Boris Johnson says the UK will never have a Mark Zuckerberg, but would a range of Nobel Prize-winners and quietly successful tech firms do?
In Johnson's Telegraph column headlined "Britain won’t create a Facebook until we learn to praise success" he asked "why isn’t Mark Zuckerberg British? There seems no reason in principle why we should not be equally blessed with the entrepreneurial drive that has produced Facebook, Google, Twitter and other such zillionaire-spawning companies."
He also added that "Making money seemed to them (Zuckerberg and the Winklevii) a good thing, even a great thing, and these days it is not clear how widely shared that assumption is in this country."
While most start-ups contacted were reluctant to comment on Johnson's article, Tim Morgan, CEO of Picklive in Tech City said: "Boris is both wrong and right. We do value making money in this country - look at the popularity of Branson and Sugar. We don't value making money without taking risk, which is why you see the reaction against bankers, which he refers to."
Morgan said there's no reason why Facebook couldn't have started here, but he said our culture of being afraid of failure was a hindrance. "We don't teach our children to take risks, and we look down on people who take risks and fail. In fact in the working classes you're almost taught not to try, because things won't change.
But in the US, in that culture, it's better to be an entrepreneur with a couple of failures under your belt, than not."
In the UK, business is much more rooted in the conservative establishment, whereas because the US is a young country with no class system, they have a history of trying, failing and sometimes succeeding."
Johnson's article also focussed on the Harvard setting for Facebook's inception, so Oxford University felt well qualified to weigh in.
The institution, while not home to a billion dollar social media site, was able to real off a long list of big ideas and research from the which all have great commercial implications.
Oxford start-up Plink Search Ltd, they reminded Huffington Post, produced a visual search engine of images rather than texts, was the first UK company to be purchased by Google.
In the last ten years Isis, its commercial arm, has set up 54 new technology spin-out companies which have licensed 500 technologies. Isis currently manages over 750 technology projects.
More recently, in 2010 the University launched the ‘Oxford Invention Fund,’ with the aim of helping turn more research ideas into commercially-viable technologies.
Oxford may not yet have a billionaire social advertising mogul under 30, but they did list the following achievements:
• In 1967 at Oxford Rodney Porter worked out how antibodies in our immune system attack infections and diseases. The work laid the foundations for a series of medical developments in combating disease through immunisation. Porter was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in 1972.
• Malaria treatment. Oxford’s Professor Nick White proved the life-saving efficacy of today’s most effective malaria treatment, artemisinin. His work changed the WHO recommended treatment of severe malaria worldwide.
• Penicillin was developed by Howard Florey, Ernst Chain, Norman Heatley and their colleagues at Oxford’s Sir William Dunn School of Pathology during the early years of the second world war. Their Nobel-Prize-winning work launched the worldwide antibiotics industry.
• The link between smoking, cancer and a host of other diseases was established by Sir Richard Doll and colleagues, especially Richard Peto (still at Oxford). The Clinical Trial Service Unit in Oxford, directed by Richard Peto and Rory Collins, is still a world leader in prospective studies on a range of diseases.
• DNA analysis, or the Southern Blot was established at Oxford by Ed Southern. It was routinely used for genetic fingerprinting and paternity testing prior to the development of microsatellite markers for this purpose.
• The only British female scientist to have won a Nobel prize, Dorothy Hodgkin developed X-ray crystallography while at Oxford and determined the molecular structures of penicillin, vitamin Bl2, and insulin.
Also plugging along quietly are UK tech firms Picochip, which makes the microchips in most of the world's mobile phones, ARM in Cambridge, which keeps spawning young millionaires and two of the UK's billionaires, the Reuben brothers, with their technology firm Global Switch.
Meanwhile, the Cameron government has set up Tech City, precisely in order to produce the next Facebook.
David Cameron, in his launch statement for Tech City said "Our ambition is to bring together the creativity and energy of Shoreditch and the incredible possibilities of the Olympic Park to help make East London one of the world’s great technology centres."
The US has something of a head start on Cameron's Tech City. The phrase Silicon Valley was coined in an article way back in on January 11, 1971, and as Vince Cable pointed out in a recent Tech City press release "a few years ago, there were just fifteen technology start-ups around Old Street and Shoreditch- now there are hundreds."
A culture shift, and some years of risk-taking may yet bring those "zillionaire-spawning companies" Boris dreams of.