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A look into London’s tech scene

The Brexit referendum in June of 2016 sent shockwaves across the world. The doomsday forecasts dominated headlines with predictions of an inevitable economic catastrophe whose onset some today are still expecting.

But if many were and are worried, you may not see it from taking a walk around East London’s stunning Silicon Roundabout, the beating heart of the UK tech scene. For the Roundabout’s 50,000 digital tech employees, 30 accelerators, and over 2000 startups, it’s just business as usual these days. And the tech business in London over nearly the last decade has been very good.

Several months ago I was fortunate to spend a week in London. Eager to get a sense for the state of things, I was looking for symptoms of distress. But in many ways what I found was the opposite.

With at least another year of Brexit trade negotiations awaiting, the digital economy in Europe’s startup capital is moving ahead, growing twice as fast as the wider economy and boasting a yearly output of $138 billion. In 2017, venture capital investment in the UK reached an all-time high of $4.14 billion, totaling more investment for Europe’s long-time fundraising leader than that raised in Germany, Spain, France, and Ireland combined. Meanwhile, the latter half of 2017 saw Amazon and Facebook announce plans to expand operations in the UK capital.

In other words, the tech scene in one of the world’s greatest cities is far from at the point of crisis. Indeed, from what I could tell, it looks to be thriving – and if some anticipated a decline, there are many today predicting the moment when London surpasses New York as the world’s second most important tech center behind Silicon Valley.

Even still, the uncertainty has as of late cast a shadow over London’s incredibly promising tech ecosystem. For that there’s good reason to take a look at what is keeping so many business leaders and industry experts optimistic. And even though when it comes to London there’s always an endless number of things to mention, here are a few that will stand out to those not lucky enough to know this city firsthand.

An origin story, as told to the author

The reason why we’re still hearing good news from the UK’s digital industry in the wake of the Brexit vote is easier to comprehend once you understand that today’s flourishing tech scene itself took off in the midst of calamity.

The economic recession of 2008-09 left London reeling. It also saw thousands of professionals from the creative industries forced to try their hand on the city’s nascent tech scene. From out of the economic tumult, a small cluster of internet startups – including Last.fm, TweetDeck, and AMEE – sprang up around East London’s Old Street Roundabout, in part due to lower recession-era rent prices in the area.

By 2010, the tech industry, sparked by activity in the Old Street Roundabout, was the only UK industry not in decline, and Prime Minister David Cameron’s government stepped in to fan the flames. They introduced Exceptional Talent Visas to lure digital talent from across the world.  They initiated the Enterprise Investment Scheme (EIS) and the Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme (SEIS), allowing businesses to write off angel investments for tax purposes and laying the foundation for an investment community that today is unrivaled in Europe.

They also started the Tech City initiative, an effort to accelerate growth around the Old Street Roundabout, which would itself soon come to be called ‘East London Tech City,’ or ‘Silicon Roundabout.’ The government invested around $69 million in Tech City, hoping to attract large American companies such as Cisco, Intel, Facebook, and Google.

The initiatives had great success, drawing investment from American tech giants while helping the number of startups in the area to more than double, from 85 in 2010 to 200 in 2011. Tech accelerators like startupbootcamp, led by Andy Shannon, Wayra, and Seedcamp arrived on the scene to help guide and grow the multitudes of new tech businesses.