Is the UK still a leading source of tech innovation?

Britain has burgeoning start-up scenes, but what challenges do they face?

Barriers to success

Despite an abundance of talent in the UK technology industry, however, there are many barriers that still stand between innovators and success.

London's Tech City is a long way away from rivalling overseas innovation hubs like the sprawling Silicon Valley in the US, for example, and may never reach that point.

Mark Steel, CEO of Imago Techmedia, organisers of cloud and infrastructure event IP EXPO, tellsIT Pro: "The UK is still seen as something of a centre for innovation, certainly in Europe. London is still one of Europe's top destinations for tech entrepreneurs to start up, alongside cities like Dublin, Berlin and Stockholm.

"[But] whether or not any of these tech clusters will ever rival Silicon Valley in size and reputation is something to consider. Certainly European replicas continue to learn from the USA, but the sheer size and scope of Silicon Valley will be difficult to surpass."

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However, the size of clusters like Shoreditch's Tech City and TechNorth isn't the only issue.

Another problem is simply the tendency of customers wanting to go with the proven names of bigger brand suppliers.

"There is no shortage of innovative use of technology in the UK education sector and I regularly meet people who are pursuing exciting new start-ups that have the potential to transform education and research," Andy McGregor, deputy chief innovation officer for IT education body Jisc, says.

But, lamenting the rarity with which these ideas actually come to fruition, he adds: "The problem is that too many of these innovations wither on the vine. It is difficult for start-ups to get their ideas picked up because universities and colleges often conclude that it is a better bet to use the technology solutions provided by more established organisations."

Skills and training

One huge barrier for the UK's technology sector is the tech skills gap.

A total 300,000 tech-savvy workers will be needed to fill the gap by 2023, according to a 2013 report,Technology and Skills in the Digital Industries, commissioned bythe UK Commission for Employment and Skills.

On the other hand, those learning tech skills at university find their talents are becoming outdated faster than ever before.

"The rate of change means that if you take a four-year technical degree, after three years most of what you've learnt is obsolete," says Anthony Lamoureux, strategy and development director at Velocity.

"Youngsters today are probably going to end up doing a job that does not yet exist. Businesses need to do more to foster great relationships with schools and universities as more digital jobs open up, to ensure universities are really producing the emerging skills that businesses will actually need."

The skills gap in the UK has been a topic of much discussion within the industry, and various schemes - such as Samsung's Code Club or Birmingham City University's push for STEM students - have been set up to tackle the problem for future generations.

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"This country has some of the world's best talent but, in such a fast-paced industry, no-one can afford to stand still," Marcus Jewell, EMEA President of Brocade, tells IT Pro.

"It is therefore vital that both businesses and government work together to broaden and deepen the UK's talent pool by investing in technical training and development."

Sarah Wood, CEO of social video advertising start-up Unruly, said: "Innovation and growth go hand-in-hand, and nowhere is this [truer] than in tech companies. If we want to maintain the rate of successful tech innovation, we need to make sure the young people joining the workplace are equipped with the skills they need to run their bright ideas into reality."

Last year, the government announced it would work with many of the biggest names in tech - including BT, IBM and Hewlett Packard - to shrink the IT skills gap in the UK.

Jisc's McGregor points to the lifting of the student numbers cap for universities and the role of independent providers in skills education as signs of improvements here.

"We are also seeing a trend for students to take an active interest and be more engaged in designing new digital solutions to the challenges and opportunities that they see around them," he says.

Triggar's Mucklow adds: "One thing that we need to do is make the necessary changes to our education system that will ensure that we don't lag behind other nations in the future. These is a specific skills gap in the technology sector in the vitally important area of software coding.

"We need more initiatives such as Code Club that generate intereest in young people and place a much-needed emphasis on the 'how' rather than the 'why' side of technology teaching."

Warning of the potential for a 'digital desert' should the UK not harness its existing credentials and skills, Jacqueline de Rojas, area vice president, Northern Europe, at Citrix, tellsIT Pro: "Whoever forms a government following the upcoming election will have a big responsibility to make sound, strategic investment to ensure Britain is at the forefront of global tech innovation.

"This means taking action to close the skills gap by getting more girls to study computer science in schools and closing the digital divide which leaves many without access to critical online resources for learning new skills and getting the best job opportunities."

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In the run up to the 2015 general election, each party has outlined their plans for tackling education, recognising the widening skills gap.

The Tories, in addition to the 20 million of funding already dedicated to the cause, pledged to train 17,500 maths and physics teachers if re-elected.

Labour promised to introduce a Technical Baccalaureate and Institutes of Technical Education to train 16 to 18-year-olds in tech, while the Lib Dems would continue to push uptake of STEM subjects and UKIP pledged to eliminate tuition fees for those subjects.

"It also means putting digital at the heart of society and the economy by working with businesses to secure more high quality apprenticeship programmes, opening up opportunities for young people to pursue highly successful careers in the technology sector and, importantly, using technology to break down the barriers which could put off women from working in full and part time tech roles," Rojas adds.

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