Organised by the Insead alumni association (UK), the event, entitled 'UK Technology Leadership in the 21st Century' was held at Goldman Sachs' commanding glass-encased HQ in Fleet Street.
The panel comprised: Sir Robin Saxby, founder and former chairman of ARM Holdings, and currently president of the Institute of Engineering and Technology; Mike Low, managing director of British Standards, BSi Group; Gareth Rhys Williams, chief executive, The Vitec Group; and John Lindfors, senior technology banker, Goldman Sachs.
Sir Robin Saxby, impish and clearly enjoying life post-ARM (revealing his desire to indulge his passion for skiing for as long as his knees and technology will allow for), opened the proceedings by declaring that the idea that we should be talking about a UK technology industry was nonsense. It is, and has been since the 1970s, an entirely global affair, he said, adding that he preferred the title, 'Semiconductor & software enable exciting lifestyles'. He said the question of technology in the UK "mattered to politicians" but was irrelevant to everyone else.
That he clearly was enjoying technology was proven by a story he told in which he was able to ski and get to an evening party because of SatNav technology. His biggest piece of advice to budding technology entrepreneurs (of which there were no doubt many in the audience) was to aim to make your company world-class. He later said companies must protect their IP and technology architecture which are their "crown jewels". "We can't lose that to China," he warned.
Also, he said companies should use their most demanding customers and work with them to make sure the product is right. It was ARM's original relationship with Apple, a fairly demanding customer for the then unknown company, that helped it at the beginning.
The key is to find your niche and make yourself the best in the world. In that way, you can get a slice of the global pie in booming markets such as China's, without having to depend on relatively small consumer and business markets in countries like the UK. Technology firms in the UK were really just "box-shifters", he said, and pointed out that most of ARM's revenue came from outside the UK. ARM does still employ people in the UK (not only Cambridge but Sheffield, Blackburn and Maidenhead) but the logic is driven by where you can get the best engineers at the right price, he said. Currently, ARM has offices in the US, Germany, Israel, Belgium and Norway. China and South Korea are great markets, he said, because of the insatiable desire of consumers for new technology. He mentioned Chipnuts, a new technology firm that provides a karaoke product for mobile phones as an example of a company supplying this market.
Gareth Rhys Williams' Vitec Group supplies hi-tech equipment to the broadcasting, photographic and entertainment industry (including the lighting gear used during the shooting of scenes in Venice in the latest James Bond film, Casino Royale). He agreed that you cannot rely on the UK to sustain competitive advantage in technology. Whilst the company does source some of its technology in the UK (90% of its autocues are sourced from Poplar in east London, for example), it also goes to the US, Italy, Germany and Israel. In the latter country, they have developed a special bag made out of the same material as body armour to carry mega-expensive cameras. He said the keys to success were not to rely on the UK for R&D or production; to produce at the lowest cost; to control the route to market and to sue firms who copy your technology.
Mike Lane stressed that the UK does have some leading competitive advantages especially in such areas as environmental technology and regenerative medicine. It also has the expertise to pull major projects together. Engineering firm Arup, for instance, was using such expertise to help design an eco-city in China. China, he said, is a huge market for companies providing environmental technologies and management expertise. So, the opportunities for UK firms, most of whom will depend on technology know-how from around the world, are great - provided they can attain world-class levels.
Goldman Sachs' John Lindfors, emphasised the UK's strength, in particular as a listing venue for hi-tech firms. The trend to list in London, he said, was aided by the costs involved in the US exchanges because of the regulations imposed by Sarbanes-Oxley. He noted that the "nuclear winter" of the recent past, when hi-tech M&As had almost dried up, was now over. But for the moment valuations are slightly more realistic and there is no sign of same level of exuberance experienced in the late 90s before the bubble burst.
The social and economic effects of the on-going decline of the technology sector in the UK, they all agreed, could be serious for the country. But it was more of a social problem than a business one. Provided businesses could take advantage of markets around the world, the opportunities were great. Over all, the mood was an optimistic one.