On 5th August the World Economic Forum (WEF) unveiled its Technology Pioneers for 2015. The programme is a way for the WEF to acknowledge technology’s impact on the world, and help early-stage companies across the globe to grow into major firms.
A selection committee made up of academics, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and corporate executives chose this year’s WEF’s Technology Pioneers from hundreds of applications. Decisions were made on criteria such as innovation, potential impact, working prototype, viability and leadership.
WEF’s 2015 list of Technology Pioneers contained 49 companies and, as in previous years, entrepreneurs in the US dominated, accounting for more than two-thirds of the recipients. However, it was very encouraging to see the UK as the second most represented nation, with four companies – TransferWise, Tokamak Energy, Darktrace, and Carbon Clean Solutions.
Despite a strong research heritage, the UK is not known for being a conveyor belt of technology companies that grow to a great scale. ARM and Autonomy were early successes following their establishment in the 1990s and in January this year music discovery app Shazam became the UK’s first mobile app business “unicorn” – a technology firm valued at $1bn or more.
In June research from tech-focused investment bank GP Bullhound showed that there are now 17 unicorns based in the UK, including online retailer Asos and property business Right Move. This makes up almost half of all of unicorns in Europe (40) but none of those in the UK are as big as Europe’s most valuable unicorns, Skype and Spotify, which are both based in Sweden.
The new round of Technology Pioneers in the UK will be looking to use the country’s heritage in science and technology to scale and join this group. For example, cyber security business Darktrace can build on the country’s huge role in the history of computing. Nowhere is this more so than in Cambridge, where Darktrace is based. Many of the sector’s defining moments have come through the Cambridge Computer Lab, such as the building of the Titan computer in the 1960s, and there are now more than 200 spin off tech firms operating in the vicinity.
Tokamak Energy is accelerating the development of fusion as a future energy source. Like Darktrace, Tokamak Energy will be looking to use the UK’s heritage in fusion research as a springboard to commercial success. This is especially so in Oxfordshire, where Tokamak Energy is based, thanks to the proximity to the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, which has housed labs purpose built to study fusion for more than 50 years. Culham is where the Joint European Torus (JET) set the world record for producing the largest amount of power (16MW) from fusion. However, this was almost two decades ago, and Tokamak Energy is amongst a handful of emerging fusion energy startups around the world that are seeking new, faster routes to achieving fusion power.
It is too early to predict which companies from the latest intake of WEF Technology Pioneers will be the success stories of the future. However, they are now part of a select group that contains some notable alumni, including Google (2001), Wikimedia (2007), Mozilla (2007), Kickstarter (2011) and Dropbox (2011). They will also have access to a highly influential business and political network, be invited to the WEF’s ‘Summer Davos’ in Dalian, China, this September, and the Annual WEF Meeting in Davos in January. This, alongside existing national infrastructures, heritage and access to local expertise will hopefully provide the impetus for the unicorn to move from mythology to being a common sight across the UK.
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