Whether the magic of Silicon Valley can be exported to tech clusters elsewhere is a perennial subject of debate. Nevertheless, a group of Bay Area entrepreneurs and investors are in England this week to do their best to share their knowledge and try to jump-start the tech scene in the U.K., while negotiating the perils of a bomb scare (more on that later).
Led by LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman and Sherry Coutu, a Cambridge-based investor associated with NESTA, a British innovation organization, Silicon Valley Comes To The UK is a weeklong series of panels and conferences, meetings with British policymakers, and workshops with European tech CEOs entrepreneurs.
"Any place that has a good depth of technical universities and skills, and even a partial entrepreneurial culture, I tend to be very supportive of philosophically," Hoffman tells Fast Company. And if you wanted to pick a place that could be the capital for tech entrepreneurship across Europe, he says, "you'd basically come to London, Cambridge, and Oxford."
"We’re trying to create an ecosystem that allows us to have more £1 billion companies," Coutu (pictured above) says.
It's also an opportunity for the Silicon Valley folks to get a glimpse at some of Europe's top startup talent. One delegate said he was already trying to close a deal with a German entrepreneur he re-connected with at a dinner on the first night of the trip.
"There are smart and interesting entrepreneurs around the world," says August Capital’s David Hornik, a SVC2UK participant. "But having real relationships with them is challenging. This is one of the few programs where, over a short period of time, you meet a range of people."
This year's program is cramming 39 events into four days. On Wednesday, the group visited Parliament and headed to 10 Downing Street to talk about policies that facilitate the emergence of high-growth businesses. On Thursday, they are holding workshops with startup CEOs from the U.K. and Europe—to pass on their knowledge but also to forge networks among the entrepreneurs themselves.
On Friday, the delegates will spend the day in Cambridge, talking with university students and getting a look at about 30 of Europe's hottest startups. On Saturday, they return to the capital for an afternoon conference with students and entrepreneurs at London's Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication.
The program began four years ago. It grew out of a similar program based at Oxford University which invited alumni back to share their experiences.
Hoffman, a Marshall Scholar who studied at Oxford in the early '90s, first participated in that program six years ago. As an investor and entrepreneur, Hoffman believes in scaling companies as large as possible. In 1998, he partnered with Coutu to expand the impact of the original program. Via telecasts to 25 other universities in the U.K. and abroad, this year's program will reach about 20,000 people.
Among the participants from the U.S. this year are MIT Media Lab director and investor Joi Ito, Google vice president of new business development Megan Smith, Wikia CEO and angel investor Gil Penhcina, and Adam Nash, a former LinkedIn executive and now executive-in-residence at Greylock Partners.
Gilt Groupe cofounder Alexandra Wilson and August Capital's David Hornik talk with CEOs of European startups.
The U.K. has been home to a number of tech successes, including enterprise software company Autonomy, which was acquired by HP earlier this year for about $10 billion, and Spotify, the Swedish-founded, U.K.-headquartered music service. Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservative government is also trying to accelerate the startup scene with "TechCity," a technology cluster in East London also known as "Silicon Roundabout," that has tripled in size in the last year.
But the country lacks certain immigration policies, "at will" employment rules, and relaxed anti-compete laws that make it easier for startups to hire the right talent and move quickly. And it doesn't enjoy the tight ecosystem that exists in Silicon Valley, where entrepreneurs, investors, developers, and academics network and cross-fertilize to help each other grow.
With SVC2UK, "we're trying to actively go out of our way to create relationships," Coutu tells Fast Company.
Postscript: The U.K. CEOs who came to the coaching workshops today got a crash course in one of the inevitable aspects of entrepreneurial life: The fact that the best-laid plans often go awry. Soon after the sessions started, the building they were in had to be evacuated due to a bomb scare.
Stuck with milling about in a nearby courtyard, the more enterprising CEOs pulled out their business cards and started hobnobbing with the Silicon Valley folks, as well as each other. Eventually, with no end to the emergency in sight, Mayfield Fund’s Raj Kapoor invited everyone over to a nearby pub, where the coaching and networking continued.
David Buxton, CEO of Arachnys, which aggregates business information from emerging markets, happily bobbed through the crowd, introducing himself to various participants. "Any early stage company is thrown curve balls all the time," he said. Entrepreneurial success depends on "learning how to turn that to an advantage."
The group was let back into the building after about two hours. No bomb was found.
[Image: Flickr user Trodell]