Friday, 20 March 2009

Why I’m posting the link to this article on Twitter

I first came across Twitter in 2007. I was writing an article about British entrepreneurs who were ditching the UK for the sunshine and smart money of Silicon Valley. Some, like Aaref Hilaly, had already made it; while others, like Kulveer Taggar, were well on their way. But all were convinced that the Valley’s natural network of technology enthusiasts was the only place in the world to start a company.

Kulveer Taggar’s relocation proved a smart move. A couple of months after our interview he sold his eBay software tool Auctomatic for several million dollars. But it’s the lead-up to that interview that sticks in my mind. I found Kulveer on Twitter. Sure, a contact had first given me his name, but after a cursory Google search I clicked through to Kulveer’s Twitter page. At first it made little sense to me. It looked like some kind of instant messaging service, but all the messages were from Kulveer. And they were visible to anybody. There he was getting on a plane. There he was getting off again. In a meeting. Playing poker. Hoping Man Utd win. Broadcasting the excruciating minutiae of his life.

At least it seemed excruciating to me. Not trivial. Excruciating. How could anyone bear that level of personal disclosure, I remember thinking. What was there to gain? Who was listening? I couldn’t understand Twitter because the art of self-promotion was alien to me. I’m not saying that Twitter’s early adopters had only self-promotion in mind. They “tweeted” each other to strengthen the Valley network — to legitimise it. But as Twitter grew, so did its power to promote the individual. Its power to market “brand-me”. Twitter became a professional tool to sell its users to a wider network.

It was an idea destined to be born in the States, a country where self-promotion is merely stage one of the Dream. Stick a mic and a camera in front of the average American and you’ll more than likely get a broadcastable soundbite. Here, we’re still schooled in understatement. I laugh when I see Brits posting messages from boring meetings, “tweeting” from funerals, broadcasting to the world about how they like their morning coffee. I laugh because it seems so un-British. We have egos, of course we do. But because the UK default setting is to be scathing of success, we tend to reveal as little as we can about how we want to achieve it.

Twitter turns that on its head. Brand-me is suddenly, enticingly, acceptable. It brings us ever so slightly closer to the US. Why is that important? Because unless you talk to others about what you do, they’ll never be able to help you. I’ve followed Tim O’Reilly’s call to “build stuff that matters” with interest. The way O’Reilly sees it, there is more than enough talent in the world to get us out of the increasing mess we find ourselves in. He regards his own company as an organisation that “changes the world by sharing the knowledge of innovators”. But if people didn’t share — if they didn’t promote their own failures and successes to a wider audience — that task would suddenly become a lot harder.

To put it another way: if we weren’t comfortable telling strangers what kind of coffee we like in the mornings, maybe we’d be just as stilted in conversation about the things that really matter.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Advice on dating scientists

Matching research projects with funding is tough work. In this country, the money tends to promote scientific discovery only when commerciality is ensured. If there's a sniff of risk, VCs either price the deal accordingly, or bolt. Pioneers 09, an event run by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) at London's Olympia, is essentially a matchmaking effort: grey-bearded scientists rubbing shoulders with slim-suited financiers.

It all felt pretty relevant. Gordon Brown's vision is for university spin-outs to somehow drag us out of recession. The ideas are certainly there. Our research is top-notch. But where's all the money to back that research? The money markets must be un-gummed before the £2.5bn we spend annually on university R&D can hope to get us out of this mess.

Professor David Delpy, chief executive of the EPSRC, had some sharp advice for the recession-obsessed cynics. He spoke after Richard Noble, the ebullient project director of Bloodhound SSC, who is bidding to manufacture a car capable of breaking the world land-speed record. Noble had seemed positive enough—his project involves the participation of 541 schools, an arrangement that simultaneously crowdsources talent and inspires schoolchildren into science and engineering: a worthy effort. But Delpy seemed irritated by Noble's suggestion that UK manufacturing needed a boost.

"Manufacturing may only be responsible for 13 per cent of the economy, but that makes us the 6th largest manufacturing economy in the world. We ought to be far more positive."

Delpy was mainly referring to the buoyant pharmaceutical industry. The automotive sector is Noble's game. Maybe they were both right.