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The Brexit startup opportunity

It might seem like Brexit the only thing the Government is doing right now but in the 2017-2019 Parliament so far, some 23 Bills have received Royal Assent with more than half of those in 2018.

Some of these bills have introduced big changes, such as the Data Protection Act or the Space Industry Act. The former implementing GDPR and the latter paving the way for the UK to enhance its position in the space industry through new launch capabilities.

However, Brexit is taking up a significant part of any policy discussions inside and out of government. Touching every possible area, it is the most important and challenging question of modern times, something which is unlikely to change any time soon. This presents an opportunity for new businesses.

I was recently at an investment forum where we saw 12 startups pitch for funding. The format was very similar to when I was pitching for an initial pre-seed investment into my own software as a service business in 2009: just a few minutes to explain the what, why and how of your idea. But what was different were the types of companies and their approaches to monetisation.

The old approach where the majority of companies focused only on user growth, dealing with revenue later, was gone. These were companies with real business models actually charging for the value their products deliver to the customer rather than relying on vague notions of maximising users and selling them to advertisers.

Everyone always looks at Google as the example of an amazing ad-driven business, and it is. But there are very few situations where you can mirror the user intent of actively searching for something right now. In that context, a relevant ad makes perfect sense. Or if you know so much about a user that you can predict what they might want whilst they browse a social network feed. But these opportunities are rare. Isn’t it actually easier (and better) to build something so useful your users want to give you money for it to continue to exist?

Not only that but most of the pitches were for businesses hoping to tackle what I like to call “real problems”: healthcare and mental health, cyber security, new takes on financial risk, insurance, and several others.

What stood out to me was how many of these startups were addressing challenges which actually attempt to solve some of the big problems in society today. Bringing the startup model of new, innovative thinking to areas which might typically have only been considered solvable by government or the charity sector.

With the public sector grappling with Brexit, it is encouraging to see the forces of competition, revenue and profit coming in to propose solutions to bigger issues than how many more clicks can we get on an ad.

Whilst Elon Musk is often held up as one of the few entrepreneurs tackling big challenges, if the small sample size of the investment forum I attended is anything to go by, there are actually many more. The tech industry shouldn’t just be associated with “eyeballs” or libertarian Silicon Valley culture – it should be about tackling the big problems. For me, this means cyber security, healthcare and space as the areas of biggest opportunity over the coming decade. All areas that were once exclusive to the public sector. What else might also benefit from this approach?

Everyone is asking whether there are any real opportunities in Brexit, for there are certainly obvious downsides. With the public sector busy dealing with the incredible difficulties of extracting ourselves from the EU, this is a unique time to be considering how startups can step up.