Alice Gast, Former President of Imperial College London and now Professor Emeritus of Chemical Engineering at Imperial, investigates the lessons the UK can learn from California’s Silicon Valley.

Many places across the world, including 16 in the UK, have bestowed the name ‘silicon’ onto a local feature in the hope of emulating the successes of California’s Silicon Valley. Sadly, naming a pier, gorge, forest or roundabout with the silicon designation is not enough – if we are serious about creating a successful innovation economy in the UK, there are some important lessons to gain from the history of Silicon Valley and similar places.

The origins and success of Silicon Valley correlate to Stanford University’s emergence as a research power. The Dean of Engineering who became Provost in 1955, Frederick Terman, made timely investments in growing the university’s science and engineering research portfolio just as US Federal support took off. He encouraged a culture where academics and graduates should start their own companies and he created an ecosystem where they could thrive.

It is clear from the Silicon Valley example that building successful innovation ecosystems need three things to grow: people, investment and places.

People

Enterprising places need people first. Talented people are attracted to top universities where there is ample research support, exciting colleagues and students to work with, effective collaborations and partnerships and excellent facilities.

For the UK to attract sufficient talent in future, it will be essential to ensure that people from all backgrounds are encouraged to join science. Universities are anchor institutions in their communities and their engagement with people around their campuses are essential elements. Imperial opened its doors to the White City community with a range of education and skills initiatives for local residents of all ages and backgrounds. These neighbours are making critical contributions to developing local leadership and building knowledge and capacity in STEM within the local community.

The UK’s universities must join with government and the private sector to support school programs to ensure that we are not losing talented youth before they have a chance to innovate.

We must also make sure we are open to global talent. Notably, many successful Silicon Valley companies were started by immigrants who came to the US as international students. The UK’s recent worker visa and post-study work visa reforms are critical in our ability to attract and retain international talent. Those who stay in the UK are likely to start new companies or contribute greatly to growing businesses and those who return home retain connections and networks that provide valuable collaborations, business partnerships and policies in the future.

Horizon Europe and predecessor programmes have been essential to building strong collaborations and networks of talented researchers across Europe. Involvement in its prestigious programs is an important attractor for researchers. The UK and the EU must resolve the current impasse over UK access to the programme.

 Investment 

We know that the UK excels at excellent discovery research and creating start-ups but is less good at scaling them up. We need strategic investment, building on the UK Government R&D investment commitment, that funds the research base to and then helps turn it into viable commercial successes. This could be done through new tax schemes which incentivise investment in deep tech and streamlining investment rounds at seed level so that pre-series A investment in the UK becomes less fragmented. We also need to create better understanding of scientific milestones among investors to unlock subsequent rounds of investment.

Promoting philanthropic contribution to support de-risking of new technologies is also crucial – Imperial is now piloting this through Deep Tech Prime. Deep Tech Prime acts as a pre-commercial incubator to help to strengthen research teams’ intellectual property and supporting teams in understanding the commercialisation process. UK successes in Biotech and Fintech have been supported by strong partnerships with large industry organisations. The UK should seek to attract industry partners, universities and manufacturers to work with small and emerging deep tech companies, including through programmes such as the UKRI-led Prosperity Partnerships.

Place

The culture that grew in Stanford and the Silicon Valley was fuelled by curiosity, incredible drive and ability to take risks. Such a culture is contagious if the right people and environment is present. To be successful, it must grow to a critical mass and scale within diverse communities where can bring their ideas. This takes the right policies, expansive partnerships, places to congregate and time to develop.

Innovation districts and clusters can provide the catalyst for research and enterprise to flourish. Imperial, for example, has built an innovation ecosystem around our new White City campus that provides support, resources and facilities that span ideation, growth and acceleration. Startups, scale ups and large corporations alike are choosing the White City Innovation District to access state-of-the-art facilities, to work side by side with Imperial’s academic community and to access mentorship and entrepreneurship programmes, prototyping facilities and partnership opportunities.

Innovative places like this can then create benefit felt across the UK: for example, Imperial student startup FreshCheck based at White City is developing novel technologies to spot surface contamination more easily and has now set up facilities in Peterborough to develop its business. Puraffinity, a green technology company founded by international students and focused on designing smart materials for environmental applications has been part of Imperial’s innovation ecosystem since 2014 and is now establishing a new manufacturing centre near Middlesbrough.

I also believe that we need to change our attitude in the UK as we consider location and place. ‘The North’ is not far away. The rail travel time from Birmingham to London is shorter than that between San Francisco and San Jose already and high-speed rail will shrink distances even further. Stanford University is halfway between them and has been a critically important source of ideas, research and talent. Along the route, innovation ecosystems have sprung up. I believe that we have the same opportunity in the UK, with its many excellent universities, entrepreneurial talent and a fresh set of supportive policies in place. We just need to seize it.