Britain lures talent: sci-tech entrepreneurs move in

LONDON Thu Jan 14, 2010 7:41am EST

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LONDON (Reuters) - It took only a few weeks of research for Romanian entrepreneur Emi Gal to decide where to base his digital media firm, and his choice confounds a fairly enduring set of stereotypes about Britain's global appeal.

"London is pretty much the center of the world if you want to work in media and advertising," the 23-year-old told Reuters.

As the government campaigns for re-election this year in the face of headlines predicting an exodus of financial brains if bankers' bonuses are more heavily taxed, voices like his may be heard with increasing frequency in some national media.

But international experts agree there has been genuine progress in the country which a few decades ago was fast fading as a magnet for the science, health and technology brains and entrepreneurship that also drive the knowledge economy.

Besides Gal, whose software allows media companies to make money from online videos by adding "hotspots" to outlets for consumer products, others are increasingly choosing Britain as the place to be.

Around 100 have in the past five years picked the country as a hub: in global migration terms they are a trickle, but are nonetheless countering a "brain drain" of talent symbolized 20 years ago by the departure to Switzerland of the inventor of the World Wide Web.

Tim Berners-Lee, a graduate of Oxford University, had to move to Geneva to access the largest internet node in Europe, at the CERN physics laboratory.

In response to a set of policies put in place a decade after he left, data from the British government's department for trade and investment (UKTI) now show new businesses from such countries as the United States, South Korea and Israel have also relocated or set up new headquarters in Britain.

The pace has accelerated: nine new foreign entrepreneurs came in 2005/2006, followed by another 10 in 2006/2007, then 22 in 2007/2008, 28 in 2008/2009 and another 30 in the first nine months of 2009/2010.

Jean-Christophe Dumont, a migration expert at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), said the UK is now well placed in Europe on a number of indexes measuring factors like taxes, red tape, the dynamics of internal markets and how they are connected on the world stage, and the ability to access a qualified work force.

"It's not really a surprise to see that the UK has been able to attract a significant number of these people," he told Reuters.

Seeing Britain's success, he added, such countries as France and Japan have recently drawn up policies to attract foreign entrepreneurs or wealthy investors who might plough large sums into job-creating businesses and boost economies.

HIGHLY RANKED

According to the Legatum Institute, an investment-led think tank which ranks 104 nations on a Prosperity Index of a variety of business and social measures, Britain is second only to the United States for entrepreneurship and innovation -- ahead of Canada, Sweden and the Netherlands.

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"The best thing that Britain does at the moment is to provide an infrastructure for small and medium-sized businesses to grow and reach not just the UK, but Europe, the U.S. and the rest of the world," said Gal, the Romanian entrepreneur.

"To reach a global audience from just one location is not something you can get from many cities in the world -- and the British have nailed the fact that if they help entrepreneurs grow, everybody wins."

The entrepreneurs themselves say they are lured by range of factors -- from a common language, attractive geography and London's status as a global hub, to such less tangible assets as cultural diversity, openness to foreigners and enthusiasm for new ideas.

Many also cite pools of highly qualified scientists seeping out from universities, and a sense that Britain offers a dynamic business environment.

Another newcomer, Compound Photonics, started in a lab in Phoenix in the United States and moved to Cambridge to develop extremely high-definition screens for next-generation cinema goers and television audiences.

Normal high-definition TV has around a million pixels on a standard TV screen, but Compound says its version has 10 million: it says it has also found a way of creating 3-D images on screens that do not require 3-D glasses.

Co-founder Jonathan Sachs said it was attracted to Britain partly by a world-class photonics lab at Cambridge University -- as well a pool of talent.

INCUBATOR

The government initially set out policies to attract or poach entrepreneurs by offering advice and support on everything from drawing up business plans, recruiting high-caliber staff, to attracting investment and getting visas.

"We couldn't sell Britain on the language and location alone if the science base and the ecosystem was not also very supportive," said Eric van der Kleij.

A "senior dealmaker" at the Global Entrepreneurs Programme (GEP), he is part of an initiative launched in 2003. People like him work to bring together entrepreneurs with experts who can guide and act as liaison with authorities and potential investors.

Van der Kleij said in the six years he has worked on the project he has seen a steady increase every year in foreign entrepreneurs worthy of support.

"The quality of opportunities is really increasing -- there are some fantastic scientists and entrepreneurs coming through which weren't really available before," he said.

According to UKTI, almost half the foreign entrepreneurial companies relocating headquarters to the UK in the last four years are from life sciences and software sectors.

The OECD's Dumont said a snowball effect may draw in more, and noted that in areas like science and technology, a handful of new start-ups might contain the next Google or Microsoft.

Arup Chatterjee, an Indian scientist who runs a nanotechnology business called I-Can Nano, said Britain had pipped even the United States with less tangible extras.

"People are very open-minded here," he said. "And if you want to want to start your business quickly in an innovative and new area of science, clearly you choose to turn to a friendly, warm and welcoming face."

(Editing by Sara Ledwith)

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