Manchester might seem far away from the bright lights and palm trees of Silicon Valley—the epicentre of Noughties-born, high-tech innovation and investment in the San Francisco Bay area—but on Wednesday the 4th of November, UK-based organisation Silicon Valley Comes to the UK are bringing the tech to us for a one-day summit: SVC2Manchester.
Featuring speakers varying from the top of the Silicon Valley food chain, to local and national start-ups from the North West and beyond, SVC2Manchester is an opportunity for business leaders, investors, and serial entrepeneurs, to provide networking and mentoring to students looking to get their foot in the door of the next big thing.
I sat down with Summit Lead and University of Manchester Ph.D. student Laura Jeffreys to find out everything about the upcoming event, the Manchester tech scene, and how students can get involved. One thing’s for certain—it’s not to be missed.
What is SVC2UK, and what were their goals for starting this not-for-profit organisation?
It was formed 9 years ago because the founders wanted to bring that Silicon Valley attitude to the UK; all the ideas were happening in the States, they could get funding pretty easily because they have all these routes to go down, whereas in the UK it was nothing like that. With the world as it is now, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t have all this. So it was originally founded to network from America to England, and to build up these entrepreneurs. Now everyone is jumping on the bandwagon, there are loads of new apps and products. It’s just about networking—it’s that simple. One of the co-chairs is Reid Hoffman, CEO of LinkedIn, so he brings a lot to the table.
Why and how was SVC2Manchester born?
Last year they decided to bring some focus to the North, and especially Manchester as the start-up community is so good here. London has a reputation for breeding entrepreneurs, but the speakers are always really enthusiastic to come here, and Manchester has got a hell of a lot to offer. This is the second time that the event has come to the North, and both times PhD students have run it, so we’re really involved with the university.
How did you get involved in SVC2Manchester?
I started my Ph.D. in Biochemistry at Manchester last year, and heard about the event through a fellow postgraduate student who was running it. I asked to volunteer on the day, and at the event itself I got to sit in on all the talks and listen. I really enjoyed it—it was so inspiring. Then I got asked to run it this year, and of course I said yes, so that’s how I got here.
Why did you want to be involved again?
At the student event, the speakers begin from where they started, so you’re not just seeing them as they are now, as billionaires, but from “When I was a student…”. They too learnt from experts, had their ups and downs, got bigger and bigger, and worked hard; they’re not the type to say “Oh I inherited £20 million from my father and invested it everywhere…”. Before the event last year I always thought “Oh I’ll never be an entrepreneur, it’ll never happen, you’ve got to be in the right place at the right time and have a brilliant idea,” but they don’t make it about the idea; they got involved by knowing they were the right person for the job—someone else can have the idea. So you think, “How can I get there?”
So what is the set-up of the day—what can we expect to see and learn?
In the morning we have these TED-style talks from each of the five speakers, and then there are workshops, or master classes, which are really Q&As. People ask really in-depth questions that you wouldn’t have necessarily thought of, it’s really exciting.
The summit’s themes are ‘Scale-up’ and ‘Connected health’. Could you explain these for those who can’t speak Silicon Valley?
Yeah. ‘Scale-up’ is just a fancy way of saying their journey, the scale-up from start-up to serial entrepreneur; it’s Silicon Valley talk for that, they’ve got loads of words of their own. [Laughs] Connected health means health tech—last year we had a focus on health tech, but we had feedback from Manchester Business School (MBS) students that it was just about health tech. This year we only have two speakers talking about health tech and about the future of the industry, Andrew Thompson and Jack Kreindler.
Andrew’s product is really interesting, it’s a tablet you take but it’s an electrical device, and it tells you how fast your tablets have been absorbed, how active you are, and it sends all this data to your phone, your family’s phones, your doctor. So you can check up on a patient or an elderly relative throughout the day. This is about as in depth as the talks will get into the medicine—it’s more about the future of technology, like we’re getting closer to everything being on a wristband, it’s just so interesting, I think. Though I am a bit health techy being a Ph.D. Biochemistry student!
Andrew Thompson is one of the Silicon Valley serial entrepreneurs—how do you tempt these people to come to Manchester?!
Well, we contact them like a chain mail sort of thing; we know someone, they know someone, and so on. They’re really busy people and most of their business is in the States, so it’s hard. But if they can get to England then it works—they like spreading the word to new places; Andrew Thompson feels like he can make a difference at a new event to new people.
Tell me a bit about some of the other speakers and their careers.
Well, we have Charlie Songhurst, he started out by predicting that Google were going to be really big, and his company guessed and bought shares, and he made that company so much money. So he started small, and then got bigger and bigger. He worked for Microsoft and was behind their [$8.5 billion] acquisition of Skype. With Charlie, he’s so nice that you just talk to him, and you forget that he’s worth millions. Now he has his own company, Katana Capital, where he just goes round and gives money to people—that is his job. He has about 130 start-up businesses. He invests in people, he doesn’t invest in products. One reason he’s coming back to Manchester this year is because he thinks there could be another really good business here in Manchester, as he found one last year.
We also have Dr. Neil McArthur MBE, a British entrepreneur who founded TalkTalk and is a Governor at the University of Manchester. He just founded a new charity called Manchester Tech Trust, which is about networking really. A big problem when you start up is you’ve got a good idea, sometimes even the product too, but you get that far and then it’s like: “Whom do we sell to? Where are our contacts? How do we make ourselves bigger?” So Manchester Tech Trust is about making the connections that need to be made. So he loves this event, and it’s like a mini-launch for them.
So if you’re a student in Manchester and you think you want to get involved, how can coming to this event change your path, or inspire you? Could you network?
Oh yeah. It gives you an idea of what the journey will entail—it’s not the sort of thing you can learn in a lecture. You’ve got to see it being done. Last year, two students met and realised they had similar passions and they’ve since developed an app—I probably shouldn’t say what it is. As I mentioned before, Charlie Songhurst gave £100,000 to a business a student pitched him last year, and now he’s done a second round of investment totalling £300,000. For students this event is to meet like-minded people and learn from the best.
There will be time as well for students and start-ups to interact over lunch. Although there is a really good start-up community in Manchester, sometimes it doesn’t interact much with students. But start-ups are always looking for new employees; start-ups in incubators look for different students to do part-time jobs, as Communications Officers for example—someone with English skills to sit and write press releases, people like that.
So how easy is it for students to get involved with start-ups? What is the tech scene like in Manchester?
There’s an event every week called the Silicon Valley Drinkabout and it brings together entrepreneurs from around Manchester, mainly from start-ups. At these events people just come up to you and say, “Hi, I’m so and so, and I own this company, what do you do?’ Because I do a PhD, they find it the most interesting thing ever. They don’t really meet many students, and the more people they meet, the more they know about the world. I would completely suggest it to people who are interested in tech.
I’ve seen students there before but not many; students are usually way too busy just getting the degree to think about a start-up as well. However, the university is an amazing stepping stone for start-ups; we have a lot of competitions—like Venture Out, Venture Further, and OneStart—which give students injections of cash for their start-ups. It’s a big step in the right direction for students just getting into it. You also get a lot of good advice, from the Manchester Enterprise Centre for example; they’re so encouraging for businesses and for students to be entrepreneurial. I have a friend who came Second Place in last year’s Venture Further—with the simplest idea ever for an app for Ph.D. students—and now it’s taking off, he has investors.
In Manchester there are so many spaces for start-ups, like incubators and accelerators where you rent out a desk in buildings with lots of other start-ups; there’s a community feel, and people higher up can help and inspire you. They’re all over the city, in the Northern Quarter for example, and Barclays have one on Deansgate. They have internships too; the people who run them hire interns to do the day-to-day work, and help out with all the events in the evenings. Manchester students have done summer placements there and absolutely loved working alongside these people.
Finally, how do students sign up to attend the event, and why should they come?
So you sign up to the Eventbrite page, then they’ll get to decide which workshops they can go to. There are six workshops with all different people, you get to choose two to go to, but you’ll still hear talks from all five speakers. Each one is different; for example, Claire Mills has a start-up to do with allergen-free food, and she is running a workshop about women in business. It’s an issue that needs to be talked about; we still need more female programmers, we still need more women high up in tech, so I think it is something that needs to be encouraged. At events like these it’s just sort of time to tell everyone, girls, students: “Go on, now is the time to try it.” So I hope the students of Manchester will come along. We want it to be full of students. I want it to be standing room only, even if there’s a fire hazard. [Laughs]