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Building a 'Tech City': Lessons from both sides of the pond

Five years ago there were only a few dozen technology startups in the area of East London dubbed “Tech City.” Today, there are more than 1,000 companies from all over the world.

“You can use the UK for a launch pad across the European market,” said Tony Hughes, founder of Focus Innovation and development leader of Tech City.

Getting on nearly every list of the world’s top startup ecosystems happened remarkably fast for London, and make no mistake it was a very collaborative effort. During a panel discussion in Miami, leaders representing Tech City and Miami’s tech community discussed lessons learned from Tech City and what is working best on this side of the pond. The Wednesday lunchtime “BritWeek” event was co-hosted by UK Trade & Investment and Entrepreneurs’ Organization.

What’s working for Tech City? Bob Schukai, global head of mobile technology/corporate technology for Thomas Reuters, cited the British government’s efforts to create policies and incentives around taxation, innovation, patent reform and entrepreneur visas. There are also organizations like IC Tomorrow that offer funding initiatives and plenty of co-working spaces.

The momentum has enticed enterprise companies such as Google, Barclays and Vodaphone, said Schukai. “At Thomson Reuters, we’ve opened part of our building for entrepreneurs to come in and use.”

You can follow Tech City in real time through its interactive Tech City UK Map, with live Twitter feeds and updates on activities.

The key is creating your own identity and not trying to replicate what is going on elsewhere, said Hughes. “You have to look at your assets. Tech City is more of a creative cluster than a technology cluster. We’re doing music tech, fashion tech, film tech, etc. Where you have an advantage is you have key industries and you see the problems and the needs technology can address.”

Diane Sanchez, CEO of the Technology Foundation of the Americas, Susan Amat, co-founder of Launch Pad at University of Miami and founder of Venture Hive, and Brian Breslin, CEO of Infinimedia and founder of Refresh Miami, said that they are all working on initiatives and models customized to this area.

“What Susan is doing with the Launch Pad Tech [accelerator] is a good example, focusing on the verticals we are strong at — tourism, healthcare and creative industries,” said Breslin. “Forcing innovation in an industry we’re not good at is a losing battle. The fact that Miami is playing off its strengths makes a lot of sense.”

Sanchez said her organization is also working with verticals to create “centers of excellence” that will attract and foster both tech startups and enterprise companies. The Foundation of the Americas is also working with countries in the Americas to bring 1,000 of their entrepreneurs here for its inaugural conference next May. Venture capitalists will know this is the place to meet the best and the brightest in one place, she said.

In building a South Florida ecosystem, a multi-county regional approach is key. “We have to be one united South Florida,” said Amat. “We all have very specific strengths and we must pool our resources and have one strong message to the world.”

Scott Barresi, founder and CEO of World Internet Group in Palo Alto, was in Miami last week looking the region over for possible expansion. “The scope and depth and breath of the energy we have seen here is much greater than we expected,” said Barresi, citing the startup ecosystem building in downtown Miami and projects like Venture Hive. “Coming from the other side of the country, the things that I have seen are not well known.”