The Brits Are Coming to Silicon Valley

April 10, 2011 Updated: September 29, 2015

[youtube]riHBFYPLL-A[/youtube] Silicon Valley Uncovered: Web MissionAn entourage of some of the best and brightest technology companies in the U.K. wrapped up a tour of Silicon Valley in March, leaving with a new momentum to dive into the global market.

The semi-annual WebMission project, arranged through the U.K. government, is among a cocktail of projects meant to spur innovation and grow the country’s economy. By leveraging foresight into how legislation will affect business, the U.K. government is acting as a facilitator to steer entrepreneurs down the right channels.

Governments in most countries play the role of tackling large problems, and solutions usually follow new policies and legislation. Yet, what’s often missed is that “If you read those policies correctly they create business opportunities,” said David Bott, director of innovation platforms at the U.K. Technology Strategy Board, in a phone interview.

“So what we’ve done is work very hard to understand what all the different government departments want to do to address those different societal problems … and transmit those into business opportunities,” Bott said.

The Technology Strategy Board is the innovation agency of the U.K. government. With one foot firmly planted in the business world, they’ve been able to step beyond the common drudgeries of bureaucracy to keep pace with leading Web, clean technology, and health companies.

The concept is simple. After presenting current issues “We say come at us with your best idea on how to address this problem and we will give you 50 percent of the money to realize your project,” Bott said.

Since they often get more ideas than they can fund, they rank them, and starting from the top, “we fund down until we run out of money,” Bott said.

One of the biggest problems with innovation, however, is that it’s risky. Companies need to do something bold in order to make it big, and a hit or miss can determine their survival. Many entrepreneurs keep a safe distance from ventures deemed too risky.

It’s the job of Bott and his team to give them an extra push, and teach them to fly in today’s market.

“If you identify really big problems for people in a huge market and then you say we’ll help you realize something which is really difficult to do, then they go for it,” he said.

Projected results so far are stunning. For every dollar (or pound) invested, they get 15 to 20 back in economic growth. It’s even more pronounced with companies involved in their innovative programs, where projected returns are up to 50 times the investment.

WebMission

In one of the latest ventures, WebMission 2011, a team of 18 entrepreneurs were selected through a contest and brought on a networking trip to the Silicon Valley in San Francisco. WebMission is held by both the Technology Strategy Board and U.K. Trade & Investment (UKTI), a government organization that helps companies succeed in the global market.

According to Helen Moore, UKTI vice council of software, they helped arrange meetings between the 18 star companies and Silicon Valley-based businesses and investors. The idea is that they can turn their contacts into deals, or at the very least gain a better impression of the markets they’ll be competing in.

The previous two WebMissions raised more than $60 million in private finance.

The idea of doing business through a government agency may send shivers down the spines of most CEOs, but companies on the WebMission shared a different view.

“WebMission has basically been a spring board for us,” said John Taylor, CEO & Founder of ParcelGenie, in a phone interview from San Francisco. Taylor was among the 18 U.K. entrepreneurs selected for the trip.

Taylor said while the normal perception is that government can get in the way of investment, he found WebMission to be the opposite. “It’s a dynamic program and there is an awful lot of support around it, which was frankly surprising.”

“It’s a successful example of really supporting businesses in a way that is appropriate and supportive without getting in the way. That’s hard to do, very hard to do,” he said.

Follow Joshua on Twitter: @JoshJPhilipp