Gerard Grech has just spent a weekend eating maggots and skinning rabbits. This was by choice – not because he was starving. He was staying with his young son at one of the forest camps run by the explorer Bear Grylls, learning survival skills and enjoying a few days of “digital solitude”.
“It was incredible – no phones, no tablets and no contact with anyone. We didn’t even know where we were going until we got there,” he says.
No wonder Mr Grech needed a break. The rest of the time the 42-year-old former BlackBerry marketing man is wired up to multiple mobile devices and plugged into the thousands of companies that make up the UK’s blossoming digital economy.
He is chief executive of Tech City UK, the government-backed organisation that now supports more than 40,000 fast-growth digital tech companies around the country. Reporting to Ed Vaizey, the digital minister, his job is threefold: policymaking, programmes and promotion.
In other words, he’s liaising with entrepreneurs and No 10 on policy issues such as privacy and roaming – but not lobbying; he’s running the new Digital Business Academy, which has provided online lessons for 17, 000 graduates; and he’s managing Future Fifty, a fast-tracking scheme for the biggest tech companies. There’s also the Tech City UK Cluster Alliance, a move to encourage all 21 digital centres to share best practice.
Set up five years ago to promote the digital start-ups that grew out of “Silicon Roundabout” in the hipster central of Shoreditch, east London, Tech City has since gone viral. So much so that London’s digital scene would make a great new Monopoly board game: Haggerston is where the hardware specialists hang-out; at King’s Cross the brains are looking at knowledge; while Richmond is home to the PayPal and eBay moneymen.
Tech City has also gone national: 74 per cent of the sector is outside the capital with new hubs in Bournemouth and Liverpool, alongside established clusters such as Cambridge (hardware), Manchester (data science), Belfast (cyber security) and Edinburgh (financial technology). To head off criticism that Tech City was too South-centric, there’s a new Tech North, with 10 staff in Manchester and Newcastle working with digital companies across the region’s seven great cities.
Tech City is on the move too. Mr Grech has been in the role for 18 months but he and his 15 staff have already swapped London offices three times. “I didn’t want them to feel ‘embedded’. We’ve had space in Whitechapel, Old Street and now in Moorgate. We are moving soon to Finsbury Square.
“Moving around is my idea – keeps the team on their feet. They can also bring in bicycles, surf boards, whatever they like. Space should be for work, play and education. We’ve also got a stand-up desk to keep minds fresh.”
Sounds exhausting to me.
We meet at Tech City’s latest pitstop in the spanking new glass-box offices owned by WeWork, an American co-working property developer backed by the billionaire Mort Zuckerman, in the middle of the building site that is Moorgate. It’s bang in the heart of the old City of London but you couldn’t be further away.
WeWork is the brave new world of work – based on kibbutz-style communities – and for the young. If you are not 32 or under, you will feel a century old when you visit; Californian surfer boys and girls dressed like Alice, from Wonderland, staff reception and baristas serve iced cucumber water. Instead of Country Life magazines, there are glossy books such as Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art and adverts for lectures on how to be productive in an age of ‘digital distraction.’
So far the UK isn’t distracted – quite the reverse: Mr Grech says the digital sector is the fastest growing in the economy. It employs 1.5 million people and companies are desperate for new talent – 45,000 jobs are currently being advertised.
After Silicon Valley and New York, the UK has the third-biggest digital industry. Out of Europe’s 40 tech “unicorns” – companies that are valued at a billion dollars – 17 are based in Britain, of which 13 are in London.
“The UK is at the forefront of so many developments – the best place to be if you are an entrepreneur as it’s so open and adaptable,” says Mr Grech. “We’ve got the Open Data Institute, the Alan Turing Institute and 36 tech accelerators in the city. There are so many exciting companies springing up – like Fab Lab [the maker of 3D printers] and Improbable [the simulated games start-up].”
Finance for this new future is not an issue; the venture capitalists from the Valley are swarming all over the Monopoly board. “From our experience, if you are a good company with a good product, there is no lack of funding. Many of the entrepreneurs who have made money are now investing back into young businesses, and they are acting as mentors too.”
“About £280m has been invested in young companies through SEIS [the Government’s Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme]. Investment in the sector in the first half of this year was $1.5bn [£1bn] – higher than the same period last year and 20 times higher than five years ago,” Mr Grech says.
“But what’s also good is that the tech companies are not selling out so early, or as fast, as they were. Many are scaling up, helped by new sources of finance and collaboration. It’s no surprise, these digital tech companies are growing six times faster than the national average.”
Cities as platforms is his next big vision – using the “internet of things” to change the way in which the public sector and private companies deliver or exchange data with citizens. For example, in Tel Aviv there is a new digital resident’s card that allows people to pay bills or buy theatre tickets, and similar data-sharing schemes operate in the Icelandic capital Reykjavik. “We need to think differently – to ask how we can improve services to citizens, a sort of digital social contract. I’m interested in how creativity and technology meet.”
Mr Grech came to the digital world in a roundabout way. Originally from the Maltese island of Gozo, he studied acoustic engineering at the University of Southampton so he could design concert halls. Instead, he switched to writing about music; soul and funk is his beat. This was when Napster and other up-starts were revolutionising the industry. He did an MBA, worked for Orange in Paris, then Nokia and BlackBerry in New York marketing their music and film apps, before being headhunted for this job.
Home in east London is a test bed – he and his wife don’t have a TV or a car and have invented a virtual currency for their children. “They are given points for doing chores, which they can trade for rewards like a magazine or sweets. It’s teaching them about values. The next generation will be totally into the sharing economy. My 11-year-old thinks it’s normal not having a car. Mind you, our neighbour thinks I am mad.”
Favourite band: The Strokes.
Favourite book: ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’.
Car: I haven’t owned a car in over 10 years. “Sharing economy” companies get me around town and country.
Dream holiday: Anywhere with big views, a blue sea, and possibly no phone coverage and power sockets.
Typical day: Wake up. Switch on Radio 4, although it could be Radio 1 depending on my children’s mood. Chaotic breakfast. I drop off my children at school two or three times a week.
Around 8.30 I head in to the office. Having worked all over London, Paris and New York, this is by far my shortest commute, from the edge of Tech City to the new WeWork building in Moorgate in the City, where the start-up district turns into the financial district. It’s nine minutes by bike, 15 by bus, but my Jawbone wristband gets me walking (scenic route) so I can try and reach 10,000 steps a day.
Every day is different, from welcoming foreign delegations keen to establish their own Tech City success, to working through thorny policy issues with entrepreneurs and the teams in London and Manchester – infrastructure, access to finance, immigration.
Everyone I meet, from entrepreneurs to venture capitalists, from ministers to graduates of our Digital Business Academy, is committed to making UK a global tech powerhouse.
I also get to as many tech community events as I can. Family comes first but conversations are better than emails, human networks more fulfilling than electronic ones.