U.K. Tries to Woo Pittsburgh Tech Companies

British Deputy Consul General Nick Astbury touched down in Pittsburgh to meet with local tech leaders and promote the GREAT Tech Awards, a contest that will send six U.S. entrepreneurs to London to explore expansion possibilities.

by Deborah M. Todd, McClatchy News Service / July 18, 2014
Creativity is GREAT Workshop, 2013 Flickr/UKTI

Pittsburgh’s burgeoning tech scene has caught the eyes of British officials offering aid to help American companies expand across the pond.

British Deputy Consul General Nick Astbury touched down in Pittsburgh this week to rub elbows with local tech leaders and promote the GREAT Tech Awards, a contest that will send six U.S. entrepreneurs to London in November to explore expansion possibilities.

With the contest in its second year, Mr. Astbury said the office decided to expand the GREAT Tech Awards beyond New York City and London to explore innovations throughout his consular district, which encompasses New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania. The contest is also open to the rest of the United Kingdom.

The contest targets later-stage tech companies that can demonstrate high growth and are focused in the areas of education, finance, health, lifestyle and media or the Internet of Things, a term used for wearable devices and other innovations.

An additional prize will go to a U.K.-based company operating in Mr. Astbury’?s U.S. district that has shown success with a game-changing technology.

The application deadline is Aug. 1 and winners will be announced during an Oct. 9 gala in New York. The first week in November, winners will take off for a five-day trip to meet with government officials, accountants, lawyers, investors and other stakeholders interested in showing them the path toward London expansion. Winners also will receive admission to London‘?s Innovate conference and six months in a shared workspace in London.

“It’?s really everything you need to get yourself up and running in the U.K.,” Mr. Astbury said.

The effort to woo tech companies can be traced to the British coalition government‘?s effort to spark an “export-led recovery” in 2010, Mr. Astbury said. However, he said the urge to conduct overseas outreach and trade is as old as the nation itself.

“The British government has always gone overseas going back to the earliest days of diplomatic outposts. We've always wanted to support British companies or traders abroad, but also to encourage people to come trade with us. It‘?s not a zero-sum game. The more trade we do, the more everyone benefits, the more growth there is for everyone.”

Hoping to maintain trends that have made the U.K. the European nation with the most direct foreign investment, government officials have implemented dozens of programs and initiatives designed to draw international attention.

In addition to touting the lowest tax rate in Europe, Mr. Astbury said the U.K. has visa schemes that allow foreigners to enter the country for up to six months as long as they’?re not engaged in direct trade. He also said the nation dedicates $1 billion in grant funding annually to innovation and that funding can support up to half of a company’s project costs. If a company is in a crunch for time, U.K. officials can even expedite processes to help them set up a business in 24 hours.

“Normally it would take a week, but if you’re in a real hurry we can do it,” Mr. Astbury said.

Another incentive for U.S. companies to dabble overseas is regulations in the health-care industry.

Omnyx, a Strip District digital pathology company that is a joint venture of Pittsburgh health system UPMC and GE Healthcare, is conducting pilot tests for its VL120 machine — a device that digitizes, organizes and analyzes medical samples usually read off slides by pathologists — through its U.K. operations. In the United States, Omnyx has only limited approval to use its VL4 machine for research purposes.

The goal, said Omnyx CEO Mamar Gelaye, is to use what’?s learned in the U.K. to bring an improved product to the U.S.

As far as the GREAT Tech Awards go, Mr. Astbury said judges are simply hoping for ideas with the most potential to catch fire in the U.K., regardless of sector.

Mr. Astbury said companies have something to gain by entering whether they win or lose.

“U.K. Trade and Investment do a lot of work to attract U.S. companies that are looking to grow in to the U.K. There’?s an awful lot of advice they can give, which is free,” he said.

“So the big message is, even if you enter the competition and don’t win, there’?s a lot that the British government can be doing to help tech companies expand.”

©2014 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette