The UK economy has come roaring back in recent years and startup and scaleup tech businesses have been leading this charge. Regional digital business clusters have sprouted up across the country, from the gaming specialists in Dundee who brought us the Grand Theft Auto franchise to the entrepreneurs of Exeter, the home of Crowdcube.
Given the industry has grown so fast, it is easy to forget how young it is. Less than a decade ago, Old Street roundabout didn’t have fibre-optic broadband and was famous for little other than cheap rent. It is impressive that the industry has grown so quickly but now the upcoming referendum presents a threat that could halt this blistering growth. It puts our current success at considerable risk.
Access to Europe’s best and brightest has been at the heart of the growth of UK tech. The technology sector is almost unanimous in its desire to remain in the European Union, as survey after survey confirms. Tech London Advocates recently found that four out of five tech entrepreneurs surveyed think that a Brexit would make it harder to access talent, the lifeblood of any digital business.
The technology sector was identified by Tech Nation 2016 as growing faster than any other segment of the economy and tech entrepreneurs see the referendum as a question mark over the future of this growth. Investors detest uncertainty and the fallout from a Brexit could harm funding for startups and scaleups for several years, killing off growth just as companies are starting to establish themselves.
Another important factor for startups and established companies alike is the Digital Single Market (DSM), which will allow UK SMEs to sell into a market of over 500 million customers. The DSM is nearing completion and should be up and running within two years, allowing British companies to compete with American companies by making it easier to distribute digital content and protect intellectual property across European borders.
The EU is an asset to UK companies beyond the continent. We benefit as a country from historical ties with Canada and the US, as well as emerging markets like India and South Africa. Entrepreneurs from these countries see the UK as a gateway to Europe and removing this vital link would threaten the ties with these countries that London’s digital companies have consolidated and extended. The heads of state of all of these governments have categorically said that they favour continued membership and it would do our country no favours to ignore their advice before trying to strike a trade deal with them.
Tech London Advocates have made it clear that they want their voices to be heard in the referendum debate. Seven in ten advocates feel that a Brexit would damage London’s reputation as a world-class tech hub and only one in ten feels that London would maintain its impressive level of investment if we vote to leave. It is our duty to share this data and make sure that voters are armed with the thoughts of those who lead Britain’s growth engine before casting their vote.
London is driving the national digital economy and it is exciting to be a part of this fast-growing sector with no slowdown in sight. We have the opportunity to maintain our links with Europe and forge deeper ties with emerging markets, building on this coveted position. We can build on our position as the tech capital of Europe and challenge San Francisco to become tech capital of the world. But, for this to happen, we will have to remain and recognise that we’re stronger together.
Russ Shaw is the founder of Tech London Advocates, the advocacy group for the city’s tech startups.