Can Great British entrepreneurs lead the next technological revolution: part one, why the UK?

Later this year, The NatWest Great British Entrepreneur Awards will celebrate the best of British entrepreneurialism. But it is worth taking stock for a moment, there is a lot to celebrate, something has happened in the UK, thanks in part to the emergence of a new entrepreneur class. A truly dynamic industry is emerging in the UK,  and it may yet enable Britain to lead the world into the next technological revolution. This is the first part in a series. Today we look at some of the UK’s core strengths.

And we can begin the story of the UK’s re-emergence with an incident that occurred on a Friday night in Manchester in 2004.

On that auspicious occasion, two scientists were doing what they had done many time before. Friday night was experiment night. They and their students used to regularly experiment, often on ideas not necessarily connected to their work. On this particular occasion, the tool of their experiment was scotch tape, the subject was graphite, a commonly available substance which everyone who has used a pencil is familiar with. On this occasion they tried applying the tape to the graphite, stripping off a layer at a time. The end result was something that has been hailed as a wonder material: graphene. This is the material that is just one atom thick, 200 times stronger than steel and has been described as providing the potential solution to efficient water desalination, faster and more powerful computers, more efficient energy storage, electric sports cars, lightweight planes, semi-transparent mobile phones and bullet proof clothes lighter than silk underwear. Andre Geim, one of the two scientists behind the isolation of graphene, described that process which led to the breakthrough as ‘joking around on a Friday night’. So remarkable was this discovery that in 2010, just six years after the first paper describing the isolation of graphene was published, Geim and his colleague Konstantin Novoselov won the Nobel Prize for Physics. So that’s six years from breakthrough to Nobel Prize, such a short time frame is simply unprecedented.

So that is good, what else is special about the UK?

Greenwich Mean Time

That the world sets it clocks by a standard that uses a line of longitude that goes through east London is not the point. GMT just happens to be the best located time zone in the world. This has nothing to do with invention, and everything to do with geography, the position if you like of tectonic plates.

The sun rises in the east, and sets in the west.  Under the convention we use today, the day begins in Japan, and works its way west across Asia, Europe and then across the Atlantic. When it is 5.30 pm in Japan and the day is drawing to a close, it is just beginning in the UK. The working days overlap.  As the sun moves west, the working day draws to an end, first in East Asia, then on to India, the Middle East, and then Europe. By the time the day draws to an end in the UK, the working day in California has begun.

The timing, is down to convention. But the overlap in the day is to do with where the sun sits in the sky at any one time. For as long as the times in each of the world’s time zones correspond to the position of the sun, the UK’s day will always overlap with the day in both Japan and California, and moving westwards from Japan everywhere between.  By contrast, in every other time zone in Europe and in Asia west of Japan, when the day begins locally, it will be ending somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, and will not have reached the west coast of the US.

Language

That brings us onto language. It has been estimated that 2 billion people use the English Language to communicate regularly. It may not be the most commonly spoken first language, but it is generally agreed that it is the dominant business language, and an essential tool for anyone looking to work with international partners.   This is important for more than one reason. For one thing, the UK attracts talent from all over the world to its universities, in part because of the motivation to improve skills with the English language. For another thing, it gives the UK an advantage, because its indigenous population can ‘speak the lingo like a native’.

Universities

The UK ranks second in the world for business-university collaboration, and fifth for business university collaboration in R&D. In the year 2012/13 the UK generated no less than £2.7 billion from universities working with business. During the same period, higher education generated £86.6 million in IP revenue and £376 million from graduate start-ups.

According to rankings produced by the FT, of the world’s top business schools for MBAs, nine are in the UK. Of the world’s top 50 universities according to the Times Higher Education World University rankings, seven are in the UK.

Immigration and multiculturalism

Setting aside the contribution of immigrants to university generated research, consider this stat alone: no less than 40 per cent of Fortune 500 companies were setup by immigrants. In the UK, one in seven new companies is set up by an immigrant.  Take as an example, Steve Jobs, his father migrated to the United States from Syria.

If you find these stats surprising, then frankly your surprise is a surprise. Immigrants are by their very nature entrepreneurial – or at least many of them are. They are more inclined to take risks, more inclined to accept potential failure as an inevitable hazard of creating something new. Maybe it is because immigrants have less to lose, or maybe it is because the very nature of people who are willing to uproot and move, sometimes half-way across the world, makes it more likely they are entrepreneurially minded.

What many critics of immigration overlook is that without them, Winston Churchill would have been motherless, Isambard Kingdom Brunel would have been fatherless, the current Queen and Queen Victoria would have both been husbandless, and for that matter British classical music may never have had a father.  The man who did more than anyone to define British classical music, Handel, may never have moved to these shores. Throughout its history, the UK has been defined by immigration, from Romans to Anglo Saxons, Norman to Vikings, to refugees fleeing from the French revolution. If you like eating in Indian restaurants, just be grateful to Idi Amin, because without his cruel policy of forcing Uganda’s Asian population to leave, the eating establishments that the British have come to love may never have become so popular.

Associated with immigration is the rise of multiculturalism, creating dynamic hubs, the melding of ideas and re-fashioning of them, cross fertilisation on a scale unique in history.

So that’s some of the UK’s key strengths.

But there is something else at play, and that is the entrepreneur him or her self. But that is a story for tomorrow

The NatWestGreat British Entrepreneur Awards are currently open for applications, and entrants can apply here.