The UK Should be Doing More to Help Startups

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Dr Nithin Thomas explains how the UK can develop an ecosystem to support its security startup scene

Cybersecurity is a critical issue for the UK government, businesses and now the general public, who are becoming more aware of the risks that surround their data. Combating the threats posed by cyber-criminals and nation states is therefore a top priority. The UK, London in particular, is seeing a huge surge in innovative startup companies delivering new technologies to change the way government and businesses protect themselves against cyber-threats.

However, greater support and education for entrepreneurs is needed for this industry to really thrive. We need to work together to nurture the talent on our doorstep instead of relying on overseas markets. There are a number of steps that industry and government can take to foster the spirit of innovation to create a thriving cybersecurity startup center of excellence in the UK.

Funding the Future

Funding is key for any new business. Whether it is through government grants, crowdsourcing or private investments, early-stage entrepreneurs always need support and validation of their ideas. Here there is a lot the UK government could learn from its US counterpart. In the US, government agencies such as the CIA have invested billions in supporting startups.

UK government funding is not as significant and, it could be argued, verges on non-existent. A rare exception is the MoD’s CDE funding mechanism, which funds early-stage technology development. With 100% funding of projects, it allows entrepreneurs to de-risk their technologies, but only if they are working on applications in defense and security. Similar funding mechanisms with a much broader scope are badly needed.

The differences in funding between the UK and US come down to culture. In the US there is an excitement about being seen as the next ‘Startup Superstar’. Entrepreneurs have visions of being the next Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs and that ambition is celebrated and supported in large companies. The UK is more risk-averse, though this mentality is changing, particularly in London, but large companies need to be educated about the long-term benefits of working with startups and the potential revenues they can generate in the future.

There is also a lot to be said for established businesses investing time and funding into startups. The Shell Livewire program is one such initiative that has supported over 88,000 innovative young entrepreneurs in the UK and provided £5m of funding.

The benefits of working with startups go beyond corporate social responsibility. As established businesses look to stay competitive, they could reap the benefits of innovation that come from startups by accessing the technology and expertise they bring to the party. Indeed, backing a startup could be more cost-effective than conducting the work in-house, therefore allowing businesses to reallocate its R&D budgets for other projects or into other areas of the business.

Develop Business Skills During Education

Many entrepreneurs come up with their business ideas whilst at school or university, but they don’t know the next steps to take their concept further and commercialize it. Many entrepreneurs lack the basic business knowledge required to get their ideas off the ground.

This could be counteracted in a number of ways. Firstly, business skills must be included in the curriculum for more degrees, including highly technical ones. Secondly, more students should be given work placements and summer internships at startups, to understand how they are run, whilst getting hands-on experience in all elements of the business. The students could look to the startup’s CEO or founders as potential mentors and a source of support and information.

Accelerators such as CyLon are a great way of providing the support and guidance to entrepreneurs for them to develop the skills they need to build sustainable businesses. As Europe’s first cybersecurity accelerator, it supports many great early-stage companies with ideas for the next generation of security technology.

Making a Difference

Fundamentally, more can be done in the UK to support the thriving cybersecurity startup scene. Financial input is only a small part of the investment. We should be doing more to educate young entrepreneurs. Established businesses could better support the new ones and the UK government could take further steps to emulate the support given to startups by its transatlantic counterpart. The talent and skills are on our doorstep and we need to change the way we engage with startups if we are to develop a rich and innovative culture throughout the UK security industry.

Dr Nithin Thomas is CEO and founder of London cybersecurity startup SQR Systems

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