Having championed and nurtured the United Kingdom’s startup and scaleup ecosystem for almost a decade, Tech Nation effectively disappeared from view earlier this year when government funding was withdrawn. Now the organization has re-emerged under new ownership and with a promise to direct £10 billion in private investment towards cutting-edge startups. Many within the startup sector will welcome its return but with public money no longer on the table, what role will the reconstituted and privately owned Tech Nation play within the innovation economy? I spoke to Carolyn Dawson, CEO of new owner Founders Forum, to find out.
Tech Nation was established in 2014 with a brief to fuel the growth of founder-led tech companies. It achieved that by providing coaching and accelerator programs while also providing a means for entrepreneurs to connect and share insights. Over the course of its ten-year lifespan, around a third of Britain’s unicorns passed through its programs. It was also a cheerleader for the sector, publishing a series of reports that highlighted the U.K.’s increasing success in creating companies and attracting VC investors. Latterly, it was charged with the task of managing the Talent Visa program for the tech sector, an initiative designed – at least in part – to ensure that tech startups could continue to recruit from abroad when Britain’s departure from the European Union brought freedom of movement to an end.
However, without government support, the organization decided that it could not continue. Tech Nation pulled down the shutters in April 2023, although the brand was purchased by Founders Forum.
So what was the thinking behind the deal? As Dawson explains, Founders Forum – co-founded by Brent Hoberman – already provides a range of services for entrepreneurs, including regular events that bring together founders of scaled businesses, rising stars, thought leaders and investors. The organization can also help founders link up with service providers such as lawyers, brand builders, recruiters and investors. As such, its activities are at least adjacent to those of the old Tech Nation.
But as Dawson stresses, they are not completely overlapping. “Founders Forum events typically attract later-stage companies,” she says. “We wanted to do more for early-stage companies.
A Bigger Role
In that respect, the acquisition of the Tech Nation brand will enable Founders Forum to play a bigger role within the U.K. startup and scaleup ecosystem. But what will that mean in practice? Has Founders Forum simply purchased a brand or is it committed to fully continuing the work of Tech Nation?
Dawson says the intention was to take on as many of Tech Nation’s functions as possible. “We wanted to buy it all,” she says. “There were people who wanted to buy bits of it. But it was clear if you fragmented it, it would reduce the impact in the U.K..”
There was a balance to strike, however. Without government funding, there was only so much a private venture could do, so the Founders Forum team discussed what was possible with their counterparts at Tech Nation. Going forward, the reconstituted Tech Nation will continue to produce content, research and insights while also running growth programs and a competition for “rising stars.” The organization will also operate the Talent Visa scheme on behalf of the U.K. government. Diversity is also a theme and in an initiative backed by Motability Operations, a network is being established for disabled founders.
The direction of travel was announced this week at Birmingham Tech Week, an appropriate event to stress that Tech Nation is committed to working with founders across the country, rather than focusing on London. Half of the startup network will be located outside London.
Dawson sees scope for crossover between Founders Forum and Tech Nation, not least around coaching and mentoring. “A lot of the attendees who come to Founders Forum events want to help,” she says. “So we will have access to more mentors.”
As a private organization, Founders Forum has developed a network of corporate partners who will also play a role in providing services to Tech Nation companies. One of the key players in this regard is HSBC Innovation Banking (formerly Silicon Valley Bank U.K.), which has signed up as a founding partner.
We’ll have to see how this all pans out in practice. When the government withdrew funding from Tech Nation, the money was redirected to Barclays Eagle Labs, which has developed its own approach to supporting the startup ecosystem. Arguably this should provide founders with more sources of support. The question going forward is how this reshuffling of the deckchairs will affect the momentum of the U.K. as a magnet for talent and investor funding.