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Google and the UK: a special relationship

Google’s Campus, the Californian giant’s first start-up tech hub, was opened to great fanfare by Chancellor George Osborne on Thursday in London’s Silicon Roundabout. The building will offer 100 new technology companies desk space, mentoring and cutting edge facilities and is seen as a huge boost for  London’s Tech City project, already bathed in rosy glow after last week’s tax breaks for creative industries.

For the government, Thursday’s opening ceremony was an opportunity to restate their commitment to the high tech economy:

“We want to make the UK the technology centre of Europe,” said George Osborne, “Our goal is to help you realise your goals. Let’s fill this building and indeed this city with start-ups.”

The Chancellor even went as far as to write an open letter to the tech sector in the Financial Times (FT), co-authored with Google Chairman Eric Schmidt. Entitled “Californian dreaming in such a British way”, the letter makes evident the extensive relationship between Britain’s ruling politicians and Google. 

It's a relationship which has caused  tech blog, GigaOm, to sound a note of warning: 

“Over the last few years, Google has a built up a multitude of ties and links to the British government and senior political leaders," they write, "and as a result it seems to hold significant sway over the Cameron cabinet”. They provide a number of examples including 

• Eric Schmid’s role as a member of the Prime Minister’s advisory council on business

• Conservative strategist Steve Hilton links to Google. His wife is Google’s global head of communications, Rachel Whetstone 

• David Cameron’s argument, prior to becoming PM, that Britain’s National Health Service should be using something like Google Health for its digital record keeping.

• A review of intellectual property, with strong ties to Google’s supposed view on the subject. 

However should playing court to Google be classed as a bad thing?  The United States is the largest source of foreign direct investment to the UK, with London's 'light-touch' regulation in recent years attracting a massive outflow of capital from New York. Likewise the United Kingdom is the largest single foreign direct investor in the United States. British ideas, classical and modern, have also exerted influence on US economic policy. American and British investors share entrepreneurial attitudes to increase their competitiveness against, for instance, India's developing service industries. 

Focussing now on the technology sector and developing relations with one of its superpowers makes sense, given that the internet economy contributed £121bn to the overall UK economy in 2010, equivalent to 8.3 per cent of gross domestic product, according to a report by the Boston Consulting Group earlier this week

For Google, the advantages of setting up in the UK, are less obvious, the Shoreditch campus is not, on the surface, a profit-making scheme and has been characterised as a gift to the community.

“We were lucky to have been very successful in the UK and we wanted to give something back,” said Matt Brittin, Google’s European managing director.

Certainly, the scheme could be seen as currying favour with the UK government, at a time when issues such as privacy and anti-competitive behaviour are gaining force. The company faces some criticism over the small amount of tax it pays in Britain and it’s new privacy policy, which came into effect on 1 March, is accused of breaking European law.

It is an opportunity for the internet giant to recruit, and get close to the European action. with the huge amount of promising young start-ups setting up in London’s East End growing from 200 in 2010 to more than 700 today. The Shoreditch entrepreneurs are excited about the scheme; Some 800 companies have applied for desks within Campus.

Whatever your view of Google and its politics, there seems to be no doubt that the internet giant has brightened the spotlight now shining on this once forgotten corner of the city. Last year alone, we saw the Technology Strategy Board offer over 200 startups in the area the opportunity to apply for £100,000 in grants, funding was later doubled. A New York ambassador was appointed to promote London’s digital businesses on the US east coast. There have been some hugely successful events such as jobs fair Silicon Milk Roundabout and CityMeetsTech, which aims to get investors from the city’s banking sector interested in startups.

With last week's tax breaks, a recently announced entrepreneur visa, entrepreneur relief and the 'Patent Box, introducing a lower 10 per cent tax on profits from UK or European patents, the government has further lightened its touch on entrepreneurship for the industry.

It’s also now likely that Google’s move will spur on the other tech giants, including Cisco, Intel and Amazon who have all made pledges to do things around Tech City. Google’s building is one of the first and most concrete of those to emerge and sends a clear message to the world about the wealth of talent and opportunity in the UK technology sphere.



3 people have had something to say so far

Strange how growth is stalling, unemployment rising and borrowing increasing.
Even stranger that if Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, Ebay, and Apple with guys working from a garage with £10,000 of credit card debt, had tried to get started in the UK them none of them would have succeeded in getting funding from TSB or anyone else..
Too much hype and not enough facts, "Last year alone, we saw the Technology Strategy Board offer over 200 startups in the area the opportunity to apply for £100,000 in grants, funding was later doubled."
Meaningless hype until we know if the offer was in fact taken up and how much funding was actually given. Even after the funding, what happened, a lot of funding is going to doubtful start-ups which are simply milking the system to stay in jobs, with no chance of long term growth and wealth creation.
Posted on 01/04/12 00:53.
The old RDAs used to be criticized for lack of imagination because the only arrow in their quiver was an empty building with phone system. Updating this to an empty building with phone and internet is certainly very 21C; but aligning it with Google is clearly the master stroke ... Stand back ;-)
Posted on 02/04/12 10:09.
A quick note with some facts on the Tech City Launchpad competition (https://connect.innovateuk.org/web/tech-city-launchpad-1) that's mentioned in Adriana's interesting article and Tony's comment. Over 200 initial applications were received (in the form of 2 minute video clips and a one page summary) for the competition. Independent assessors narrowed this down to 41 entries who were asked to submit full written applications for funding. This number of high quality applications was higher than originally expected, so funding available was increased from £1m to £2m. Of those 41 entries (see more about them in the directory at https://connect.innovateuk.org/c/document_library/get_file?p_l_id=3527114&folder­Id=3528710&name=DLFE-42996.pdf), 18 were offered grants for their projects of up to £100,000 following assessment. The businesses involved in those projects had 12 months to raise external funding for their "50% match" to "unlock" our grant offer and TSB has helped make introductions to potential sources of capital. Several of these 18 companies have succeeded in raising finance and started to draw down our grants, and many of the others are progressing well, despite the well-known difficulties in access to finance - even for digital and creative businesses.
Our assessment process, involving independent experts who look at both technical and business aspects of applications, should ensure that funding does not go to "doubtful start-ups". The need, in this competition, to raise external finance from private sector sources should also provide further market validation that this isn't a case of "milking the system".
It's too early to say what has happened in these projects - they are just starting and will run for a year - but early indications for many of the businesses that I have spoken to are very promising. What's clear, though, is that there is alignment of interests here between entrepreneurs and investors to deliver economic growth and that TSB's involvement is playing a part in stimulating the development of businesses in this dynamic cluster. Google's involvement (alongside many others) in Tech City is a further stimulus that I, for one, welcome.
Posted on 04/04/12 10:00 in reply to Tony Smee.

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