Le Web 2012: Where Are The Brits?

Tom Brewster is TechWeek Europe's Security Correspondent. He has also been named BT Information Security Journalist of the Year in 2012 and 2013.

UK start-ups were all but absent from Le Web, highlighting how far the US is ahead, says Tom Brewster

LeWeb is holding its first ever conference in London. It’s a glamorous shindig being held in the grandiose, unerringly British Central Hall in Westminster, designed to bring together the hottest start-ups and happily profligate investors. Yet for all the British pride at the event, there are barely any Brit start-ups showcasing their wares here.

All but one of the numerous companies we’ve spoken to today were from outside of the UK. The French are here, of course, but it is the Americans who have dominated proceedings. There’s Salesforce.com’s new purchase Buddy Media and highly-valued cloud storage firm Box, both of which have two of the biggest displays at Le Web and have been speaking on the plenary stages. Facebook’s big acquisition Instagram is here too, amongst many more.

The Brits who spoke on the main stage today were either government officials or investor-focused big-wigs. Some of David Cameron’s advisers were here peddling the Coaliton’s “aren’t we doing a great job” lines about their work on technology. Martha Lane Fox was here too, talking about the need to make the UK a great digital force. Oh and there was Jamie Oliver. Which was nice.

Why bother?

So where were the UK start-ups? Are they not confident enough to show up next to these hot shots from across the pond? We know there’s plenty of good ones around. Huddle, for instance, is a fine poster child for Silicon Roundabout, having recently been handed a tonne of money from the government’s CloudStore. Perhaps British start-ups don’t need events like Le Web to tell their story.

One of the founders of a young start-up named EverFeel based in France told TechWeekEurope that there was clearly a scene in the UK and it was likely British start-ups were busy “networking like crazy” on their own. He hit on another a fine point: it doesn’t matter that the Brits aren’t here, it matters that businesses are here regardless of where they are from. That Britain is increasingly being seen as a great place to talk tech and pen major deals is a great thing. It’s hard to disagree with that.

Yet youthful US firms are here. Their home remains the centre of the IT universe, but they still travel afar to spread the good word about their products. And that’s just when they are start-ups – just imagine what they will be doing 10 or 15 years down the line if they survive. Even US firms with less than 10 employees – like Codecademy – are invited to speak at events like LeWeb. UK vendors just don’t get that kind of coverage.

What remains clear from our visit to LeWeb is that the UK is still some way behind the US when it comes to being a tech superpower. It was Jamie Oliver who, disturbingly, made one of the more pertinent comments of the day, saying the UK “was no way near” where it should be.

But transforming the UK into a hive of tech activity will take time. As governments change over the coming years, let’s hope the positive policies of the Coalition are maintained and built upon. The embryonic phase of the Great British tech push is coming to a close. It’ll soon be time to grow up.

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