Tech firms strike 2012 gold

The incredible legacy of the Olympic Games go way beyond sport and can be a springboard for the UK’s tech companies, writes Russ Thorne

As the year draws to an end it’s a good opportunity to reflect on the highlights of the past 12 months, and for many of us the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games will feature very high on the list. They certainly provided us with some truly memorable moments, but we must - as one particularly resilient Christmas tune encourages us - look to the future now.

There are plenty of hopes when it comes to the legacy of the London games, not least of which is the sporting spur they might have provided to the nation's aspiring athletes.

Alongside athletic ambitions though are other legacy plans aimed at developing the UK's digital economy through encouraging technological innovation, and also through inspiring a new generation of students to acquire skills in science, technology, engineering and maths.

Within London the journey towards a lasting economic legacy has begun on the site of the Games themselves.

The Olympic Park boasts unparalleled technological infrastructure courtesy of the likes of BT and Cisco, making it the ideal base for tech start-ups and established organisations alike. In its new incarnation of iCITY the former press and broadcast centre for the Games is just one outpost on a new digital frontier, according to Chris Lewis of Drivers Jonas Deloitte. "The development of iCITY on the Olympic Park feeds directly into the DNA structure of 'tech London'," he says.

"The establishment of a Tech Hub facility plus a number of major tech 'corporates' choosing to site R&D capabilities here will serve to deepen still further this area's inextricable link to the sector."

Russ Shaw is an angel investor and member of the Tech City Advisory Group, and believes that the Olympics will benefit the digital sector in the East End as a whole, not just on the Olympic sites. "The Olympics helped raise awareness of what is happening in East London and the massive regeneration that is underway," he says.

"There are areas close to Olympic Park where rents are still low, making it easier for tech start-ups to afford to set up, yet benefit from great infrastructure and an awareness that this part of London is an important part of the city's future."

George Whitehead, chairman of investment project the Angel CoFund, is confident of the positive impact the Games will ultimately have. "I would go as far to say that the Olympics will be seen as the tipping point that gave the City the confidence to recognise the extraordinary cluster of innovative businesses setting up here and to showcase this to the world," he says.

However, he also points out that startups are "in desperate need of funding," along with the advice and support that investors can provide.

One such company, Crowd Vision, provided crowd monitoring software and analysis during London 2012 and benefited from exactly that kind of investment.

"Our product development programme is focused on productising the Olympics experience," explains CEO Fiona Strens. "The money we raised remains critical to support this product development process and also to fund international marketing and sales activities."

Strens goes on to explain that alongside financial support, working with Angel CoFund investors brought other benefits. "They bring invaluable experience and external challenges and advice into the company's strategic decision-making process," she says.

Support for start-ups can come from corporate sources as well as dedicated investment funds: Shaw points to the Google Campus initiative and Telefonica's Wayra Academy as examples.

Likewise, as part of its legacy commitment following the Games Cisco's British Innovation Gateway (BIG) programme provides help to entrepreneurs and SMEs throughout the country, whether through awards, training or dedicated 'innovation centres' designed to foster new talent. "As a supporter of London 2012, Cisco is working on a series of initiatives to help benefit the country in the long term," says Phil Smith, CEO Cisco UK & Ireland. "Our British Innovation Gateway aims to support today's entrepreneurs by providing the necessary resources for the start-up and SME community to flourish."

However, assisting the current crop of companies is only half the battle. The other element of the Olympic legacy is in ensuring that a new generation of STEM-skilled employees will rise to the technological challenges of the coming decades, inspired by the showcase of British innovation London 2012 provided.

There are currently skills shortages throughout the engineering and technology sector that must be addressed, according to Joe Cohen, CEO of online ticketing site Seatwave. "Only 4% of UK university students read any form of engineering at a degree level today and our economy is increasingly shifting to the creation and exploitation of intellectual property. If we don't build a larger skills base in software development the UK will unfortunately become a sideshow relic of historical attractions and Harry Potter films and not a leader in the global digital economy."

To begin addressing this shortage, some educational institutions and tech companies are joining forces.

Universities often have close links with industry but at Reed's School in Surrey the process has started much earlier: a collaboration with firms including the Brand Union, LEGO Education and Siemens has led to the 'FutureTech' programme, designed to engage students with STEM subjects from an early age. The scheme is taking a cross-curricular approach to show the practical applications of STEM skills in activities such as the Greenpower Challenge, which sees students design, build and race a single- seater racing car.

In addition, the programme will feature lectures from industry leaders and workshops for staff and students alike, with potential tie-ins to apprenticeships and higher education courses further down the line.

"Right now there is a real need to fill the growing skills gap emerging across design, technology and engineering fields in the UK," says Dave Brown, Worldwide Head of Consumer Branding at the Brand Union. "FutureTech represents the seeding ground for the development of tomorrow's polymathic thinkers."

Vocational training is also being addressed through providers such as Ci sco' s chain of Networking Academies, which provide dedicated programmes to create the skilled network engineers required to maintain the infrastructure on which the digital economy is built.

These are promising foundations, but there is more to do. "We need to ensure the right technology is available to support business demands and provide a platform for future developments,"

says Amy Wright, an IT Support Engineer for TMW. In addition to her day job using STEM skills, she is the lead UK ambassador for Girl Geek Coffees, an initiative designed to encourage young people – especially women – to enter the STEM field.

"The number of people working in STEM has been decreasing steadily for a number of years," she explains.

"To combat this, we need to encourage many more young people into these fields." She believes that the Olympics were a great starting point, showcasing the function of STEM skills at every stage, from building the sites to measuring the athletes' performances.

"The full impact of the games will become clearer in years to come but if their success is anything to go by, a whole generation of people will have been inspired by them. This applies to engineers, scientists, mathematicians and technologists who may one day want to be part of a global phenomenon."


How Cisco is nurturing British innovation

London 2012 sponsorship has driven Cisco UK and Ireland to create a “lasting and sustainable legacy” to support up-and-coming innovators, entrepreneurs and early stage start-ups in the UK.