Ask most tech entrepreneurs what they think about Brexit, and most will complain that the UK’s decision to leave the EU will starve the country of international tech talent.
Eben Upton, the inventor of the super cheap Raspberry Pi computer, is careful not to voice an opinion about whether Brexit is good or bad. But Brexit has been good for his company in one respect — it’s become a lot cheaper to make the tiny computers in the UK.
“In the short term, the adjustment to the exchange rate has had a positive effect on UK manufacturing,” he told Business Insider. “It isn’t a great idea to devalue your way to success [but] it did make a substantial contribution to our profitability last year. It’s rocket fuel, it really is.”
“As an organisation, we carefully don’t have an opinion [about Brexit],” he added. “Our largest market is the US, we build in the UK. The second-largest is Germany, trading on the single market. It probably doesn’t make much difference.”
A weaker pound has benefited anyone who makes stuff in the UK and sells it abroad, so it’s not just Raspberry Pi. And Upton added that it was “a mixed bag”, since the computers are priced in dollars. That means they’re more expensive to buy in the UK now.
Eben Upton thinks Cambridge’s ‘Silicon Fen’ is changing
Upton spoke with Business Insider the day after being handed the UK’s top engineering prize, the Royal Academy of Engineering MacRobert Award.
His company is hugely successful, having sold 40 million Raspberry Pi devices to date, at a rate of up to half a million every month. Upton has avoided the drama of venture capital and an IPO by establishing the non-profit Raspberry Pi foundation and the for-profit associated trading company. It is, he said, “mission-driven”, and the fundamental goal is to “reboot enthusiasm in computing.”
Raspberry Pi began in Cambridge, which earned itself the nickname “Silicon Fen” for producing successful hardware firms like ARM.
Does it still deserve the name?
“I think the complexion of what we do in Cambridge changes,” said Upton. “It’s been a while since we did much silicon in Cambridge. We have some mature companies, like Broadcom, but we’re maybe not doing the same number of silicon startups, hardware chip startups, as we did 20 years ago. We’re doing a lot more software stuff. What’s actually more unusual about Raspberry Pi is that we are a hardware company.”
Business Insider asked Upton what he thinks of Mike Lynch, the billionaire founder of another Cambridge success story, Autonomy.
Lynch’s career has been controversial. He sold Autonomy to HP, which then sued him for fraud. He then went on to found Invoke Capital, which invested in Darktrace.
“He’s a force of nature,” said Upton. “Sometimes you need these larger-than-life guys who are very determined to push things forwards. [Raspberry Pi] is a Darktrace customer … we’re a Mike Lynch customer.”
He added: “Cambridge is the place in the UK to do deep tech. There are other places in the country you can do all sorts of things, but for grungy deep tech, it’s still here.” He cites the University of Cambridge as the driving force for this. “It’s spitting out people who do difficult things and technology. There’s nowhere quite like it.”
Upton thinks the government needs to pay for better teacher training
The Raspberry Pi is intended to get children coding, though its appeal is now much broader. The foundation has set up lots of coding clubs at schools around the country. Alongside this, England introduced the computing curriculum in 2014, to replace ICT. At the time, the government announced £500,000 in funds to help train teachers up.
But nearly three years later, uptake isn’t looking great. According to research by the University of Roehampton, 28.5% of English schools entered pupils for a computing GCSE in 2015, and only 24% for an A-Level.
“There needs to be more emphasis on teacher training,” said Upton. “It’s hard for teachers to promote a new subject if you don’t train them to teach the curriculum. We advocate constantly for the government to do more in the area of teacher training. It’s done half the job, and we’re seeing encouraging signs. The government is thinking about making those investments.”