Venture capitalist Eileen Burbidge has been named the new Chair of Tech City UK, the organisation which looks after the UK’s technology industry and connects it to the government.
Burbidge is a well-known figure in the London technology scene. She is a partner at VC firm Passion Capital, which has invested in high-profile startups such as GoCardless, Smarkets, and Thread.
But Burbidge has also taken on other roles that involve working alongside the government and the tech community. She was appointed the UK Treasury’s special envoy for fintech in July, and is also a member of the Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Group.
Burbidge will now devote some of her time to representing UK technology as Chair of Tech City UK. The organisation works to foster growth in the UK’s technology scene, both through investment, education, and also helping startups secure visas for staff.
In an interview with Business Insider about her new role (which you can read in full further down), Burbidge said that she would focus on “streamlining what the government is already delivering for the digital sector and make it less confusing and easier for people to access and take advantage of.”
Tech City UK is currently lead by CEO Gerard Grech, who previously worked at BlackBerry and Nokia. Grech took over the CEO role from Joanna Shields in 2014. Shields is the well-known technology executive who held senior roles at Google, Bebo, AOL, and Facebook. Shields served as Tech City UK Chair until May when she left to become the government’s Minister for Internet Safety and Security.
The search for a new Tech City UK Chair began shortly after Shields’ departure, and Techno Guido named Burbidge as a frontrunner to become Chair three days after the announcement of Shields’ move.
Tech City UK has been a somewhat controversial organisation since its establishment in 2010. In April it emerged following a freedom of information request that Tech City UK had only granted seven visas for technology employees in a year, even though it was able to grant up to 200 “exceptional talent visas.” In May it was reported that Tech City UK’s funding had been cut following a disagreement between Shields and the government. Tech City UK denied at the time that a rift existed.
Business Insider asked Burbidge about Tech City UK’s reputation, but she was confident that entrepreneurs still feel positively about it. “I do think there is a high regard for the organisation,” she said. “I think it could be more, I think it could be greater and I think it could be better, and to do that the first thing is to make sure that we really are tapped into the community.”
Before becoming a venture capitalist, Burbidge worked at technology companies such as Apple, Yahoo, Sun Microsystems, and Skype. Burbidge claimed to have been fired by Skype in 2005 after she fell out with CEO Niklas Zennström. “Niklas and I started seeing things from a different point of view,” she told Techworld in August.
Prime Minister David Cameron released the following statement about Burbidge’s appointment:
Digital business and the rapid developments in technology are a key part of our long-term economic plan to support the industries of the future — creating jobs and building a more resilient economy. Eileen Burbidge will be a fantastic appointment, her knowledge and experience of the digital landscape will ensure that the UK remains at the forefront of this innovative industry.
Burbidge’s appointment as Chair isn’t the only change to Tech City UK announced this evening. There are also four new people joining the Tech City UK board: Investor Robin Klein, Barclays UK vice president of technology, media & telecoms Tim Luke, Moonfruit cofounder Wendy Tan White, and Google marketing executive Yonca Brunini.
The announcement is also accompanied by the news that Burbidge has already set up an entrepreneur advisory panel to help direct Tech City UK. Here’s the new panel:
- Zoopla CEO Alex Chesterman
- Just-Eat CEO David Buttress
- FanDuel cofounder Lesley Eccles
- Google DeepMind cofounder Demis Hassabis
- King.com CEO Riccardo Zacconi
- Unruly Media co-CEO Sarah Wood
- TransferWise cofounder Taavet Hinrikus
Here’s Business Insider’s full, unedited interview with Burbidge about her new role as Chair of Tech City UK:
Business Insider: So the first question that comes to mind here is how are you going to have the time to do everything?
Eileen Burbidge: That is a very fair question. My first priority and my first commitment is obviously to Passion Capital. That’s my day job, that is what I have committed to do in support of all of the entrepreneurs that we have backed, all of the companies that we have invested in, and for future founders that we might back because we did just fund two a few months ago. We’re in it for the long-haul. It’s a 10-year commitment on my part, and we’ll be actively investing in new companies for the next two more years. So that is my day job.
This is a pro-bono position, but in this case it is as a chair, it’s there to support Gerard, the chief executive. Surely we will have board meetings, and we will have to run things properly, because we do want it to be run and governed like a proper organisation, but I’m not going to be operationally involved, a lot of it is strategic support for Gerard.
BI: What do you feel are the most important areas to support technology in London?
EB: The first thing I’d want to do is correct your question, because your question is talking about tech in London, and actually in the last year and a half the Tech City UK remit has expanded to be more than just about London. So it’s about accelerating and providing support to all the tech clusters across the UK.
I think I prioritise what services are helpful for startup founders or to improve conditions so that more people are inspired to start digital and tech businesses in the UK. Some of that will be funding, and I think the funding environment has gotten so much better over the last few years, we’re far off from being saturated, but I don’t think that’s the critical path anymore.
Ensuring that government is aware of what things could be more helpful, what measures, what kinds of policies could be stronger enablers, is really important. That’s something we can improve upon, although that is what Tech City UK has been doing a lot of over the last couple of years with roundtables, panel sessions, and making sure there are papers and feedback that feeds into the government.
There’s also this idea of ensuring that people outside of the UK recognise how strong the ecosystem here is, whether that’s for investment, whether that’s for establishing a UK headquarters to try and be the doorway into all of Europe, or whether it’s investing in companies that are here in the UK.
BI: A lot of startups in the UK are yearning for visas to hire talent from overseas. How does Tech City UK help companies out?
EB: A balance we have to strike in the country, whether it’s facilitated through Tech City UK or other people, is that we continue to need highly skilled workers at the same time that we try and cultivate those skills domestically through the school system.
For the immediate future we absolutely need highly skilled talent, and it’s difficult because obviously there’s a larger political narrative which is about the stress on social services of an ever-growing population, but I think that what we can do are small measures, small things about making sure that we know where certain pockets exist for need or demand, and how to service that.
So for example, the last time the Home Office Migration Advisory Committee did a review on the Tier 2 Shortage Occupation List, which is jobs for things like doctors and nurses, for the first time early this year they also added four digital-specific roles to that Shortage Occupation List, which means that employers seeking to hire people from outside of the EU don’t necessarily need to post those job posts for 28 days domestically before they can extend an offer.
The Shortage Occupation List is one example where there’s already a focus on getting specific skills and making sure that digital is included in that. That doesn’t necessarily affect net migration numbers, it doesn’t put a spanner in the works of what the greater political narrative is, but I do think that cultivating more skills domestically with training programs such as the things that Tech City UK already does and then still looking for attracting highly skilled workers is really important.
BI: How do you instill skills in workers? Is that through hardware like the BBC’s micro:bit computers or through something else?
EB: It all helps. Making hardware tools available to students and youngsters is really important so that they’re exposed to it. In certain schools, students get exposed to musical instruments at a very young age to help instill a love for music, and I think that’s really important. Similarly if they did have access to computers, the internet, tablets, maybe even 3D printers or other things that help them cultivate their curiosity about how things work, that helps a lot. Even potentially things like big Hollywood movies like “The Social Network” or something that brings technology in from the cold and validates it as a bona fide industry sector or as a career option.
The coding curriculum will be a challenge. It’s great that it’s mandatory now. I think that’s really important and a key starting point, but we’re certainly not done yet. I think what’s really important is to continue cultivating critical thinking and problem solving skills, regardless of what topic that might be. So that might be in maths, it might be in science, it might be in IT, or it might be in computing, but we need to keep encouraging young kids to have critical thinking skills.
BI: What will be the first thing you do as chair of Tech City UK?
EB: The first I did was to set up an entrepreneur advisory panel because I felt that would be really helpful as a sounding board for me, for the board, for Gerard, in terms of what kind of ingredients are missing, what kind of things could we do, what do these entrepreneurs think about working with Tech City UK, or why didn’t they, when did they consider the government to be useful, and when they didn’t. It’s basically helping us to keep it real, quite frankly.
BI: Tech City UK has expanded to the rest of the UK, and it invested in Cornwall quite recently. In your new role, are you going to be travelling?
EB: I’m going to be travelling because the hubs really are important, it can’t just be about London. It’s definitely that the sum of the parts is greater than each of them. It is really important.
When we look for quality deals to make for Passion, it’s actually in my interest to look throughout the UK and to look at all those hubs to do that. When I’m looking at fintech and I’m acting in my Treasury envoy role, I am keen to go out to some of the regions which are really strong in fintech, so that’s Edinburgh, Leeds, and Durham, for example. I would be doing that anyway, either for Passion or for the fintech envoy role, or because I’m a tech investor for the Mayor of London, so we go abroad, and I’ll be doing that. I have two trips coming up between now and the end of the year.
It’s very natural and genuine for what I want to do, which is to improve the calibre of the UK tech ecosystem, which even selfishly is going to help me to make stronger investments for Passion, but also just personally is more gratifying because what everyone who works in tech wants is to work in one of the strongest markets in the world, and I think we really have that opportunity to be that, and to assert ourselves as that right here, and right now in the UK.
BI: Tech City UK has almost faded out of spotlight. How do you rebuild trust with entrepreneurs?
EB: I do think that there is a lot of trust and regard for Tech City UK. I know for a fact that outside of the UK, lots of the other hubs look at Tech City UK as being a leading force in helping to shine a light on what has been happening in London, and also now some of the other parts of the UK.
I certainly know that the government really regards Gerard and his team really highly in terms of helping to funnel back to them what areas they need to be paying attention to and how to be tapped into the ecosystem. And I know that there are lots of entrepreneurs who really rely on Tech City UK, whether that’s because they’re a Future Fifty company and they’re working with that support program, or the tens of thousands of people who have come through the Digital Business Academy curriculum, or people who are now up in the Northern Powerhouse, they’re looking forward to TechNorth launching.
So I do think there is a high regard for the organisation. I think it could be more, I think it could be greater and I think it could be better, and to do that the first thing is to make sure that we really are tapped into the community, so for example through the entrepreneur advisory panel. I do think we should have more dialogue with the ecosystem, with different sectors, people from different stages. I think there’s a lot we want to do to also start streamlining what the government is already delivering for the digital sector and make it less confusing and easier for people to access and take advantage of.
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