Does East Anglia have what it takes to spawn a ‘unicorn’?

PUBLISHED: 00:00 03 July 2019 | UPDATED: 16:08 16 July 2019

How can East Anglia spawn a unicorn company?

How can East Anglia spawn a unicorn company?


Unicorn. It’s a word thrown around conference rooms and board meetings with equal parts scepticism and hope. But could East Anglia grow and home a unicorn firms – one which is ultimately valued at more than $1 billion?

The chief executive of the Norfolk Chamber of Commerce, Chris Sargisson. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYThe chief executive of the Norfolk Chamber of Commerce, Chris Sargisson. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Creating a Silicon Valley in East Anglia is an idea which may draw snorts of disbelief from some but the possibility of hosting and growing million-pound businesses is within the region's grasp.

With Britain being home to more billion-dollar tech companies per capita than China, business leaders are calling for the East to look at what tools it needs to nurture one of its own.

The region has already been a birthplace for billion dollar businesses - or unicorns as they are referred to within the industry.

Previously these businesses have been born here but sold and moved abroad.

Technology accelerator Tech Velocity founder, Kris Jones. Picture: ANTONY KELLYTechnology accelerator Tech Velocity founder, Kris Jones. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

But just weeks ago at London Tech Week, prime minister Theresa May announced global tech companies had pledged £1bn to UK tech firms.

She added that the government would pledge a further £153m, prompting business experts to begin asking how the East can get a slice of this rather lucrative pie.

"The answer to whether East Anglia could home a unicorn business is 'yes, it is achievable'," Chris Sargisson, chief executive of the Norfolk Chamber of Commerce, said.

"But we're not there yet. If policy makers, entrepreneurs, consumers, politicians decide that this is something we want to aim for then there are some steps we need to take towards creating the right ecosystem for these businesses to thrive."

The first step will be attracting the right angel investors to pledge their time and money to tech projects.

Kris Jones, founder of tech accelerator Tech Velocity, said: "The huge gap in our ecosystem is younger angel investors who have the understanding of technology and are less likely to be influenced by buzzwords like 'AI' and 'machine learning' and spend in the wrong places."

Such individuals often come about partly through entrepreneurs exiting the market, releasing funds from the sale and then reinvesting it back into the region.

However, money must actively be sourced and brought into the region.

"In Norfolk we've got a lot of land rich, cash poor individuals," Mr Jones said.

"It's not enough to launch a business and hope to find an angel investor," Mr Sargisson agreed. "We need people out there saying 'come back to Norfolk with me, see what we've got going on'."

Mr Sargisson feels that a shift in the narrative of marketing Norfolk as an investable region is also needed.

"We should be saying to central government: 'We need 5G. We need better roads and infrastructure; we need better access to London and beyond'. Without that the positive growth that we're seeing in the East's tech sector could struggle more than it needs too," he said.

"If that doesn't happen all of the action that we're seeing in the East's tech sector could fizzle out."

But should the priority for East Anglia's tech sector be to create a billion dollar business?

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"There is a potential downside," said Mr Jones. "Because they could suck up all the talent and then leave. If you think about a unicorn like a trifid then you have the idea of it being all-encompassing and overshadowing everything else."

"Where it can be an issue is because there are so many other fantastic stories of success we wouldn't want them to be overshadowed," Mr Sargisson agreed.

"I think before that we need to look to build up some bigger businesses - in the region of £50 or £60 million - which are staffed ethically and create a real pull for talent," Mr Jones added. "We don't want to have one big employer and if someone wants to leave they have no where else to look. We need to have an offering of options in the tech employment market."

Where Norfolk already technically has a unicorn in the University of East Anglia. Both Mr Sargisson and Mr Jones say they believe there are a couple of businesses in their early stages which could grow to become unicorns.

"I've met some founders who have that twinkle in their eye and I've thought: 'Yes, if you play your cards right this is going to be big'", Mr Jones said. "There's one in particular I think could scale to that in the next decade and would stay here in Norfolk."

Mr Sargisson agreed: "There's a couple I can think of. I suspect it'll be in the FinTech or AgriTech sphere. We just need to ensure that we're creating the right environment for all businesses to thrive."

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