalition government is currently trying to make the most of a national economic situation that’s become slightly less dire than it has been for the past three years. So just really dire then. Ergo, it’s especially keen to shout about job creation and business innovation. So yay startups!)
Now this marketing exercise is not entirely without merit. Making some high level noise by rebranding ‘Silicon Roundabout’ as Tech City has arguably helped attract big name tech investment to East London — which has (also arguably) been helpful in terms of concentrating talent and attracting additional investment to the area to up its credentials as a tech/startup hub. Even though rents have also been pushed higher in the process, actually making life harder for some East London-based startups. (Think of it as the swings and roundabouts of Tech City spin.)
So a scheme to market the U.K. Plc business opportunities at a handful of U.S. startups isn’t a bad thing per se. It’s just a “drop in the ocean” — as even British Consul General in New York, Danny Lopez, concedes, when asked about what outcomes the government is hoping TGTA will deliver.
“Ultimately the outcome is to increase trade flows,” he tells TechCrunch. “Clearly a very short-term outcome is that those five worthy winners that come over to the U.K. on a bespoke business development package that we put together will hopefully, if it’s right for them, set up in the U.K. and that increases figures. The reality is that’s a drop in the ocean when you look at the context of how many companies we help in the year.”
Five U.S. startups getting a freebie trip to London isn’t going to move anyone’s needle. But a flashy awards bash gives the U.K. government something to talk about when it hob-nobs with — and tries to butter up — U.S. startups. In other words what Lopez carefully describes as a way to “showcase and increase exposure” can be basically summed up as a UK Plc sales & marketing pitch.
Learning about what foreign startups want, in terms of government policy, is another likely offshoot of the TGTA initiative — which is a good thing, if it ends up “feeding into policy points”, as Lopez puts it. “We will get to celebrate a number of New York based companies who’re looking to the U.K. but we will also, by working with them, learn more about the sort of challenges they face and what more we can do as a government to help them,” he says.
Now, the U.K.’s current immigration policy has been criticised by VCs and entrepreneurs for making it harder for them to bring in the required talent to build their businesses. And it’s likely a lot of the startups Lopez and co are hob-nobbing with will be making that point over their U.K.-taxpayer funded Pinot Grigio and canapés. (Even as current Home Office immigration policy priorities accelerate off in a very different direction.)
Asked if the government is actively looking at how its current immigration policies impact startups — with a view to potentially making them more startup-friendly — Lopez says: “All we can do from what we do here is feed those views, which is why I’m very keen that we have an initiative like [TGTA]. I can’t comment on immigration reform, clearly that’s the remit of the Home Office, but when it come to what investors tell us that’s what we’re trying to do — collect views and be able to feed them through.”
“It is something that is being raised by companies as something that we should look at,” he adds, after being pressed on the immigration point.
Why is TGTA’s focus on New York, rather than any/all U.S. startups? Presumably because it’s relatively close to the U.K., versus Silicon Valley, so may be slightly more inclined to care about expanding across the pond.
Lopez puts it another way — saying the New York focus is a result of a noticeable “explosion” of disruptive activity in the city over the past two years, and some native synergies between New York and London.
“Whenever my team speaks to companies here they will say that mobile technology disrupts fashion, media, finance, in a way that means that the two epicentres of those three industries in the world — London and New York — have so much in common,” he says. “So if you’re based in New York and thinking about international expansion, London kind of makes sense — and vice versa.”
He won’t disclose how much taxpayer cash the U.K. government is spending on its latest swathe of spin (aka TGTA) — but does note that sponsors are paying for core elements of the awards, including the flights (Virgin Atlantic is stumping up the cash) and accommodation for the duration of the stay (Royal Bank of Scotland funded, apparently).
TGTA’s judging panel includes David Karp, CEO/Founder of Tumblr; John Borthwick, CEO/Co-founder of Betaworks; and Ben Lerer, CEO/Co-founder of Thrillist Media Group and Lerer Ventures.
Here’s the full run down of what the five U.S. winners will get:
- One premium economy round-trip airplane ticket provided by Virgin Atlantic Airlines departing from JFK on October 14, and returning from LHR on October 19, 2013
- A meeting with a senior representative at No.10 Downing St.
- Over $4,000 worth of legal services courtesy of Taylor Wessing LLP
- A two-day customized business development program in London (15-16 October)
- One entry pass to London’s Wired 2013 Conference (17-18 October 2013)
- An introductory meeting with a major British brand to be selected by Sponsor
- A tour of co-working and shared office spaces in London
- A complimentary BritishAmerican Business annual corporate membership (in either London or New York)
- A complimentary Gold Ticket Registration to the BritishAmerican Business Christmas Luncheon (in either London or New York)
- A half page feature on all winners in BritishAmerican Business New York Network magazine