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Top diplomat spearheads drive to bring 'MIT magic' from US to London

Dr Phil Budden: MIT magic wanted

An unremarkable London traffic rotary dotted with steel gray ventilator shafts took centre stage in one of America's leading newspapers yesterday.

The Boston Globe described Silicon Roundabout, near the former Olympic Park - as the epicenter of the British government’s effort to turn London into a global technology hub.

The paper singled out Britain's Boston-based former consul-general Dr Phil Budden who has been embedded at the world-renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology for the last several months.

There are now preliminary discussions, said the Globe, about creating in London a satellite office of the Cambridge Innovation Center, the Kendall Square incubator that is home to hundreds of MIT-spawned start-ups, in London.

“We’d like to get that MIT magic, taking great science and turning it into real companies, to rub off,” was how Budden put it.

“They are a world-class education center for entrepreneurs, the entrepreneurs that everybody wants to get a piece of.

"The UK is in a global race, and I am determined that we as a government continue doing everything we can to equip the UK to compete and thrive in that race.’

Silicon Roundabout, said the Globe, was simply Old Street Roundabout about 10 years ago when a few technology start-ups opened up there, attracted by affordable rents .

"The success of a few of those start-ups, businesses such as Last.fm, Moo.com, and Dopplr, attracted other entrepreneurs," said the Globe.

Two years ago, the British government decided to back the effort and embarked on a plan to boost its growth, dubbing a wide swath of East London as “Tech City.”

Today, the Globe reports, "Tech City encompasses a meandering 7-mile section of East London that includes Silicon Roundabout and Olympic Park. Property values have soared, and the British government hopes to boost its size and visibility on the world stage, while promising locals improved neighborhoods and job creation."

The UK government estimates there are now about 1,300 tech companies in Tech City. Last year, Google Campus opened a seven-story centre where programmers and others can meet for coffee or a game of pool.

The building is anonymous — with no outward markings that it is owned and managed by Google — but the company offers mentoring and help to aspiring entrepreneurs.

Amazon.com, the world’s largest retailer, also has a new centre in Tech City, where hundreds of software engineers and programmers focus on the next generation of TV and film services.

Vodafone Group PLC also opened its own technology lab and incubation center in the area last year. And Silicon Valley Bank opened its first UK branch in London in 2012.

Benjamin Southworth, deputy chief executive for UK Trade & Investment, told the Globe that Massachusetts had more venture capital firms and funding "than all of the United Kingdom," generally because London’s financial culture is more conservative than California’s or Boston’s.

“We’re trying to get high-net-worth guys involved,” Southworth said of Tech City. “Everybody always says, ‘You have so much money in London.’ But what we also have is the attitude of aversion to risk.”

The UK government officials recently announced a $78 million plan to redevelop Silicon Roundabout itself, constructing a civic building on the site that offers classrooms, work spaces, and workshops for use by start-ups, entrepreneurs, and the wider community.

Back in Massachusetts, British consulate officials routinely take representatives from area companies, politicians, and potential investors overseas to show what Tech City has to offer.

About 30 companies from the United States have opened in Tech City in the last two years, consulate officials said, and many more Massachusetts companies have expressed strong interest.

Budden has been working with professors at the MIT Center for Entrepreneurship on ways to build London’s reputation and make the city more attractive to foreign entrepreneurs, workers, and investors.

Fiona Murray, British-born faculty director of the MIT Center for Entrepreneurship, has visited Tech City twice in recent months to aid the government effort.

Murray, educated at Oxford University and Harvard, told the Globe she thinks London needs to draw more experienced international entrepreneurs ready to turn start-ups into job-generating giants.

“Two-person businesses are not going to build the economy in London,” she said of small start-ups. “Mixing it with entrepreneurship and experience, it’s a powerful thing to do.”

Murray works with student entrepreneurs at MIT who help make Kendall Square one of the densest and most established technology clusters in the world.

She told the Globe that MIT, unlike other schools, does not give any investors or governments “privileged access to our students” or the companies they create, noting that entrepreneurs ultimately decide where to locate.

But she admitted a soft spot for her homeland.

“The first place I’m likely to help is the UK, it’s where I’m from and the place I care most about,” she told the Globe . “London is a special place, and I think there’s a tremendous opportunity [there] to do some wonderful things.”

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