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Last Updated: Wednesday, 5 September 2007, 08:37 GMT 09:37 UK
New boom-time for British tech?
Rory Cellan-Jones
Technology correspondent, BBC News

Britain is still home to some of the world's best scientists - but when it comes to giving them the money to turn their ideas into world-beating companies we are third-rate. True?

Anne Glover, Chief Executive, Amadeus Capital Partners

"That's guff," is the impatient response of Anne Glover, a leading venture capitalist.

She believes this is the best time since the short-lived dot com bubble for anyone looking to get their idea funded: "It's never been better, except during the boom for a short nine-month period."

Not from the perspective of Noah Freedman, who has tried to get venture capital firms interested in Ionscope, a firm using world-leading science from Imperial College and Cambridge University. "I don't think the situation has improved in the UK over the last decade," he says

But Anne Glover, whose venture capital firm Amadeus Capital has backed businesses such as lastminute.com, Cambridge Silicon Radio and Plastic Logic, points to the figures.

Last year 1bn of venture capital money was invested in young firms in the UK - that's more than a third of all the money invested across Europe.

"We get beaten up all the time," says Ms Glover, "but which other sector has as big a share of the European market?"

Lack of ambition

Bee being fed sugar at Inscentinel, a research company seeking funding

And just as in other industries there are fashions in venture capital. What's hot right now? Mobile technology, semi-conductors, and consumer internet firms, according to Amadeus - rather similar to what was getting funded during the last boom in 2000.

That ended with a bust which saw many start-ups disappear and was followed by several years in which venture capitalists seemed to have gone into hiding. But Anne Glover says they've come through the experience stronger.

"The ones who have survived the boom and bust are experienced and well-funded and have similar global aspirations to the best entrepreneurs."

But Noah Freedman, an entrepreneur who was previously involved in Brainspark, an incubator for technology start-ups, says there is still a funding gap.

Ionscope, which makes very high resolution microscopes, was not able to raise venture capital until it had sold its first products. "The bottom line is that in the UK, it may be easy to get venture capital money to fund growth of an established concept or business, but it is exceptionally difficult to get seed and start-up money for real innovation."

Anne Glover says the real problem is a lack of ambition, from both investors and entrepreneurs.

"We maybe spread our money too thinly rather than concentrate on the best ideas. When we've got a world-leading company that's the point where we need to finance it properly."

She says she spends more time trying to raise the ambitions of start-up firms rather than lower them.

Silicon Fen?

Screenshot from nCipher's website
nCipher is a Cambridge firm that has gone global

So what's the lesson from those who have made it? Alex van Someren is one entrepreneur who did raise the money to create a successful global business.

His Cambridge-based internet security company Ncipher raised venture capital money between 1996 and 2000, and then floated just in the nick of time before the stock market crash.

He believes we are making progress: "Both investors and the people they invest in have become much more sophisticated." He says the problem is not a lack of money or ideas. "There is plenty of both - but ideas are not the same as investable businesses."

But he says young companies are now more likely to turn to business angels - often people who have built their own firms - rather than venture capitalists: "Angels have done it themselves, so they bring more added value - and they're willing to invest in businesses too small for venture funds to look at."

What Britain doesn't have - despite attempts to brand Cambridge as Silicon Fen - is one area that can compete with Silicon Valley as a place which produces innovative businesses and the investors to fund them.

But Anne Glover says we shouldn't get hung up on the comparison:

Phones used for mobile banking

"You would find the same inferiority complex in Indiana or Wisconsin - Silicon Valley is unique. It's difficult to raise venture capital anywhere in the world. Entrepreneurship is hard and don't expect it to be easy."

The good news is that, when it comes to innovation, Britain has a growing number of entrepreneurs who have been there and done that.

Many are now starting new firms or investing in other start-ups. Their only fear is that the latest boom in technology investment could melt away like the last one.

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