Gary Shapiro, the president of the Consumer Technology Association has publicly slated the British government over a lack of support for the technology sector.
Shapiro told the BBC that the British government is not supporting startups from the country, and this was evident noting the attendee list at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) held in Las Vegas every January. He compared the UK unfavourably to countries like France, the Netherlands and Israel.
“We’re starting to see other countries take notice,” Shapiro said. “We’ve seen that the Netherlands and others are going in there big time. Britain’s been a little slow to the game honestly. We have a minister from Britain coming but there’s not a lot of activity that we’ve seen at CES. I think it’s a source of embarrassment.”
CES is one of the largest technology conferences on the planet and packs out the enormous Las Vegas Convention Centre, with over a hundred thousand of people attending each year. The area for startups, Eureka Park Marketplace, has gained more traction over the last few years – and this year grew in size by 16 percent.
The CTA has attempted to position CES not just as a trade event for the more traditional consumer electronics vendors, suppliers or chipmakers in the main convention centre, but as a place for startups to network. France launched a programme called La French Tech in time for CES 2016, for instance, that sponsored 22 startups to head to the event.
A spokesperson for the Department for International Trade acknowledged the importance of CES, and said that minister for digital and culture Matt Hancock would be attending to meet British exhibitors.
“We want to help UK businesses make the most of trade and investment opportunities including in the US, through targeted support and bespoke business matching that better maximises their presence to win vital contracts abroad,” the spokesperson said.
Although some startups agreed to the BBC that the government did not offer enough support, Shapiro’s central claim whiffs just a little of sour grapes – the Conservative approach to business as outlined in the Autumn statement largely lines up to his own views: tax cuts, promoting entrepreneurship, and pro-business. Prime Minister Theresa May was keen to highlight these to the Confederation of British Industry conference in late November.
Paul Hide, director of operations at British tech industry lobby group techUK, responded: “CES now covers a broad range of technology areas and provides a platform to truly showcase that UK remains open for business.
“One area we expect to see dominate in Las Vegas is smart technology, from the home right through to transport automation. Through our SmarterUK programme, techUK already champions the societal and economic benefits of innovation in this space and at CES we will be demonstrating how the UK can be a global powerhouse in smart infrastructure development and the export of smart products and services.”
And Hammond’s Autumn Statement committed £4.7 billion in research and development – a move that was met with cautious optimism by some of the scientific and academic community - but could also be understood as damage limitation as access to EU grants withers away when Britain leaves the European Union. The additional funding could also be seen as a U-turn from Cameron’s approach to science, which was typically to slash it.
More alarming than Britain’s failure to bankroll a delegation of startups to CES is the task ahead of reversing damage down to the country’s clean energy sector – with subsidy cuts blamed for the loss of half of jobs in the UK’s solar industry.
The government has also made lofty promises to have a 5G network up and running across the UK, when some analysts believe that the commitment to making 5G spectrum available and usable is realistically unlikely until at least 2020. And, of course, there are still ‘notspots’ for internet access in rural areas up and down the country.
And when heritage chip design company ARM was sold to Japanese conglomerate Softbank, Hammond heralded this as a sign of a British success story - but it also raised questions about the government's support for keeping domestic success in the country.
So Shapiro might be correct in claiming that the UK faces a long list of challenges, but it's hard to take the CTA's claim with anything more than a couple of pinches of salt.