Initially this post set out to elevate the UK’s cyber sector as a rival to the likes of Israel and San Francisco. Bring in on, I thought. Having played a part in nurturing the pipeline of cyber startups in the UK, I feel pretty confident about its chances on the world stage. Israel and the Valley better watch out.
But then I went to Tel Aviv. It was my first visit to the Start-up Nation and not long after arriving my confidence started to dip. Cyber companies are incredibly visible here: advertising on the side of sky-scrapers; sharing glitzy billboards alongside Intel or WeWork; even plastering their slogans over cars and buses. Everyone from the Prime Minister to the taxi driver speaks cyber, and everybody knows someone who is running a security business. Yikes – the UK has some work to do.
Fortunately, during my week in Israel, I started to regain my optimism. Yes, this is the cyber nation, and so it has been for decades. But so advanced is the market, so popular the field, you might say that things feel a little bloated. Israeli investors, many of whom have been in the game for years, are starting to weary of copy-cat cyber start-ups, jaded by rip-offs of already successful home-grown cyber businesses. To avoid losing their IP to hungry rivals, founders are going under the radar, resulting in less collaboration in R&D. In some respects, there’s too much of a good thing. When investors do find a novel solution or a stellar team (which are plentiful in a country that invests heavily in tech talent), they have to write fairly sizeable checks. I met a number of cyber startups, under two years old, who had just raised a seed-round of >$2m without any customers or even staff.
In comparison to Israel, the UK’s cyber sector is in its teenage years. But this could well be a major advantage. Despite our long heritage of cyber innovation in the public sector, the UK has only relatively recently been considered a home for commercial cyber innovation. Darktrace, the UK’s cyber poster child, was founded in 2013 – 20 years after CheckPoint, Israel’s global superstar. Since then, the UK scene has been simmering with exciting technologies, both home-grown and international (including a number of Israeli companies). A range of programmes to foster innovation have appeared across the country, from university incubators to commercial accelerators. Industry in the UK actively engages with early stage technologies. Investors of all shapes and sizes are itching to deploy capital, but in a measured and considered way, and the UK government is committed to enabling a thriving cyber economy. The result is a very open, collaborative, mutually supportive, vibrant industry. Rather than build a moat around their product, founders in the UK share and promote their ideas, offering advice to and seeking wisdom from their peers. We see very few copy-cat companies, but when there is overlap, collaboration often results. I witness this regularly at our accelerator, CyLon, where alumni candidly share their experiences, good and bad, with the newest participants.
The UK’s cyber industry may not yet be functioning at the same scale as Israel and the USA, but that’s no bad thing. Like the cyber companies operating in the UK, we won’t, and shouldn’t, try to replicate directly our competitors. Rather, we should celebrate how our young, dynamic commercial sector is built upon a strong history of groundbreaking public sector innovation, and make the most of our unique capabilities and credentials. I just hope I’ll be as optimistic after my trip to RSAC.