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How startups can future-proof for an uncertain present

“The UK has a thriving startup scene. It’s out of the bubble of Silicon Valley and that has allowed us to build and innovate a different approach. I think we have the opportunity to pave the road in Europe, here.”

Those are the words of Alex Kendall, chief executive of London-based driverless car firm Wayve, which last year secured $200 million in Series B funding to fuel its autonomous vehicle expansion.

Like many tech startups, Wayve faces the challenge of solving an existing problem — in its case autonomous cars — while simultaneously forecasting future evolution to create new ways of living and working in the world.

As the past few years have shown from the outbreak of COVID-19, the world is anything but predictable. Creating tech-specific solutions allows companies to pivot, innovate and ideate as things change and evolve.

But how have UK-based startups ‘future-proofed’ their business while in growth mode..? 

Notice the now; build for the future

“I think it’s all about making bets on where trends of large technology waves are going,” Kendall says. “We might be coming out of the mobile trend now and may be about to enter the next 10 years into the AR/VR trend. We’re now seeing the emergence of generative AI that’s going to change the way we think about knowledge and content, and then as we enter the trend of autonomy, this is going to come with the ability for us to really have a lot more leverage on our time and see embodied AI systems enhance our lives and interact with us and everything we do.”

In the self-driving seat with Wayve

AI continues to be one of the biggest selling points for venture capitalists looking to invest in Great Britain, as it continues to generate billions for the economy. The UK is already punching above its weight internationally and is ranked third in the world behind the USA and China in the list of top countries for artificial intelligence.

The UK’s AI research also has the third-highest rate of AI publication citations per capita globally. Meanwhile, the Alan Turing Institute is the UK’s National Centre for AI and Data Science, which has a partnership with 13 of the UK’s most internationally recognised universities carrying out research and development (R&D) in AI.

Making bets on the future can require two simultaneous work streams: One near-future goal of local adoption and one longer-term goal of global adoption, made possible through partnership. For example, Wayve began in London. “If you can teach a car to drive in London, you can drive anywhere in the world,” Kendall explains. “We certainly have the diversity of experience and challenges here to make sure we build a globally scalable product.”

The company has since “bet big” on a large-scale partnership with Microsoft to design the supercomputing infrastructure needed to accelerate deep learning for autonomous mobility.

“One of the best pieces of advice I received was that if you want to build the future, create what’s possible in five years, not what’s possible today,” Kendall says. “When I co-founded the business in 2017, we didn’t know how to build an AI-based system that can learn how to drive, that wasn’t possible, but the trends that we saw from cloud-computing, machine learning, computer vision, data, all of these factors were coming together in a way that we believed it would be possible in five years’ time to do this. And that’s exactly what happened. I think that’s really exciting.”

Wayve navigates inner city streets

A supportive regulatory atmosphere

The innovative spirit of the British economy has meant that tech companies tackle the challenge of an uncertain present and future head on, helped by strong R&D capabilities, and a number of policies and programs in place.

The UK Listings Review was created to enhance the UK’s attractiveness as an international destination for IPOs in a post-Brexit world. It improves the capital-raising process for firms looking to list in London while maintaining high standards of corporate governance, shareholder rights and transparency.

Other schemes from the UK government include the Future Fund and Help to Grow that supports UK-based companies with amounts ranging from £125,000 to £5 million, subject to at least equal match funding from private investors. Arising out of the pandemic, more than £1 billion has been invested into over 1,000 companies.

There are also programs that reward innovation. For example, The Regulatory Sandbox allows firms to test innovative propositions in the market with real consumers in a controlled environment. Founded in 2016, it gives the opportunity to find out whether a business model is attractive to consumers or how a particular technology works in the market.

These programs are available and, more importantly, accessible to startup founders. Some receive funding while still in university, where many startups have taken place.

Other tech startup founders have experienced the regulatory environment of the UK as a welcome sanctuary to grow, pivot and adapt as they test and scale their products. “We’ve seen regulators in the UK be proactive at allowing new technologies, and in fact, the adoption curves of new services are typically higher in the UK than most other developed markets,” notes Kendall. These regulations and policies are just one of the many reasons the UK continues to attract a diverse pool of investors, as well as growing mergers and acquisitions (M&A), startups and flotations on the London Stock Exchange.


From the UK’s Department for Business and Trade:

The UK’s Department for Business and Trade brings business and trade together into a single department, with all the levers to unleash the power of British businesses, reform regulation to reduce burdens and unlock Brexit freedoms.  Find out more.