Ahead of his meeting with President Obama on Friday, the United Kingdom’s prime Minister paid a short visit to the District’s technology and entrepreneurship hub.
Prime Minister David Cameron took a brief tour of 1776, a start-up business incubator and investment fund that supports early-stage ventures in sectors like energy, education and health care. During his visit, Cameron met with local entrepreneurs, including the founders of several of 1776’s resident start-ups, and investors, including AOL co-founder and Revolution Ventures CEO Steve Case, to discuss the innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystems here in Washington and across the United States.
Among the entrepreneurs Cameron spoke with were Gary Hensley of Edbacker, which provides a software platform for parent-teacher associations, and Hunter Hayes, founder of ZeroCycle, a software company that helps cities promote recycling and save money on waste management. He also met the team behind EdClub, which sells keyboard typing programs to individuals and school districts.
“He seemed genuinely interested in what we were working on,” Tommy Luginbill, director of business development for EdClub, said of Cameron during an interview. The Prime Minister expressed enthusiasm about incorporating typing education programs and other educational technology into British schools, Luginbill added.
Cameron took a spin on the company’s teach-to-type computer program, admitting afterward that he could use a little more practice with a keyboard.
This wasn’t the 1776 team’s first time hosting a world leader. Obama stopped by in July to meet with several companies and tout his economic agenda.
“Because our start-ups so frequently have to work with governments to get things done, it’s always a great opportunity to show world leaders, whether it’s Prime Minister Cameron or President Obama, how their policies can help young companies, and how start-ups can change the way government approaches problems,” said Donna Harris, one of the founders of 1776.
The early morning visit strayed slightly from the focus of his meeting with Obama later in the day, in which the prime minister said he is seeking access to data collected by large U.S. tech firms like Twitter and Facebook. During his 1776 tour, the focus was squarely on the challenges faced by newer, smaller ventures and how the British government is trying to make the country a more attractive home for them.
“When I took my first company overseas from Silicon Valley, we went to the U.K., and in those early days, the mentality was really quite different,” Joanna Shields, digital advisor to the Prime Minister and a former executive at Google, AOL and Facebook, said in an interview following Cameron’s visit. “But now, those differences have really faded,” she added, arguing that the U.K. has emerged as “the start-up capital of Europe.”
Indeed, Cameron’s visit comes as his country, among others, have begun to challenge the United States as a prime destination for entrepreneurs, especially in the technology space on which Silicon Valley rose to fame. In part, some say that’s because government leaders elsewhere have taken steps to help entrepreneurs gain better access to talent and capital, while the U.S. has, by some accounts, dragged its feet.
“We’re trying to revolutionize the way our companies do business, including the way they do business in the United States,” Spencer Mahoney, director of the U.K.’s trade and investment network in the eastern United States, said at the event at 1776. He noted that recent policy changes — which include lowering tax rates for start-up investments and research and development — have made the country a more desirable place for up-and-coming technology companies to set up shop.
In addition, Mahoney touted the economic impact of country’s recent immigration reforms, which he says have helped attract more entrepreneurs to the United Kingdom. In 2011, the U.K. created a special entrepreneur visa for outsiders attempting to build and grow a British business, requiring only that they meet certain revenue and hiring targets. Others, including Canada, have since added similar visas, while repeated proposals to create the same program in the United States have fallen flat.
Shields says the U.K. isn’t finished trying to ease the pathway to entrepreneurship, either. Her team is working with British venture capital firms and individual investors to find ways to government can further encourage them to supply later (and larger) rounds of business financing – the type that generally come after a few early-stage funding rounds but before a public offering, and the type that, right now, British companies still often look to American investors to supply.
“That’s one area we still have to work on,” Shields said.