Last Saturday Cambridge played host to what must go down as one of the lowest key ‘battles’ on record.
At the Silicon Milkround Cambridge jobs fair, Silicon Valley based Eventbrite, Silicon Roundabout based Zolmo and Silicon Fen based Metail took to the stage for a ‘Battle of the Silicons’ – what we were hoping would be a no-holds barred slugfest over the relative merits of the three tech clusters.
As it turned out, where there should have been battle lines, there were common roots and where a dash of healthy parochialism wouldn’t have gone amiss, we were treated to a shared world view.
Let’s take Metail for example, a virtual fitting room with aspirations of becoming as intrinsic a part of the purchase process as swiping your credit card. The application is consumer facing with a heavy aesthetic consciousness, a very London sort of company, the kind that thrives in Silicon Roundabout where it has its HQ.
As a company powered by state-of-the-art 3D visualisation technology born of the Machine Intelligence Laboratory in Cambridge University’s Engineering Department, it so happens that Metail is also a very Cambridge sort of company. The technology was born in Silicon Fen and this is where the company retains its development operation.
Similarly, Eventbrite, an online event and ticketing startup that’s raised $78m to build its vision of enabling anyone to be an events organiser, is a big US West Coast sort of idea, with numbers to match and offices in San Francisco. But co-founded by French-born Renaud Visage, Eventbrite also recently set up shop in the UK and is in the process of a fairly big recruitment drive on this side of the Atlantic – hence its presence at Silicon Milkround Cambridge. Turns out Eventbrite is a strong European play.
Little surprise then that ‘Battle of the Silicons’ turned out to be a phoney war. A similarly cross-cluster profile was in evidence pretty much wherever you looked at the event. There was Stack Overflow Careers from New York, Unruly from London, New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam, Stockholm and Sydney.
Founded by the team that created and sold XenSource for $500m to Citrix, Bromium is less than one year old, in stealth and has not released a product, yet it has still raised $9.2m. Its development offices are in Cupertino, California, and Cambridge, Silicon F… you get the picture.
Silicon Milkround Cambridge was great, both in the startups exhibition room and the breakout area where the free bar, tech pitches and the Computer Museum’s retro computing challenge, delivered an event with a real buzz. And if it demonstrated one thing, it was how much easier it is to go global.
There’s never really been anything preventing success stories emerging from off the beaten track. The odds were stacked against Estonia’s population of under 1.4 million producing Skype, but it did – the difference is that now there’s a more level playing field to work on driven by necessity and opportunity.
There’s an ever growing wave of experienced entrepreneurs, accelerators, incubators and online resources to help get your business off the ground, and the increase in help isn’t just for starting up, it’s also for growing up.
Much was made last year about the success of European VCs against the US, but the truth is the US is still the place with the biggest fundraisings, both for VC funds and companies. Europe is relying increasingly on the government for its flow of funding and in 2011 only managed to raise $3bn from 41 VC funds compared to $16.2bn from 135 VC funds in the US.
The Silicon Milkround Cambridge panel talked about a difference in culture between the US and European VCs, in particular how the European VCs seem to have a much greater concern about the numbers, the company’s projections. In other words, Europe is more risk averse. As pointed out in the Kernel yesterday, to the detriment of its own funds Europe focuses on avoiding failure rather than picking winners.
The precedence placed in the US on ideas and teams over projections and spreadsheets is not new, it was evident when Silicon Valley came to Cambridge (SVc2C) a couple of years ago. The argument is also holding more water following the Startup Genome’s most recent report, which looked at the London, New York and Silicon Valley startup ecosystems and drew the conclusion that London took a low risk approach, the others much more willing to work with higher risk.
If this means there’s less chance of funding for some companies from European VCs, it also means there’s an opportunity for the US VCs, which Visage of Eventbrite believes is happening. In Alertme, exhibiting in the next room, there was a firsthand example of a UK company that has landed US finance.
The path for UK companies heading to the US is already a well trodden one – also in the next room was Light Blue Optics and Bromium, both have US and UK investment behind them and a Californian presence, while Rapportive and its Gmail plug-in left Cambridge for Silicon Valley and was recently acquired by LinkedIn.
And it’s not just US funds crossing the pond, US tech firms are coming in increasing numbers too, drawn not by funds, but the talent pool. And you don’t have to be Facebook, Google or Microsoft as was clear from Eventbrite’s presence.
It’s little wonder the Americans are coming either. According to the same Startup Genome report, Silicon Valley startups create 11 per cent more jobs than New York City startups and 38 per cent more than London startups, that’s a lot of positions to fill.
Further pressure comes from the fact that in Silicon Valley you never know how long you’ll keep non-founder staff for as many, according to Visage, are often on the lookout for a venture they can enter on the ground floor and reap the fruits of major success, an unwanted side-effect of a successful entrepreneurial ecosystem perhaps.
Meanwhile Cambridge and London share many of the same problems that the Valley does, startups trying to hire from the same pool of workers as the big tech firms like ARM and Autonomy, not to mention those with the deepest pockets of all, the City of London financial services firms.
That’s getting closer to the real battle, the one for the tech world’s most agile minds and its not cluster versus cluster, it's global. It's the startups against the established players, pitching being in on the ground floor, the thrill of chasing success and making a discernible difference against attractive benefits packages, cast-iron job security and corporate ambience.
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